Television Review

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THE MAPS that cartographers draw, which concentrate on trivial phenomena like mountains, rivers and roads, bear almost no relation to the maps we hold inside our heads. Look at America in any atlas - note how it is dwarfed by Canada; how Manhattan is a small blotch on the right-hand side, California a long thin strip on the left, and in between are giant spaces dotted with city after city. In purely physical terms, this may make some footling sense. But a map that genuinely represented what we know about America would show New York and California sprawling out over the page, with everything else - Natchez to Mobile, Memphis to St Joe and all the rest - squeezed into a tiny gap in the middle, around which Mulder and Scully scamper, chasing ghosts and aliens.

If the map was going to be really honest, California would fade out into a modest note: "Here be monsters". The California most of us know - the one portrayed on television - is a zone where strange and terrible creatures roam. In last night's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BBC2), Buffy's classmate, the vile yet sensationally popular Cordelia, offered her thoughts on The Merchant of Venice: "Well, how about `Colour me totally self-involved'? With Shylock, it's like whine-whine-whine, like the whole world is all about him." California is also the place where ordinary human values - friendship, loyalty, love - are stripped of all meaning. Tuesday night's The Larry Sanders Show (BBC2) had the failing chat-show host's agent courting a new client, while busily protesting his loyalty to Larry: "He and I have been friends for, whew, like nearly half a decade now."

It isn't all ironic out there, though. Right on the far edge of California, there should be a large purple spot marking the site of Sunset Beach (C5). This is a pulpy soap opera produced by Aaron Spelling, whose previous hits include Charlie's Angels, Dynasty and Beverly Hills 90210. In some ways, it is tackier than they were - the cast is less gorgeous, for example, though several of its members seem to strike a distant chord in the memory, as though they have been recruited for their vague resemblance to better-known stars (Gregory, for instance, could easily pass for Michael Douglas in a bad light).

The dialogue is wooden, and the painful schedule (50 minutes a day, five days a week) demands a willingness to stretch a single conversation out for days. This week, we have had Annie's revelation to Gregory that Cole and Olivia are Baby Trey's real parents: what with hesitations, evasions, repetitions, demands for clarification, flashbacks, cuts to other story-lines and pauses for the actors to remember their lines, getting to the end of the conversation took almost an hour of screen time.

The Channel 5 continuity announcer has a habit of offering a sarcastic summary of the day's action over the closing titles, comparing the cast to various items of furniture and reading out badly scanned limericks from viewers. Leaving aside the absurdity of Channel 5 trying to adopt the cultural high-ground, this overstates the show's ironic appeal. In fact, much of the attraction of Sunset Beach is, I think, completely straightforward: it is virtually the last home of Victorian melodrama - the territory of Maria Marten or East Lynne. Look at some of the plotlines that have been going over recent weeks: amnesiac Maria regained her memory after a severe blow to the head, and thereby blighted the affair between her former husband and her sister; a woman was blackmailed by a mysterious man who turned out to be her own estranged husband; a priest wrestled with his vows of celibacy, unable to blot out the image of his brother's beloved; the entire town, afflicted by an ancient South American curse, aged decades overnight (the make-up for that particular escapade must have caused a latex shortage throughout central California).

The emotions involved are primal - mother-love, jealousy, greed, spite. The stories are told with enormous gusto - long sequences will abruptly dissolve with a clap of thunder, and turn out to have been fantasies; the supernatural is effortlessly evoked. Sunset Beach can't stand up to a moment's serious consideration; but if you're prepared be stupid for a while, it offers a unique opportunity to indulge in uncomplicated emotional fantasies: a kind of Disneyworld of the soul.