ICYMI: Grosse Pointe, a Struggling WB Show About a Struggling WB Show Called Grosse Pointe

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ICYMI: Grosse Pointe, a Struggling WB Show About a Struggling WB Show Called Grosse Pointe

For a network as fledgling as The WB was in the mid to late 1990s, its legacy is of a network that absolutely defined a generation. Series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Felicity, 7th Heaven, and Dawson’s Creek built an entire audience and brand for The WB. And series like Roswell and Charmed have now found new life in reboots (whether you like them or not) currently airing on The CW. A series like Everwood is a reminder of the earnest heart that lies at the center of every new Greg Berlanti show on The CW and beyond. Series like Gilmore Girls and Supernatural have found life long after The WB, with the former having a Netflix revival in 2016 and the latter just now ending a 15-season run.

But another part of the network’s legacy are also the series that didn’t last, where ratings were too low for even The WB. A combination of shows that fell under the brilliant-but-canceled or before-its-time designation (Ryan Murphy’s two-season Popular, Greg Berlanti’s one-season Jack & Bobby) or that were simply unmemorable-to-everyone-but-me (My Guide to Becoming a Rockstar, Black Sash) or that were truly punchlines asking to be made (Coca Cola Presents The WB’s Young Americans, or the Dawson’s Creek spin-off).

Grosse Pointe, which premiered just over 20 years ago, was a hybrid among these. It was canceled too soon, quickly forgotten, but traded in making meta jokes at the expense of the third category—as well as the aforementioned series that defined a generation.

Created by Darren Star (creator of Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place, Sex and the City, Younger, and now Emily in Paris), Grosse Pointe was a single-camera comedy about the behind-the-scenes drama of a teen drama, something Star would obviously know something about.* In fact, as The WB’s Upfront presentation for the 2000-2001 television season asked, “Who better to poke fun at the world of teenage angst than The WB and Darren Star?” A very good question, especially as Grosse Pointe drew strong inspiration from Star’s experiences working on 90210, and it showed. Parodying 90210 was the obvious blueprint for Star, so from moment one, it was clear who each character was supposed to be a proxy of:

• Irene Molloy as Hunter Fallow (actor persona)/Becky (show-within-a-show character) was a Shannon Doherty/Brenda insert.
• Al Santos as Johnny Bishop/Brad was Jason Priestley/Brandon.
• Kohl Sudduth as Quentin King/Stone was Luke Perry/Dylan, complete with a pet pig and questionable hairline for a “teenager.”
• Lindsay Sloane as Marcy Sternfeld/Kim was supposed to be Tori Spelling/Donna.
• Bonnie Somerville as fresh-off-the-bus Courtney was Jennie Garth, while Courtney’s character Laura was a Valerie-type addition to the cast.
• William Ragsdale’s showrunner character Rob was Darren Star.

Kyle Howard and Nat Faxon rounded out the cast as Dave “The Stand-in” (Johnny’s acting school buddy/hanger-on) and Kevin “The P.A.” (series punching bag and the reason everyone’s secrets end up spreading) respectively.

*The only thing about Grosse Pointe that has that standard “TV writers somehow writing about how TV is made the wrong way” concept is the fact that show-within-a-show Grosse Pointe had no writers room. The series was only written by producing partners Rob and Hope (Joely Fisher, who left Grosse Pointe after the first five episodes to star in FOX’s Normal, Ohio), then eventually just Rob. It also seemingly had a shooting schedule closer to an actual soap opera, with about a week of lead time before the episode they were shooting aired.

Past initial introductions, the characters really weren’t one-to-one comparisons with their counterparts. Santos’ model-turned-actor Johnny was only familiar as a Priestley insert in terms of the supposed competition with Quentin for the hottest guy on the show, as his existence as a character functioned more as a criticism of The WB’s casting of untalented-but-attractive people than it did anything about 90210. (A criticism that, honestly, could have worked better if not for Santos’ own obvious limitations as a model-turned-actor.) The Quentin character—a balding 30-year-old desperately clinging to his youth—also ended up just being a straight-up weirdo, which was its own very specific characterization. There was also the runner with Michael Hitchcock as Richard Towers, the actor who plays Becky and Brad’s father on the show-within-a-show, a gay man who has a major crush on the actor who plays his son. As Star made sure to note in the commentary track for the pilot, ”James Eckhouse, the real father on 90210, was definitely not gay and did not have the hots for Jason Priestley.” However, there was a rumor at the time that this particular plot hit close to home for an actual hit teen drama—with presumably more than just a one-way crush at play—which supposedly led to one of the characters being written off, even though Star’s story was coincidental.

The obvious comparison point was in the Lindsay Sloane/Tori Spelling of it all, even after the show was intentionally re-written and re-shot to avoid said comparison. As the story goes, in the original version of the pilot it was very apparent (with Sloane’s Marcy only being cast on Grosse Pointe because of her studio bigwig uncle and a harshness directed at her character). It was still somewhat present in the pilot, though her eating disorder throughout the rest of the series is treated as a sad reality of her life and result of her obvious privilege. An obvious privilege that wouldn’t be present as the show progressed and Sloane’s portrayal of the neurotic tryhard sweetheart only made her more likable, even if, within the show, her Grosse Pointe character Kim ended up getting killed off because of a network ratings gimmick poll for the fans. Even in the aired version of the pilot, an early scene has the producers slamming Marcy’s acting so hard that it’s pretty much like it’s waiting for the punchline that she’s the result of nepotism to come.

In an LA Times Interview from September 2000, Star set the record straight on these comparisons. Responding to the question—that he’d consistently “sidestepped” in the lead-up to the series premiere—of if Grosse Pointe was in fact a 90210 spoof, Star said:

“Yes, it is … and it isn’t. Because I created [90210], I have a close association with that show. But to me, these characters are all archetypes. There’s the bitchy diva. The neurotically insecure actress with sort of a heart of gold. There’s the narcissistic star. There’s the kid who’s over the hill but still trying to hold onto his youth. To the extent that the characters on 90210 sort of fit into those cliches, I think you can find a lot of parallels, but at the same time these are relatively great stock Hollywood types. But I’m not denying [the comparison]. I come from the school of ‘write what you know.’”

And when asked if Grosse Pointe was some sort of “revenge” against Aaron Spelling and 90210—after Star had left 90210 and Melrose Place to develop Central Park West for CBS in New York, Spelling refused to let him continue on as a creative consultant for the two shows he’d created—Star said:

“It’s not about revenge at all. I don’t think about Aaron Spelling when I think about 90210.’ I think about me. I’m doing a sendup of my experiences, and to me, there’s a big sense of presumptuousness for other people to come in and say, ‘You can’t do that.’”

Allegedly, that’s what ended up happening with Grosse Pointe and the Marcy character. According to Star, before he started making Grosse Pointe, he called Spelling to let him know that he was “doing a sendup of 90210” and that he hoped he’d make a cameo. (Jason Priestley and Joe E. Tata both appeared as exaggerated versions of themselves.) Spelling apparently went from amused to upset upon seeing the pilot and made his unhappiness with the show known to WB higher-ups (which held even more weight as he was executive producer of their highest-rated show, 7th Heaven, and their new series Charmed). “There were some things he was upset about that to me were total fabrications, but he took it all very personally,” Star said. “The minute you look at a satire and recognize yourself, you’re going to find things that weren’t even intended.” This led to changes with the Marcy character, from the nepotism story—as Star made clear, “I didn’t want to personally offend someone who I’ve had a relationship with for years”—to her hair color, as it was dark red (as Tori’s was late-season 90210) in the pilot and had to be digitally altered for her to appear as a brunette.

In terms of standing on its own as a piece, while Grosse Pointe had the 90210 entry point as shorthand for audiences to get from the beginning—even if they didn’t get all the behind-the-scenes lingo, like Hunter joking about the show’s regular “5 share” ratings—the series worked best as a broader satire of the industry in general, as Star intended, and within the context of its existence on The WB (both the real show and the show-within-a-show). The art-imitates-life nature of a struggling show on The WB about a struggling show on The WB only provided Grosse Pointe with more material than just going for jokes based on a show that had just ended that May after a 10-season run and defined a whole other era than the one The WB was courting. The pilot actually hits this note perfectly almost right out the gate—which is why it’s surprising it doesn’t continue to consistently hone onto the clear joke that was being a show on The WB until a few episodes later. Its second episode’s scenes for the show-within-a-show were a direct riff on Young Americans, recreating the highly-promoted scene where the sexy WB teens stripped off their clothes as they ran to a lake in slow motion, even set to the same musical cue. (Young Americans came and went in the summer of 2000, making this bit even more timely.)

But it was Hunter’s one-sided feud with Sarah Michelle Gellar—the result of believing that Gellar, among others like Reese Witherspoon and Catherine Zeta-Jones, had the career she deserved but was denied because of Grosse Pointe—that pulled everything together, as Grosse Pointe’s one season would regularly invoke Buffy’s name to show just how low on the totem pole it was. The fifth episode, “Halloween,” even took it a step further with Grosse Pointe having to shoot an “it was all a dream” stunt episode where Grosse High was on the Hellmouth and Becky was the Chosen One, all because of Buffy’s success.

This Buffy-envy culminated in Grosse Pointe’s penultimate episode, “Passion Fish,” in which Gellar cameoed as herself, before making the jump to UPN. In the episode, network liaison Joan (Merrin Dungey) tells Rob how The WB’s new initiative is stuntcasting, only for Rob to see the list of celebrities The WB is hoping for and realizing, “You’ve gotta actually know these people to call in a favor.” That point also explains just how struggling WB show could manage to book The WB’s biggest star for sweeps, as Gellar and Sloane are real-life best friends. Previous cameos were either because of who Star knew (Sex and the City’s Kristin Davis) or because of the night the show aired on (Popular’s Carly Pope and Leslie Bibb), with an exception in the form of Ted Danson as the voice of a talking dog. Despite Grosse Pointe’s entire premise paving the way for more WB stars to appear as themselves, it really wasn’t a non-stop WB cameo machine. In fact, its last two cameos, were from Dweezil Zappa (a person the intended WB audience wouldn’t even know was a real person) and Elizabeth Berkley showing up late to another wedding, this time with no Tiffani Amber Thiessen (about whom one of the harsher 90210 jokes of the series is made) in sight.

Despite critical acclaim, Grosse Pointe fell into “the before its time” realm, in terms of why it didn’t last for longer than a 17-episode first and only season, but it was also very much of its time based on its topic and execution. Essentially “Soapdish for the TRL era” after The WB already attempted and failed at Soap for the TRL era,” Grosse Pointe had what would be considered a winning formula even today. A Darren Star-created series with a popular lead-in—Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, coming straight from ABC’s TGIF line-up and into Grosse Pointe’s punchlines—and followed up by a kindred spirit in Popular’s second season.

But it was a Darren Star-created series that wasn’t interested in sugarcoating what was sold as the warm world of The WB, as well as one whose central character was also its villain, Hunter. (A villain whose layers were peeled back to reveal the method behind her madness, but still.) The unflinching mean streak—despite creating a clear sympathetic character in Sloane’s Marcy—just wasn’t the right fit for a network like The WB, because its audience wanted to believe in the magic the network was selling. Grosse Pointe was clearly for an older audience than Sabrina and possibly even Popular, as its series premiere even got the “recommended for [The WB’s] teen and adult audience” warning that was sometimes trotted out, despite supposedly being a network for teen audiences in the first place.

In retrospect, kind of like Josie and the Pussycats—a sharper satire—Grosse Pointe existed in such a time and place that to truly “get” it on a fundamental level, and for it to hit as hard as it should, you also had to have experienced the cultural phenomenon it was lambasting. Not just getting the 90210 inspirations, but why a character would call Zoe, Duncan, Jack, and Jane “a mistake,” or the crossover appeal of Sarah Michelle Gellar and how that trickled down or the entire bit about Oliver Stone’s Monica Lewinski biopic (which, surprisingly, holds up far better than literally any other Lewinski-related bit or joke from the past.) If any of that makes sense to you, welcome to Gross Pointe.

Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, IndieWire, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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