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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

HOTEL: THE FIRST SEASON -- DVD review by porfle

If you watched TV during the 80s, you pretty much knew what to expect when you saw Aaron Spelling's name in the credits. And with shows like "The Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island" having paid off so handsomely for the superstar producer, it's not surprising that he would take the same multi-guest star, multi-subplot formula and shove it into the setting of a bustling five-star hotel. As the taxicabs full of guests start pulling up out front, you almost expect Tattoo to ask, "Who's going to be staying with us next, Boss?"

Loosely based on Arthur Hailey's 1965 novel, "Hotel" premiered in 1983 and ran for 115 episodes. CBS/Paramount's new 6-disc set HOTEL: THE FIRST SEASON gives us the initial 22 episodes including the feature-length pilot, which sets the old formula in motion with all the usual elements: an ostentatious setting, in this case San Francisco's luxurious Saint Gregory Hotel; a regular cast of employees to interact with the guests; and a revolving-door parade of familiar up-and-comers, has-beens, character actors, and TV show drones to populate the various subplots which play themselves out with varying levels of interest. Through it all, the composers hired to slather music over all this schmaltz work the hell out of Henry Mancini's unctuous theme.

Much of the action occurs within the spacious lobby set, which is as delightfully gaudy and tacky as the show itself. James Brolin, as handsome hotel manager Peter McDermott, is the focal point for most of the dramatic events and is responsible for maintaining order and keeping everybody happy. Much better later in life as an older character actor, the young Brolin is rather unremarkable yet capable, and is a likable and comforting presence.

The same can be said of Connie Sellecca as his go-getter assistant Christine Francis. Nathan Cook is Billy Griffin, the hotel's security man who has a special understanding of the criminal mind since he's an ex-con himself. The beautiful Shari Belafonte is receptionist Julie Gillette, and the pleasantly bland Shea Farrell is Mark Danning, the hotel's guest relations director or something. Michael Spound and Heidi Bohay play Dave and Megan Kendall, a bellhop and desk clerk who are married but can never seem to find time in their busy day to spend together. This boring and mostly useless couple supplies the show with some of its more lame attempts at intentional humor, although the dramatic scenes are where the real laughs come from.

One of the highlights of the pilot episode is the casting of Hollywood legend Bette Davis as Mrs. Trent, the widow of the novel's hotel owner Warren Trent. Looking quite frail by this time, Bette still manages to give a strong, skilled performance. Sudden illness, however, would lead to her being replaced by another seasoned actress, Anne Baxter, as Mrs. Trent's half-sister Victoria Cabot. In Davis' absence, Baxter does her best to supply the Old Hollywood gloss that Spelling is aiming for with this series.

Indeed, much of what goes on in the St. Gregory would make fine fodder for the standard "women's pictures" that Hollywood used to churn out back in the 50s and 60s. Standing in for Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman in the premiere episode are Pernell Roberts and Shirley Jones as a recently divorced man and a woman toying with the notion of leaving her unfaithful husband. They meet-cute in the hotel bar and have one of those tender, tentative, and seemingly doomed September romances replete with hokey dialogue, tender gazes, walks in the park, and waves of maudlin music. Ross Hunter would be proud.

As you might guess, plenty of choice dialogue goes on elsewhere in the hotel. After Christine complains of a guest making amorous suggestions, Peter assures her: "Listen, I've had my share of female guests hitting on me...along with the males. Goes with the territory." In another scene, Anne Baxter shares champagne with old flame Stewart Granger along with the following exchange:

"I'd say our memories held up...rather well."
"If not our hearts."
"To recollections?"
"To expectations."

If it sounds as though I didn't enjoy watching "Hotel" very much, let me stress that I find Aaron Spelling's attempts to transfer the splendor of Old Hollywood into the super-cheesy world of 70s and 80s television to be perversely entertaining. And speaking of cheese, you haven't lived until you've seen the episode with Heather Locklear as a career beauty pageant contestant constantly being prodded by her mother, Connie Stevens, who feeds vicariously off her success. During a rehearsal session, we find that Heather's "talent" is--get this--a jolly fitness dance, complete with leg warmers.

But that's not all, because during her dance, we notice that she begins to change into a different person in the wide shots. That's right, in classic FLASHDANCE style, a stand-in does the actual dancing, boogeying her steel buns off while Heather shimmies her shoulders slightly or waves her arms to and fro in the closeups. They don't even try to hide the fact that there's a different person with totally different hair (not to mention totally different face!) in the wide shots. And to top it off, "Hollywood Squares" host Peter Marshall plays a lecherous contest judge with whom Heather must have sex in order to assure his vote. X gets the square! It's just too good to be true.

The lengthy guest roster for the first episode alone is enough to take a pop culture fan's breath away. Check it out: Morgan Fairchild, Lloyd Bochner, Jack Gilford, Shirley Jones, Pernell Roberts, Stephanie Faracy, Lainie Kazan, Bill Macy, Erin Moran, Alejandro Rey, notoriously awful former child star Lee Montgomery, and, last but not least, Mel Tormé. That's just one episode! Morgan Fairchild plays a hooker hired to devirginize a young high school boy and is then gang-raped by some of his classmates, giving her a chance to emote her head off while Brolin tries to persuade her to press charges. During a scene in which they're walking around discussing the matter, it suddenly occurred to me: "Oh my god...it's a montage!" Sure enough, the two are strolling on the beach, taking in Fisherman's Wharf, doing fun stuff, having a gay laugh or two...I almost expected them to start squirting hot dog mustard at each other.

A little "Love Boat"-style comedy relief comes in the form of Lainie Kazan as a wife who so horribly henpecks husband Bill Macy that he runs away and becomes a banjo player in a ragtime band. But as far as laughs are concerned, this can't come close to Erin Moran as an aspiring singer who gets her big break performing in the lounge with Mel Torme'. When he makes the momentous introduction and invites her to join him onstage after his awesome set, with the audience primed with anticipation, what timeless lyrical standard does she launch into? "Delta Dawn." I am not making that up.

The wide-open format even takes us into thriller territory as Connie Sellecca's Christine finds herself being terrorized by Richard Hatch as a crazed stalker with access to her suite. Robert "Mike Brady" Reed pops up as an enraged father whose daughter claims that a hotel-provided babysitter (Leigh McCloskey) has molested her. In the same episode, Dack Rambo and Michelle Phillips fulfill the show's daily minimum romance requirement as strangers who hit it off and have sex--after which she discovers that he's a priest. Oops! A comedy segment that's actually kind of funny has Dick Van Patten as a mild-mannered guest whom bellhop Dave mistakes for a famous hotel critic, thus ensuring that the delighted dweeb receives the royal treatment during every minute of his stay.

The guest line-ups for the rest of the episodes are smaller than in the premiere movie, but seeing who's going show up next is still one of the most fun things about "Hotel." Some of the likely and unlikely faces appearing in this set include Robert Vaughn (in drag, no less!), Shelley Winters, Lew Ayres, Sally Kellerman, Robert Stack, José Ferrer, Howard Duff, Jean Simmons, Elinor Donahue, Carol Lynley, Robert Hooks, Leigh Taylor-Young, Peggy Cass, Craig Stevens, Donald O'Connor, Eleanor Parker, Ron Ely, Hermione Gingold, Tom Smothers, Nanette Fabray, Vera Miles, Arte Johnson, George Lazenby, McLean Stevenson, Kay Lenz, Danielle Brisebois, Christoper Norris, Markie Post, Bradford Dillman, and Melissa Sue Anderson.

The list continues with Army Archerd (playing himself, as usual), Liberace (also as himself, God help us), Jane Wyatt, Lynn Redgrave, Patty McCormack, Paul Burke, Roy Thinnes, Steve Forrest, Hope Lange, Adrienne Barbeau, Margaret O'Brien, Donna Pescow, Vic Tayback, pint-sized femme fatale Charlene Tilton, John McIntyre, Jeanette Nolan, Tori Spelling (big surprise), Scott Baio, Diane Canova, Dina Merrill, Rebecca Balding, Cathy Lee Crosby, Bo Hopkins, WKRP's Jan Smithers, Eva Gabor, Louis Jourdan, and Englebert Humperdinck as singing sensation "Danny Maxwell." As you can see, this set is jam-packed with familiar faces for those of us interested in such things.

The set has no bonus features. Picture quality is generally good although the openings are a bit speckly as are a few other occasional spots. Not enough to bother me any, but nitpickier viewers may be annoyed.

While there are some storylines here and there that manage to generate actual dramatic interest (the one in which Jan Smithers shows up with a little boy and tells Peter that he's the father is an attention-getter), much of the melodrama on this show can't be taken seriously--it's such old-fashioned, over-the-top soap opera, played in such a deadly earnest manner, that it seems to dare you not to either laugh yourself silly or keel over in a stupor. Yet HOTEL: THE FIRST SEASON, with all its chintzy opulence, is so bald-faced straightforward in its intentions that it rates a luxury suite in the "So Bad It's Good" wing of the TV Land Hotel.

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