Take one part Dynasty, one part Beverly Hills 90210. Add big hair, slit skirts, Heather Locklear and a lot of shirtless guys with great chests lounging by the pool. Result? Melrose Place, the steamy, soapy drama that ruled Wednesday nights during the mid-'90s, just released on DVD.
Gay viewers may also remember Melrose Place as the little apartment complex where everyone had sex with everyone else, except West Hollywood's apparent lone gay boy, social worker and perennial best friend Matt Fielding (Doug Savant), who during the first season had no romantic life whatsoever, and not much of one later on.
Fourteen years after the show's debut, Melrose Place's gay character looks better, rather than worse, for wear. Matt was out, unlike his immediate predecessor, Dynasty's Steven Carrington (played pre-oil-rig-disaster by Al Corley and post-oil-rig-disaster by Jack Coleman). He even stayed out after he met Heather Locklear, unlike Steven Carrington, who married her and started a dysfunctional little family of his own.
“I felt like if the show was going to take place in West Hollywood, there had to be a gay character,” series creator Darren Star said. “I really think he was the first sort of very out, unapologetic gay character.”
Star continues: “I think it was an enormous milestone. I don't think anybody had seen a character like that — an unapologetic, out gay character that had self respect for who he was. He wasn't used as the butt of jokes; he wasn't there for humor; he was just living his life.”
That would be more meaningful to a gay audience if he weren't the only character on the show who was “just living his life.” Of course, if Matt had been as promiscuous, deceitful and mentally unbalanced as everyone else on the show, critics would have accused the show of demonizing one of the few gay characters on network television. The reality is, Matt was the most likable — some might say the only likable — character on a show where concepts like “psychopath” and “sociopath” were a regular part of character development.
Doug Savant, who played Matt (and now plays Tom Scavo on ABC's Desperate Housewives), tried to use his character's likability to educate the audience. “I was interested in what was between heterosexual and homosexual, what was in our common experience,” he told us, “because I thought if anyone out there was at all homophobic or hadn't had relationships with gays and lesbians and bisexuals, that they could see this person as someone they did relate to, and find what was in their common experience.”
However out and likable Matt was, there is no denying he was the second in a long line of gay eunuchs on network television. (Heather Locklear appears to be a carrier of gay eunuch syndrome.) Given that the heterosexuals on Melrose were playing musical beds at a dizzying pace, and the show typically had more steam per episode than just about anything of its era, how did Savant feel about his character's lack of a love life?
“I was frustrated that we weren't able to do more,” he said, “but I did have some sort of intrinsic understanding that this was an evolution, and that we were in the Lucy and Ricky stage of gay characters in television — we had to have separate beds, you know what I mean? I was consumed that the mass audience would see this gay character, connect to him, and say that they couldn't distance themselves from the character.”
Star recalled, “We really did a lot of great story lines with Matt. He dated somebody in the military who was in the closet; we dealt with AIDS; we dealt with gay bashing. We were the first show that dealt with a lot of these issues. And then, at the same time, Matt got to get involved in everybody's life in just a completely ridiculous, soapy way.”
But when Star tried to do more and gave Matt an onscreen kiss, the network blew a fuse and refused to air it. Star went ahead and filmed it anyway, without telling Savant the scene would probably never be used.
According to Savant, “You can talk to Darren: He wrote it and the network said, ‘No! No! No!' And he said, ‘We're keeping it in,' and we shot it anyway. Of course he didn't tell me that [the network wouldn't air the kiss].”
Savant wasn't at all uncomfortable with filming the kiss. The publicity that resulted from Fox's refusal to air it, however, was a different story. “We shot it and it was one of those hot issues where I was upset because I had felt manipulated,” Savant recalled, “because when they edited it out, it brought more attention, more publicity to the show. So there was something disingenuous, I felt, about having done it.”
Misgivings about the Hollywood publicity machine aside, Savant has no regrets over playing the role. “I was naïve enough to really want that particular role on the show because it was exceptional — there were no other gay characters on network television,” Savant said. “I sort of naïvely thought, ‘This is great; this is who I am as an actor; I want to play these very diverse roles, and it should be an indication of the breadth of my talent.' But what it ultimately became — what people really focused on — was its exceptionality. Its singularity is what they really focused on and what the media focus was.”
Savant, who is straight, resisted media and network attempts at the time to “out” him as either straight or gay. “I was not willing to make my living playing a gay character, but then coming out saying, ‘Well, but I'm really straight,'” Savant recalled. “And so I said, ‘I'm not going to tell anybody; I will never reveal whether I am straight or gay' because it was tantamount … to the media asking Grant Show, ‘Oh, you're playing a straight character; does that mean you're straight?'
“I am still, to this day, proud to have played this character amongst the evolution of all gay characters in television. And what it has wrought … is a much more diverse representation of gays and lesbians within the media and network and cable television. And it's like warp speed now; it's well beyond what Matt was.”
Savant points to Desperate Housewives' portrayal of gay teen Andrew Van de Kamp, who was shown in bed with — and kissing — another boy, as a sign of changing times. “It has been an amazing evolution,” Savant said. “I'm part of that evolution, I'm proud to be a part of that evolution, and I just hope that all this mass representation [means] that we have greater understanding.”
Star is less convinced that network television has made strides in its portrayal of gay characters. “I would still say on network television, I don't think hardly anything's changed since Melrose Place aired,” Star said. “I don't know if they would show that same-sex kiss today.”
So, does Melrose Place deserve a spin in a gay viewer's DVD player? Hell, yes. Even without Matt, the tawdry, over-the-top, sordid story lines are as horribly good today as they were in the '90s. Everyone ends up dead or addicted to drugs or booze, or turns out to have a sociopathic, blackmailing sister. Bombs go off, cars crash, marriages implode, the good turn evil and the evil get even more evil. Other than Matt's absolutely dismal sex life, what's not to love?