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In Ads for the New Melrose Place, the CW Diddles While Rome Burns

August 31, 2009

In so many ways, it seems like there’s going to be nothing special about the new Melrose Place. Little will distinguish it from dozens of other TV series, both scripted and “unscripted,” that focus on the travails and machinations of rich young Southern Californians who are physically attractive but otherwise utterly repellent human beings.

Even though Melrose Place will likely blend in with the herd in every way, I’m having a viscerally negative reaction to the new show. Well, not really the show, which I have no intention to watch, as much as the ad campaign, with which I was recently assaulted. In the September 4 issue of Entertainment Weekly (with the soon-to-be reunited Seinfeld cast on the cover), a two-page ad for Melrose Place appears inside the front cover. Gawker has the poster-sized version of what I saw (it’s the “Menage a Tues” one). To delve into my dislike for this thing, I’d like to analyze the photo and the messaging a bit. Who’s up for making this a Textual Analysis Monday?

I have neither the ability nor the inclination—at least not until my TBTS salary rises above $0.00 a year—to write a full, rigorous textual analysis of this advertisement. From your Advanced Critical Theory course (mine was 6th period, right after gym), you’ll remember that post-modern textual analysis includes interpreting the text’s language, its rhetorical attributes and influences, and its cultural context.

[If that’s not ringing a bell, go here for one scholar’s perspective on the application of this approach to the visual language of advertising. When you do, you’ll be swept away to a magical land called Academia where the inhabitants use strange words like “hermeneutics,” “programmatically,” and “binary opposition.” If you don’t understand what’s going on in the article, don’t worry—you’re not meant to understand. That’s how the residents of Academia distinguish themselves from the likes of you. By writing that way, they’re also holding fast to their commitment to shield their language and culture from the influence of English. In that way, Academics are kinda like the French. The worst of course are the French Academics—even their farts are polysyllabic.

OK, finished with that rant…I mean, that momentary aside. Fret not, my scholarly friends, I’m almost kidding…]

So instead of going whole hog with this thing, I’ll just make two points about the ad’s visual language and one more about the cultural context to get us started. Feel free to add—or disagree—in the comments section below.

1. Despite the “Menage a Tues” tagline (which is just…dumb, by the way), the ad doesn’t show any sort of mutual or shared activity among the man, the woman, and the Ashlee Simpson presented in the photo. Ashlee and the blonde with the Knots Landing hair are both competing for the man’s attention—and yours. By looking seductively and directly at the reader/viewer, they’re both inviting and excusing what Laura Mulvey dubbed the “male gaze,” a nice, catchy term for straight-up objectification. In other words, they’re staring at you, so it’s OK to stare back. Paraphrasing Kurt Cobain, they’re saying, “Here we are now, objectify us.”

2. To make that unequal dynamic even clearer, notice that the man is in a completely recumbent pose, and both women are jockeying for positions near (or on) him. The man is wearing comfortable, casual clothes—not making any effort to impress his companions—while the women are both dressed to the nines, wearing heels, and showing lots of skin. Sure, he’s the chiseled-jaw, tall-dark-and-handsome type, so there’s a little eye candy for those attracted to men too, but this ad really wants to attract the attention and fantasy projections of heterosexual males. Especially with the threesome-related tagline and the male-centric realization of said sexual arrangement, the ad’s visual presentation makes it clear that the CW wants to sell Melrose Place as the place to go to see hot girls behaving badly in 2009. The level of desperation in this blatant play for the 18-24 male demographic is distasteful, even by CW standards.

3. Speaking of distasteful, let’s move on to the cultural context. Does anyone, especially in California, need to see this show now? Melrose Place seems destined to be yet another show that features little but profoundly irresponsible consumption and behaviors that undermine any sense of trust in or regard for our fellow human beings. The setting of the photo is, of course, an opulent SoCal mansion apartment complex (albeit one with an oddly dirty swimming pool). At a time when the California economy is imploding, and public and private employers alike are cutting jobs by the thousands, do we need yet another show in which vile people live like kings and queens? I’m guessing Melrose Place plots will center on narcissistic characters’ obsessions—over wardrobes and grooming, their own sex organs and those of others, and everyone’s poorly understood, immature emotions—because given their affluence, they literally have nothing else to worry about! If you’ll excuse the pun, they’ll diddle while Rome burns.

It shouldn’t go unsaid that I do understand the appeal of trash TV and the very real need for escapist entertainment. I have my own list of guilty pleasures. Melrose Place will probably be a lot of fun, and if it pushes your buttons, then I encourage you to enjoy the hell out of it. But I would also encourage you to be mindful that, in important ways, shows like this are already relics of a hopefully soon-to-be bygone epoch of short-sighted, conscience-free irresponsibility. Put this stuff in a time capsule and, I pray, it will one day be held up as an avatar of what we did wrong.

Said another way, Ashlee Simpson’s grandkids are going to hate her, not just for the genetic intellectual inferiority she bequeathed them, but also for the economic and environmental mess her generation left for them to clean up. Maybe that’s what the ad’s dirty swimming pool image is all about…but I doubt it…

  1. Zach W. permalink
    August 31, 2009 5:07 pm

    I rarely if ever watched the original, and will only watch the new one if my wife decides she’s going to, but even I know the setting of the ad/show is the apartment complex where the cast lives (uh, Melrose Place). Not “an opulent SoCal mansion.”

  2. P McD permalink
    August 31, 2009 5:46 pm

    While I am by no means proficient (see high school transcript), I’m fairly certain “Tues” is nowhere to be found in the French language.

    Living in Chicago, I get my morning and evening “news” from WGN, which is also the CW, in a weird Jekyll/Hyde type of arrangement. Anywho, as such, I’m subject to what I would consider a higher level barrage of CW programming commercials while I’m finding out who got shot on a given day. My working theory is that the CW goes out and gets 20-something model wannabes, starts taping, and then just slaps different names on each time slot. I don’t know at what point it actually happened, but when watching the commercials I honestly cannot find any point of differentiation between the following CW offerings:

    One Tree Hill
    Gossip Girl
    The Beautiful Life: TBL (So, the name of this show is The Beautiful Life: The Beautiful Life. Brilliant.)
    Melrose Place (Yes, they spun-off a remake, creating a remake of the same spin-off as the original. The mind reels.)

    To paraphrase Patton Oswalt, “The CW, all about coulda, not about shoulda.”

  3. P McD permalink
    August 31, 2009 6:02 pm

    Yes, I took the time to look the those shows up on the intertubes.


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