When something uses a title like "The Unauthorized Story," you can expect it to give you plenty of sensational dirt on whatever it's about. Lionsgate brings us this collection of four such unauthorized stories behind TV shows (originally made for Lifetime, the cable channel that started out with medical shows) that I never thought the public was clamoring for "dirt" on, and I'm not sure if they're even historically important enough to receive this sort of treatment, but let's take a look at what we have here:
The first exposes "Beverly Hills, 90210", which aired on the Fox network when it first began airing shows on Thursday nights. Although I was a bit saddened by Fox bringing an end to prime-time movies on the formerly independent stations that carried it, I had enjoyed most of their early shows and usually checked out at least the first episode of each. I ended up hooked on this show during its first year, but bailed on it the second year when it became more soap-opera like- but according to this story, that's what made it a hit. It begins with producer Aaron Spelling (played by Dan Castellaneta, who doesn't sound like Homer Simpson here but still seems to act rather cartoon-like) bemoaning that he's become a has-been in the TV world, having created several iconic shows during the 70s and 80s but not having anything to show for in the 90s so far. He wants to bring back "Charlie's Angels," but the networks don't think that will work (and funny enough it eventually did come back, lasting only a few episodes before being cancelled.) His daughter Tori (played here by Abby Ross) mentions that there aren't any teenage-oriented shows currently airing (though several others did debut at the same time as "90210") and that she would both like to be on one and knows other actors who weren't quite well-known but would be a good fit. Up and coming writer Darren Star (Adam Korson) then comes along with a pilot script and things get started.
Having watched the show's first season as it aired, I couldn't help but notice this movie doesn't give much attention to the content of that season's episodes. What I personally liked about the show was that it wasn't just a "glamorization" of Beverly Hills high school students, but was mainly about Brandon and Brenda's family transitioning to that area after moving there from Minnesota. The brother and sister were trying to fit in at the high school, and their parents were having a few challenges as well. My favorite characters were actually on the side- California native geeky freshmen David Silver (played on the show by Brian Austin Green who is represented here by Ross Linton) and his even geekier and awkward-er friend Scott, who was played by Douglas Emerson and doesn't even get any mention here. In the second season, the Scott character was killed off in an accidental suicide, which along with backing off from the Minnesota-to-California story and getting more soap-like led to my giving up on the show. But in this movie and the real world outside of mine, the first season was a failure near the bottom of the ratings and almost didn't even get picked up for a second season. One thing that saved the show, and a few others on the Fox network, was the Gulf War in early 1991 which the major networks covered while pre-empting their shows. Those looking for entertainment in the midst of that discovered Fox's shows, as they weren't even doing news at that time and kept those going. This got the ratings up high enough to be renewed for another season. While changes were then made on the show that led to my no longer watching, the masses liked it and it became a hit by the end of season 2.
This "Unauthorized Story" tries to live up to its title by highlighting a few behind-the-scenes shenanigans- first a stagehand proclaims "everyone's making out with everyone" as that happens on the set between takes. Then the female cast members start bickering with each other, mainly with Shannen Doherty (Samantha Munro) and Jennie Garth (Abbie Cobb) who can't get through shooting scenes without stopping to argue about something. The network also gets a bit of heat from parents after some episodes feature characters having sex with no negative effects, leading to later scripts being toned-down as the cast objects.
The eventual success of "Beverly Hills, 90210" led to its getting a spin-off for the 1992 season, "Melrose Place," and that's the subject of its own "Unauthorized Story" which is included on the same dual-layer disc as the previous. Much of the cast returns for this one, including Castellaneta as Spelling. This is sort of the odd one out for me as I have never seen a single episode of "Melrose Place," so I can't vouch for the portrayals here. I was pleasantly surprised to see that this one was directed by Mark Griffiths, who directed one of the greatest movies of the 1980s (no, really!), Hardbodies. Sadly nobody gets naked here, but it still held my interest enough given that I didn't know a lot about the show it depicts. In contrast to "90210", "Melrose Place" was an instant success ratings-wise although the critics hated it. As in the previous movie, not many of the actual storylines are played out enough to give those of us who never saw them an idea of what the show was like, but it's easy to appreciate a few pivotal moments in its history such as an episode that included the first onscreen kiss between two men- which the cast and crew saw as an achievement but then find out when the show airs that the actual kiss was cut by someone higher up.
Disc number two in the set contains the other two "Unauthorized Stories" and is 2-sided. I've always liked 2-sided DVDs, but I certainly don't like the trend in the last 10 or so years of them only being labeled on one side. The two rather long titles are crammed into the middle labeling on one side of the disc here, with no label at all on the other. The labeled side tackles "Saved by the Bell," which ends up delivering the most if you're looking for behind-the-scenes dirt. We get a decent history of the show's beginning, which started in 1988 as a Disney Channel series called "Good Morning Miss Bliss" and was then picked up by NBC in 1989 as a rare live-action addition to their Saturday morning kids' lineup. (NBC of course ended up being the first of the big 3 networks to get rid of Saturday morning kids' shows completely.) Stylistically this is also the most fun of the four "Unauthorized Stories" to watch as most of it is told from the perspective of cast member Dustin Diamond (who also executive-produced this movie, and is played onscreen by Sam Kindseth)- he of course was the outcast character Samuel "Screech" Powers. As the original show often had Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, played here by Dylan Everett) breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the camera, here Dustin does the same thing during the story.
We see a bit of the casting process, including future "90210" star Jennie Garth being rejected for a role on "Saved by the Bell". NBC president Brandon Tartikoff (Adam Greydon Reid) is portrayed as a "believer" in the show, keeping it on the air despite not so stellar ratings at first. Others behind the scenes are a bit concerned that the show will work as it was rare to shoot a sitcom with so many young actors in front of a studio audience, but they pull it off and eventually the show catches on in the ratings. Of course the audience for this movie will again expect to see some conflict, and it comes through here. The first is interesting in relation to the actual show's content- while it was meant to be a funny, relatively mindless sitcom for kids, the cast wanted to start including more "serious" elements in an effort to help their audience. After resistance this finally starts as an episode where Elizabeth Berkley's character (played here by Tiera Skovbye) gets addicted to pills and seeks Zack's help. Dustin Diamond, being a center character in this portrayal, also complains about being the geek or "comic relief" character and wants more chances to be a "stud" on the show like Mark-Paul and Mario Lopez (Julian Works), and offscreen ends up turning to booze and drugs. (The real-life "Saved by the Bell" cast members, even executive-producer Diamond, have said that much of this film is entirely inaccurate so make of that what you will.)
Finally on disc 2's unlabeled side we get "The Unauthorized Full House Story", which seems to be the most unnecessary of the four as I don't know of many who hold that show in high regard. The "Unauthorized Story" told here is nonetheless interesting enough- "Full House" of course was a prime-time sitcom that began in 1987, one of many responses to "The Cosby Show" being the ratings dominator of that era. We see how the show's casting came about- Bob Saget (Garrett Brawith) was a stand-up comic who wanted to break into TV, but his material wasn't exactly family-friendly enough. His first foray into TV on CBS's ill-fated "Morning Program" is depicted here. Meanwhile "Full House" cast member Dave Coulier (Justin Mader) gets a big break making the cast of "Saturday Night Live," but gets booted at the last minute before that season's first show gets on the air. "Full House" creator Jeff Franklin (Matthew Kevin Anderson) initially shoots a pilot episode with another actor in the role of Danny Tanner, but is convinced by Bob Saget's manager to dump him and replace him with Saget.
Although I actually gave "Full House" a chance when it first aired, according to this story not many others did and its ratings weren't impressive at first. The show's three male leads aren't entirely "into" the show at first either, but with Saget not wanting fame and fortune to pass him by he convinces the other two to hang out a bit when they're not shooting and that camaraderie starts showing through in the show's later episodes. There's not really much "dirt" to dish out this time around, the main conflicts are Saget's marriage falling apart and the parents of twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen who played the infant "Michelle" on the show (they're played here by three sets of twins as they grow up) pushing for more money after they realize their daughters have become one of the main attractions. (A bio-pic about the Olsen twins would be rather interesting, as I've wondered just how they basically achieved fame from birth.)
All four of these "Unauthorized Stories" were shot in Vancouver, and some of the sets are recognizable between them. The production values are about average for TV movies, and I noticed a few historical inaccuracies including the term "Generation X" being used a couple years before it existed and a DVD/VHS combo unit visible in one scene that takes place a few years before that format got off the ground. Usually I can't buy too much into actors portraying real-life people unless they manage to look and act just like them- while I had my doubts about some of these from the clips I'd seen beforehand, most of them come through in the final products. The young cast of the "Saved by the Bell Story" particularly does a good job and I'll look forward to see what they end up doing next.
All four of these productions have a film-like appearance, shot in the 16x9 ratio and intended for presentation in high definition. The limitations of the DVD format keep them from looking as good as they could, but at least the bitrate is kept high enough that there aren't any glaring compression artifacts. Some details are lost, mainly the text on scripts seen on camera isn't readable, and these certainly would have looked better on Blu-Ray but the quality is still above average for most standard DVDs I've seen recently.
The sound on these isn't very elaborate, but most of the dialogue is well-recorded and upbeat music scores along with a few licensed popular songs keep the soundtracks lively. The first two are in 2-channel Dolby Digital, with the last two getting 5.1 mixes that widen the soundstage a bit with some music kept out of the center channel. All four also include hearing-impaired subtitles.
Promos for the recent adaptation of "Flowers in the Attic" and its sequel "Petals on the Wind" are included, along with spots for "Ring of Fire" and "Wahlburgers: Season 1".
While one's enjoyment of this set will depend on how big a fan they were of the shows being depicted, these "Unauthorized Stories" are generally fun viewing for anyone interested in the side of show business that isn't always shown on the screen. How true these stories actually are is certainly open to debate, but the execution and performances make for an enjoyable non-critical watch. The complete runs of these shows are all available on DVD as well, so these movies can serve as companion pieces to those.
Jesse Skeen is a life-long obsessive media collector (with an unhealthy preoccupation with obsolete and failed formats) and former theater film projectionist. He enjoys watching movies and strives for presenting them perfectly, but lacks the talent to make his own.