Shannen Doherty delivers drama to ‘North Shore’

By Daniel Fienberg,

On Aug. 8, “North Shore” was a Fox summer soap trying desperately to find enough of an audience to stay afloat. On Aug. 9, Fox revealed that former “Beverly Hills, 90210” teen queen Shannen Doherty was joining the cast for at least three episodes with the possibility of a longer run.

Just like magic, on Aug. 13 Fox announced that “North Shore” was getting a back-nine pick-up, the ultimate vote of confidence for a show whose fan base is devoted, if tiny.

Nobody is explicitly saying that “North Shore” is sticking around because of Doherty – in fact, executive producer Bert Salke insists it was coming either way – but even in discussions about the part, the actress knew what might be at stake.

“I think it had been casually mentioned to me,” Doherty laughs.

The natural instinct, particularly if you’re a wildly optimistic Fox executive, is to compare Doherty’s arrival on “North Shore” to the moment Heather Locklear moved into “Melrose Place” and transformed what was a sluggish “90210” spin-off into a brilliantly trashy institution. Certainly there appears to be some similarly bitchy DNA shared between Locklear’s fiery Amanda Woodward and Doherty’s, Alexandra Hudson.

“We wanted what we sometimes call an ‘engine’ on these shows, to not only give an expected ratings jump and bringing more viewers to a show that has momentum, but also that is something that a story spins off on,” Salke says. “She was just the perfect [character] for people to spin around.

On Monday, Alexandra arrives on the North Shore to surprise everybody with the revelation that she’s Walter Booth’s [Christopher McDonald] daughter and therefore Nicole’s [Brooke Burns] sister. One can only imagine that this deeply buried secret will set off a few fireworks. But is Doherty comfortable with assuming the Locklear mantle as show-saver?

“No, I’m not. It’s a huge amount of pressure,” Doherty says nervously. “Heather Locklear is amazing and what she does for shows is terrific and it’s big footsteps to follow in. I’m very comfortable with the fact that I have an amazing fan base that is just so loyal.”

Although Salke and fellow showrunner Chris Brancato were aware of Doherty’s reputation for being occasionally difficult, he praises Doherty’s professionalism and says that the only concern was the delicate ecosystem of a new show.

“Chris and I have done a lot of shows and we learned long ago not to judge somebody on what you hear, but on what you know,” he says. “Frankly the fear is not about somebody’s reputation, but the fact of a `star’ coming on to a show that’s getting its legs, where a group of people have been together, somewhat clustered in Hawaii, for four months and you add someone new who’s probably a big personality to that dynamic. That’s the fear.”

The experiment seems to be working so far. In addition to snagging its back-nine order, “North Shore” has already signed Doherty for three additional episodes, bringing her run to six and counting.

“I don’t think they looked at it like me being a savior and I certainly don’t look at it that way,” she says. “My attitude is that I can’t do this by myself. I cannot single-handedly pump up the ratings for this show. I realize that some people think I may be able to, but I can’t. It takes a team.”

Doherty is enjoying her Hawaiian vacation enough that she’s already put her next project, a comedy in development with Gavin Polone [“Gilmore Girls”], on hold until 2006. After spending years playing characters like the oppressively angsty Brenda Walsh and the reliably responsible Pru Halliwell, Doherty relishes exploring Alexandra’s dark motives.

“I’ve always had a father in my life and a mother in my life,” she says. “I’ve never been what Alexandra is, a little bit of an orphan. I’ve always felt that love and support system around me and to play a character that didn’t have it is such a departure from myself that it fascinated me.”

How long Doherty will stay with the series remains open and having already left two successful shows in the midst of their runs, she acknowledges that she finds the TV schedule “a grind.” She may ultimately leave that choice to others.

“I want everybody to be happy,” Doherty says. “I want the network to be happy. I want the cast to be happy. I want everybody to want me here. I don’t want to be someplace where I’m not wanted.”