FALL TV PREVIEW
Sammy Jo, Stacy, Amanda and now Harley. You know what to expect when Heather Locklear's crafty vixen swings into the frame. What makes her last? It's that evolving mix of sex and dread.
By CARINA CHOCANO
Times Staff Writer
In the new NBC drama "LAX," Heather Locklear plays a character called Harley Random. Harley is head of runways at Los Angeles International Airport, and at the start of the series, she's locked in a struggle for total airport dominance with Roger (Blair Underwood), head of terminals. Their boss has recently committed suicide by putting himself in the path of a 747, and the two next-in-lines briefly battle it out like feudal chieftains in a medieval war of succession.
Naturally, Harley's rival is also a love interest. Blond hair is tossed and white teeth are flashed in pursuit of the coveted job, which in the end they'll share. But watching this, I realized that none of it was as interesting to me as Harley's name, which, having been coined with her in mind, distills the classic Heather Locklear character down to its purest, most irreducible essence. The name says everything we think of when we think of Heather Locklear: She's strong. Capricious. She's unpredictable. She's a fast machine who keeps her motor clean.
Watching Heather Locklear sashay onto the screen, the camera trained on her hips, it occurred to me that Heather Locklear has been sashaying across the screen since I was first allowed to watch the kinds of shows that starred Heather Locklear. If, like mine, your coming of age intersected with the Locklear ascendancy, you probably know more about her career and personal life than is strictly seemly. (She was married to Tommy Lee.) In your defense, the wellspring of Locklear-related data in your brain is mostly an accident of timing, geography and whatever pacts Aaron Spelling once made with the forces of darkness.
More than a TV star, Heather Locklear is a premium brand. There is no fictional role that could overtake her in terms of sheer name recognition. (There was another flocculent Heather once, on another tough-guy show, but she was creamed by the competition.) Through some alchemy of hair, teeth, Bambi eyes, business suits, cattiness, good-natured self-mockery and toothsome force of will, Locklear has remained on screen for more than two decades while managing to avoid the purgatorial pitfall of the successful TV actor; that is, being swallowed whole by some network's depressing idea of a lovable character. And for that, every time she sees a bus stamped with the thumb-flashing likeness of "Joey" on it, she must be grateful.
THE LOCKLEAR CHARACTER
Instead, the Heather Locklear character, which Locklear reprises in "LAX," is a relatively static persona that has proven remarkably adaptive across TV genres. (This, admittedly, doesn't say much for TV genres.) She did have a short trajectory, from Sanrio-featured ingenue to blond-ambition executive, but all in all she has made a long, happy career out of being neither terribly versatile nor particularly deep. In the 23 years she's been on TV, she's played some minor variation of the Heather Locklear character on prime-time soaps, dramas and sitcoms. She shilled shampoo and toothpaste in the late '70s, landed a part as Krystle Carrington's Nascar niece Sammy Jo Dean on "Dynasty" in 1981, got the part of Officer Stacy Sheridan on "T.J. Hooker" a year later, then returned to "Dynasty" for its third season, becoming the first to star in two simultaneous hit prime-time series.
Of course, it's a law of network physics that any organism exposed to the camera must eventually be reduced to its essence. But the Heather Locklear role has historical dimension. It has functioned as the control group in a two-decade-long experiment in evolving TV stereotypes. Looking back on it, her résumé contains more cultural artifacts than a pre-Columbian tomb. She was softer and more cheesecake-y as a beat cop in the early '80s (a role she'd never be cast in as a young actress today, at least not with that hair) than she was as a miniskirted ad executive in the early '90s. Stacy Sheridan was nothing if not some painful absurd early-Boomer notion of the "girl cop" — a good daughter and a loyal protégé and hard-working junior-level employee with a sunny disposition along with a fondness for extra-short gym shorts and tight uniforms.
Meanwhile, as the ambitious, conniving trailer park orphan Sammy Jo, she was allowed to explore the other side of her sex appeal. She was the Ur-self-exploiting teen; trashy and outrageous in a way to which we've become inured, thanks to Britney, Christina, Paris, et al. This rare, early double shift saved her from being engulfed by a single character. Instead, as if by science fiction, it transmogrified her into a cross between a cream puff and an authority figure. It wasn't an entirely new species, but she honed it down to a hard nugget. By the early '90s, she was the go-to girl for the part of the sexy, unattainable termagant.
In the past decade or so, following her florid turn as id-monster Amanda Woodward on "Melrose Place" and a crafty campaign manager on "Spin City," Heather Locklear has acquired a mystical, if not messianic, aura in the minds of executives. On a recent E! True Hollywood Story, NBC Chief Jeff Zucker referred to Locklear's perceived power to heal moribund TV shows as "the Heather Locklear effect." "Every time she shows up," he said, "there's success." Then again, network executives have been known to ascribe mystical qualities to their own repetition compulsion. Television actors' abilities are often concentrated in their hard candy outer shell, and more than any other medium, TV has the power to stuff a star, a worldview, a formula down your throat until your liver bursts. The staying power of Heather Locklear could be attributed to the constant casting of Heather Locklear — a consequence of indoctrination, not voodoo.
What's interesting is not how long the Heather Locklear character has lasted. It's how subtly it has shifted from latently dangerous object of desire to latently desirable object of fear. Television's own Dorian Gray, she's still playing the crafty vixen in her 40s. But Harley's sexuality is as sharp and icy as Stacy's was coyly kittenish and Sammy Jo's was coquettish and presentational. It's an intellectual abstraction. Ever since Heather Locklear put on a suit and strode into the (non-law-enforcing) TV workplace in the early '90s as the office queen bee (her sex life hums along, but she has no time for love, let alone children), she's been inching toward a new kind of daunting sexuality. No one who gets involved with her need fear becoming mired in her plasmatic womanly emotions. They need to worry about getting fired without an explanation. Heather Locklear is the Joan Collins of our generation. But she's nobody's overbearing mother. She's our scary boss.
Carina Chocano is a Times film critic. Contact her at [email protected]