In his essay “The Myth of ‘Classic’ TV,” Terry Teachout argues just that—that, while The New York Times may regard The Sopranos as “the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter-century,” and The Nation may truly believe that the show’s “underlying themes evoke George Eliot,” in the end it will end and go away. As Teachout points out, before The Sopranos there were Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure and Hill Street Blues—and when was the last time you heard anyone say a word about them?
Indeed, the more “classic” your show, the more ephemeral it is. Getting into Ovid or Gregorian chant is a piece of cake next to getting into thirtysomething fifteen years on. Conceivably, one might find oneself in a motel room unable to sleep at four in the morning and surfing the channels come across St. Elsewhere. But they made 137 episodes of multiple complex interrelated plotlines all looping back to Episode 1: if you’ve never seen it before and you stumble on Episode 43, who the hell are all these people and what are they on about? By comparison, if you happen to catch, say, an episode of Naked City from the late ’50s, you might not know who the detectives are or recognize Billy May’s wailing theme tune, and the whole monochrome thing might be a bit of a downer, but you can still pass a pleasant hour with a self-contained one-hour cop drama. The “better” television got at its art, the more transient it became. I doubt The Sopranos will be an exception to this rule. Ninety percent of all the people who’ll ever be into it are already into it. That’s not true of Lucia di Lammermoor or “My Funny Valentine.”
But in between all the classics comes the stuff Aaron Spelling cranked out, year after year, decade after decade—The Mod Squad, The Love Boat, Dynasty, Beverly Hills 90210, 7th Heaven, the stuff nobody ever compares to Dickens or George Eliot. In a town where not so long ago Jerry Lewis demanded of some executive supremo, “What do you know? You’re twelve,” Aaron Spelling was 112, give or take, and still a power. He was like Afghanistan’s King Zahir at the post- Taliban loya jirga: the only old man in a land where male life expectancy is forty-three. His career stretched back to the dawn of television: he appeared in an episode of I Love Lucy, playing the pump jockey at the gas station in Bent Fork, Tennessee, to which Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel repair in order to visit Lucy’s country cousin, Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Spelling was given his entrée into writing and production by Dick Powell—the Dick Powell who introduced “Pettin’ in the Park” in Gold Diggers of 1933. A quarter century on, Powell was hosting Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater on CBS, and young Aaron overheard him on the lot telling the head of the William Morris Agency that he was sick of the yawneroo intros he had to read for each episode: “In tonight’s story, Tom meets Jane, Jane turns out to be already married, and you’ll find out how they resolve their problems …” So Spelling went home and wrote six little intros that sidled up to tonight’s theme in a more whimsical way: Powell would be in a western graveyard reading tombstones heartfelt and less so (“Stole a cow that wasn’t his’n / was hung before he got to prison”). The star went for it, and for 125 bucks a pop Spelling wrote all the intros that season, and then graduated to writing episodes. If he liked a script, Powell would sing “I Only Have Eyes for You,” which he’d introduced in Dames (1934). Spelling heard a lot of “I Only Have Eyes for You” in those early years, and in the four decades afterward a lot of Americans mostly had eyes for him: one night in the ’70s, more than half the television sets in the country were tuned to Charlie’s Angels.
What is it that makes real classic TV? Flippy hair (Charlie’s Angels)? Shoulder pads (Dynasty)? A 1974 red Ford Torino (Starsky & Hutch)? A hokey sub-lounge theme song (The Love Boat)? An Anglo-French midget excitedly yelling “De plane! De plane!” (Fantasy Island)? Or some subtle combination of these elements that that schmuck who wrote Middlemarch could never have cooked up in a hundred years? Who knows? The networks didn’t. “Get rid of the little guy,” advised an NBC exec after the Fantasy Island pilot. Eventually Spelling did, but only after Hervé Villechaize demanded as much per episode as Ricardo Montalbán and hung on his trailer door a sign saying The Doctor of Sex. From The Mod Squad on, he gradually figured it out: new young talent but with a presiding father-figure type to hook the older crowd and plenty of room for starry guest shots. Charlie’s Angels was the ne plus ultra of the formula: three hot chicks at work, but you never saw their boss—i.e., that could be you, Mister Average Couch Potato, those gals are running around for.
We don’t really have popular culture anymore, so much as a fragmented market crowded with expertly segmented, mutually hostile opposing camps of various forms of unpopular popular culture. Spelling was one of the last masters of universal pop culture—shows offering fun for young and old. He discovered a ton of new stars—from Farrah Fawcett to Shannen Doherty—and gave a lot of older players a grand last hurrah—from John Forsythe to Joan Collins—and resurrected most of Hollywood’s Golden Age for somewhat improbable guest shots on The Love Boat: Lana Turner, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Ginger Rogers, Don Ameche, Lillian Gish.
Not so long ago, I happened to catch the tail end of Tales of Manhattan (1942), which I vaguely recalled having enjoyed on a rainy afternoon when I was nine or so. It’s about a rental tuxedo that gets passed from Charles Boyer to Henry Fonda to Edward G. Robinson and so on. Apparently it was Aaron Spelling’s favorite childhood movie, the one he never forgot, and the one whose principal elements—fancy clothes, star guests, multiple plots—stand for much of his oeuvre, as Spelling Enterprises rented out its tux from Gene Barry in Burke’s Law to Robert Wagner in Hart to Hart to Charlton Heston in The Colbys. T. J. Hooker and Starsky & Hutch varied the look a little, but those long woolly cardigans of Paul Michael Glaser started a fashion craze on both sides of the Atlantic. I was in a bar in London about twelve years ago when a predatory woman of a certain age said that even now what turned her on the most were “men in Starsky cardies.” I don’t mind being manacled upside down and flayed with a cat-o’-nine-tails, but some tastes are just too kinky.
Plots? Dialogue? Oh, to be sure, Spelling shows had those, too. Hitchcock liked to refer to the “MacGuffin”—the device, the missing papers, the secret formula that jump-starts the plot. But nobody ever put the guff in the MacGuffin like a Spelling show did: in The Colbys, Charlton Heston was obsessed with something called the “Imos Project"; for years on Dynasty, John Forsythe and Joan Collins feuded over a mysterious “pipeline” they and their various shadow companies exchanged gazillions of dollars’ worth of stock options over. There was as much plot as on St. Elsewhere or thirtysomething, but the shows managed to signal that none of it really mattered, which was just as well by the time we got to the late-season twists about Fallon being abducted by aliens. If you want an exchange that encapsulates the series’ cheery insouciance to plot, it’s Heather Locklear being reintroduced to Joan Collins: “Weren’t you my mother-in-law at one time?” Late in the Clinton era, I came across the president telling Susan Estrich, “They have no idea what we went through to save this marriage … Or perhaps how important it was that we did—not just for the country, but for the two of us.” And I realized The Clintons was the show Spelling missed, the D.C. version of Dynasty, in which occasional references to “the country” and “the government” and “Bob Dole” were merely the equivalent of “the pipeline” and the “Imos Project,” just a pretext for the extramarital sex. But by then Spelling had moved on—to the teens of 90210 and the twentysomethings of Melrose Place.
He was proudest of Family, the semicredible issue drama with Meredith Baxter and Kristy McNicol that ran from 1976 to 1980. But of all Spelling’s ’70s shows it’s the one that resonates least today—and I’ll bet he understood that. He changed with the times. For example, Charlie’s Angels was said to have ushered in the era of “jiggle TV,” an industry term deriving from the way Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, and Jaclyn Smith spent most of their time running around while their finer points bounced around the screen like a primitive computer game. Jiggle has been in short supply in Hollywood since the hard-body look came in. When the gals on 90210 or Melrose ran around, heads, arms, legs all move, but the breasts stayed fixed on course with the precision of a cruise missile.
The 90210 life was a long way from Spelling’s own youth. Growing up as a child of Jewish immigrants in Texas, he’d always wanted a rocking horse, but his folks couldn’t afford one, and then one day his mom told him to look outside—and there it was! And he went out in the street and climbed up on it, and a photographer snapped a picture—and then they took the rocking horse away. Mom and Dad had paid a nickel for the photographer and another nickel to rent the horse. Little Aaron cried the rest of the day. When his daughter, Tori, was born, he went out and bought her a rocking horse.
Asked to recount his rags-to-mega-riches rise from Jewish schnook on the wrong side of the tracks in Dallas to Hollywood power broker living in the largest private residence in the State of California (56,000-plus square feet), Spelling had a string of anecdotes: the Variety writer who came up with the headline “Stix Nix Hick Pix” hires him as the band boy for his wife’s all-girl band; Preston Sturges comes to see his play; Vincente Minnelli casts him in Kismet as a dingy beggar and gives him only one line: “Alms for the love of Allah.” And it was such an unrewarding experience that the hick nixed the pix and moved from acting into writing, producing, and jiggling.
What a story. His life read like a script for one of his TV movies, adapted from Jackie Collins or Sidney Sheldon.
Or, anyway, it read like a treatment. Which he would have taken as a compliment.