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TELEVISION REVIEW

A ‘Melrose Place’ for our times

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 8, 2009

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If you like a drama such as the new “Melrose Place,’’ obviously you like it in a different way than you like, say, “Mad Men’’ or “Rescue Me.’’ You “like’’ it, which is to say that you watch the show with your stash of irony very close at hand.

When sweet medical student Lauren (Stephanie Jacobsen) sells her body to pay tuition in tonight’s “Melrose Place’’ premiere, instantly adopting a cold-eyed call-girl attitude, you’re sad and all - but gleefully scandalized. When David (Shaun Sipos), son of Michael Mancini (Thomas Calabro) from the original 1990s “MP,’’ steals a pricey watch from a bedroom, you’re sorry - and thrilled. And whenever Ashlee Simpson-Wentz is on screen, so very awkward and unconvincing as the mysterious Violet, you are in heaven.

And so I “like’’ the new “Melrose Place,’’ in that I think it has the potential to be as addictive, and phony, as a can of Pringles potato crisps. The trashy CW series, tonight at 9 on Channel 56, has none of the hokey moral quandaries of the show that precedes it, “90210,’’ no lesson-learning unless you’re a student of chicanery and double-dealing. The new “Melrose Place’’ is just a mess of gossipy plotlines about adultery, murder, and secrets. If it has a moral compass, the arrow is stuck pointing down, to hell.

“MP’’ opens up with one of the zanier soap conventions, to let you know right off the bat that the show demands a sense of humor. Sydney (Laura Leighton), who was killed by a car accident in the original, has been mysteriously resurrected and is landlady at the Melrose Place apartment complex. Yup, brought back from the dead. And then, just as quickly, dead again, afloat face-down in the famous pool. Who killed Sydney? The first chunk of the series will revolve around this mystery, as a number of the complex’s residents, including the hunky sous chef and recovering alcoholic Auggie (Colin Egglesfield), face questioning from the police.

Katie Cassidy, daughter of David Cassidy, plays Ella, this show’s equivalent to Heather Locklear’s Amanda from the original. Ella is a manipulator, and she chews up sincere young folks like wannabe filmmaker Jonah (Michael Rady) and his girlfriend Riley (Jessica Lucas) before dinner. She doesn’t have the amusingly stiff demeanor of Locklear, which is to say she may be a more natural actress; but she has the potential to bring some brio to the “Melrose’’ party. A high-powered publicist, Ella will do almost anything to sign new clients, and she’s bisexual, saying breezily and emptily, “I love love.’’

The new series is filled with things - cellphones, Twitter accounts, LA hotspots - that reveal the ways the country has changed since the original premiered in 1992. And deeper cultural and social shifts also emerge - Ella’s bisexuality, for example. In the original, the sexual orientations were more defined, with clearly gay and clearly straight characters. Now, Ella, and, we learn in episode two, another character, are reluctant about limiting themselves to one side or the other - an attitude that may sit more comfortably with young viewers these days.

Similarly, the new characters are less easily pigeonholed as either good or bad. In the original “MP,’’ you more or less knew who the villains were; now, the characters seem to jump the fence from scene to scene, changing from hero to anti-hero at the incessant speed of our texting-crazy world. This blurry line, also evident on “Gossip Girl,’’ is becoming one of the CW’s trademark styles. The hotties who live at Melrose Place cheat, tweet, get cheated, and get tweeted, all before the closing credits.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

MELROSE PLACE Starring: Michael Rady, Jessica Lucas, Katie Cassidy, Laura Leighton, Stephanie Jacobsen, Thomas Calabro, Ashlee Simpson-Wentz, Colin Egglesfield, Shaun Sipos

On: The CW

Time: Tonight, 9-10

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