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The Painful Spectacle of Tori Spelling’s Self-Mockery (Column)

For nearly two decades’ worth of the life of our culture, Tori Spelling has been apologizing for herself.

The actress came to prominence on “Beverly Hills, 90210,” the teen soap through which she became an avatar of ditzy privilege, less so for anything she did onscreen than for the unavoidable fact of how she’d found herself there. Her father, the TV impresario Aaron Spelling (creator of “The Love Boat” and “Dynasty,” among others), had plugged his daughter — not a world-historically great thespian — into his latest production perhaps because no one would tell him no. The public’s resentment was inevitable; though nepotism is nothing new, the transparency of Spelling’s means of ascent was a bit galling. It’s nice, if not exactly right, to believe that stars get where they are through some sort of consent of the viewing public, not simply through having their fame bestowed like a sweet-sixteen gift, or an acceptance to USC.

The show’s return as the meta-drama “BH90210,” on which cast members return to play themselves, is crueler to no one than to Spelling, who gamely turns in a performance as a warped sort of fame monster, unable to live outside the spotlight but so unwanted by her public that she’s run out of money or options. The show’s engine — the reason the characters reconvene — is the onscreen Spelling’s idea to revive the franchise, sprouting not out of ingenuity but the desperation of a financially strapped mom. Many revivals at least have the grace to pretend there is a creative reason to return; “Roseanne” and “Will & Grace” returned, we were told, so that Roseanne Conner and Grace Adler could comment on contemporary culture, not because Roseanne Barr and Debra Messing needed jobs. On “BH90210,” one star’s grasping need is part of the story — indeed, absent gripping plotlines for any of her castmates, it is the story.

Spelling has, onscreen and off, suffered for whatever were the sins of her father. In 2006, she appeared on “So Notorious,” a sitcom with bilious knowledge of how Hollywood treats its actresses bubbling out from behind Spelling’s smiling, irrepressible mien. The series depicts Spelling attempting to emerge from the shadow of her father and failing at every turn, neither canny nor talented enough to accomplish anything but a certain kind of unwholesome notoriety. There was something rancorous and cynical in the cultural air at the moment — this show had the edge of the previous year’s HBO sitcom “The Comeback.” Unlike that show, though, this was about a real person, not a composite character. Whatever “real” means: Spelling herself was showing up to work in order to extend a persona of daffily unreadiness for life outside the family manse and assurance of fame as her birthright. That she understood the moment well enough to know that mocking herself would only work in her favor was outside the show’s purview; it was easier simply to understand her as a brat frozen in amber.

Attempts to self-deprecate coincided with Spelling getting deprecated by the outside world, more harshly each time. During “So Notorious’s” short run, Spelling married her second husband, a match that had been forged shortly after her first wedding; the show’s single season wrapped just before Aaron Spelling died, an event that launched a public drama over how much of his fortune the younger Spelling would inherit. Her share of her father’s estate has been, indeed, so paltry relative to her own apparent expectations that the actress has lived out financial troubles in public for years now, recently bubbling over on a live interview in which Spelling, expecting softball questions about her new show, was questioned about her money troubles. The one blue-chip stock in the portfolio she inherited, her long-burning fame, has ensured that her inability to sustain herself has provided entertainment for longer even than “90210’s” initial decadelong reign. 

But if Spelling was expecting only to be asked about the new “BH90210,” she ought to have been prepared; the show is frank about the fictional Spelling’s finding herself the matriarch of a large family with no idea how she’ll pay for the next trunkload of groceries from Gelson’s. Spelling is a producer, here, as she was on “So Notorious” and on “Mystery Girls,” a sitcom in which she re-teamed with “90210’s” Jennie Garth to play detectives. (The show was kind to neither actress but vicious to Spelling; she played, as is her wont, the dumb one, a role whose cuteness had begun to sour with age.) She also produced “True Tori,” the lacerating, barely watchable early-2010s reality show depicting the near-collapse of her marriage. Once again, Spelling had caught a cultural wave, opening her home and life to cameras at the same moment as did Bravo’s “Real Housewives” and Lindsay Lohan on OWN; once again, her perceptiveness was limited to ways in which she could use the national interest in her to expose her weaknesses. With whatever clout remains from her family name or continues to bloom from her status as a never-quite-launched child star ready to dish, Spelling turns the harshest sort of gaze Hollywood can offer — the dumb-actress satire, the high-dudgeon reality soap, the comeback bid borne from weariness of failure — upon herself, eager for more punishment.

Spelling has been a hard figure to know precisely what to do with for decades. She’s a nepotism case whom it’s hard to begrudge, because what was given to her has so plainly cost more than Spelling can ever earn back. And she’s a genuinely likable (really!) figure whose charm has to force its way around the blunt fact that she only knows how to tell one fairly unfunny, uncomfortable joke, and it’s at her own expense. The more she tries to prove her gameness or candor, the deeper the persona she’s working with digs in.

Earlier this year, Spelling appeared on “The Masked Singer”; unmasked, she told host Nick Cannon that performing is “my biggest fear in life” and wept for the fact that she would be able to do it no more. That a professional actress would be struck by such fear before singing is odd, and speaks to the very specific sort of role Spelling gets to play on- and offscreen. She’s perpetually “herself,” spoiled and unintelligent and incapable and less mean than unaware people who grew up without nannies are even real. Wearing a mask had allowed her to be accepted for an accomplishment other than being in on a joke over which she’d lost control. With “BH90210” accomplished — having perhaps, finally, slaked Spelling’s appetite for proving she knows what we think of her — I’d hope nothing more for the actress than that she find a role that has nothing to do with her name, one that lets her wear a different kind of mask. A couple decades in the life of the culture is a long time to keep beating oneself up; it can be hard to remember, given how eager Spelling can be to strip herself down to a name and some unattractive traits, that that’s a long time in the life of a person, too.

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