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Aaron Spelling poses with the actresses from Charlie’s Angels in 1992
TV producer Aaron Spelling, who died Friday at age 83 of complications from a stroke, spent his adult life reaping the rewards of, and the punishments for, knowing exactly what people want. He produced more than 3,000 hours of TVâ€”a world recordâ€”only a handful of which, to be honest, were critically praised. The rest were just watched, voraciously: The Love Boat, Dynasty, Starsky and Hutch, Charlie’s Angels, Beverly Hills 90210. He famously called his shows "mind candy," and they were, but they were also like mind missiles: laser-guided delivery systems targeted precisely at that part of the reptilian brain that wants to see bikini-wearing detectives, high school kids agonizing over their virginity, rich ladies wrestling in a lily pond.
Spelling had hits in many genres of TV–soaps, cop shows, family dramas and anthologies. But if there was an overarching theme to his career, it was that he understood that for the small box in your living room to command your attention, everything he put on it had to be big: his characters were richer, sexier, tougher, even, on 7th Heaven, more virtuous than you could ever hope to be.
Spelling understood that TV was aspirational–that, as a medium supported by commercials, it was a desire-producing machine. To get viewers, it needed to tantalyze and stoke their fantasies without making them feel bad for not having realized them. He reached the apex of his producing power, in the 70s and 80s, by making shows like Fantasy Island and Dynasty, where characters lived out the audience’s dreams of sex and richesâ€”and were surely punished for them.
It’s always tempting in an obituary to try to elevate the legacy of the deceased, to show that he had an artistic greatness the rest of us didn’t realize. I won’t do that for Spelling: he was an entertainer, and good for him. But his shows did give later, more ambitious producers the stuff to build on. It was his appreciation of the power of camp and fantasy that allowed his protege, Darren Star, to give us Sex and the City; his success with primetime soaps helped prove that mass audiences would follow serial stories, which down the road made shows like Lost possible.
Aaron Spelling didn’t make TV smarter, greater or more artistic. But he did, for 3,000-plus hours, make it more: more grand, more showy, more fantastic. TV was his island, which he built, one campy show at a time, and he left it sprawling and capacious enough for decades of fantasies to come.