“DONNA MARTIN graduates.”
“Look what they did to her, Brandon!”
“Am I precious to you? You’re so precious to me.”
To the average person, the above phrases mean nothing. But to a devoted watcher of Beverly Hills, 90210, these quotations are immediately recognizable as the best and worst (and in the case of that last one, both) that greatest and longest running 90s teenage drama had to offer. Having grown up on a steady diet of the tragedies and triumphs of the West Beverly High School gang, 90210 will always have a special place in my heart.
Whether it’s the pilot with Brandon’s never-seen-again mullet, the Flaming Lips’ national television debut at the Peach Pit after Dark, or even the lean later years that brought us the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it introduction and departure of future Oscar winner Hillary Swank, there’s something comforting about 90210. A perfect blend of edginess and blandness, it blazed a trail for all the high school dramas that followed, and I would argue, broke through in a way no subsequent show ever could. Shows like Party of Five, Dawson’s Creek and The O.C. were all to some extent worthy successors, but none of them warranted their own line of dolls.
So it was with mixed feelings that I viewed the announcement of a DeGrassi-style reboot of the show that defined cool for a generation of pre-teens. I was anxious they’d screw it up, but excited to see what original cast members would slink back to the Peach Pit. My concerns were tempered a bit when I learned of the involvement of Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas (no, the other Rob Thomas), but they returned when I read he’d left the show almost as quickly.
After a summer of intriguing promos, the two-hour premiere finally arrived earlier, weighed down with not only the expectations of a perhaps dying CW Network, but also those of legions of the children of the 90s like myself.
And in the end, much to my surprise, the two-hour premiere of 90210 mostly pulled it off. The show negotiated a difficult balance of honoring the series that came before it, and also distinguishing itself as a new and modern entity in its own right. And, thank God, they kept the theme.
The opening scenes, a lengthy expository drive through picturesque Beverly Hills were pretty much a direct lift from the original series, only the Walshes of Minneapolis have been switched out for the Wilsons from Wichita. Instead of adorable Minnesota Twins (get it?) Brandon and Brenda, we meet the winsome pair of Annie Wilson (played with likeable vulnerability by the squinty DeGrassi alum Shenae Grimes) and her adopted (black) brother Dixon (Tristan Wilds from The Wire). The kids are none too pleased about their implausibly great-looking parents’ (played by Lori Loughlin—herself late of a couple failed CW dramas—and former Melrose Placer Rob Estes) decision to pull up stakes and live with their wacky, drunken Hollywood grandmother (played with gusto by Jessica Walters, essentially reprising her role from the much-mourned Arrested Development).
The teen leads are very likable as they navigate their way around their (literally) jet-setting classmates, meeting a mixture of stand-ins for the original 90210 archetypes, (including a painfully uncharismatic update on Dylan McKay, played woodenly by Dustin Millgan) as well as the offspring of the original cast-members (aww, Andrea Zuckerman’s daughter is a journalism geek too!).
While a tad predictable, this portion of the drama was pretty easy to settle into, and if it weren’t for original cast members like Kelly Taylor (inexplicably now the school guidance counselor) or Nat Bussichio (now the fussy, regretful owner of a coffeehouse version of the Peach Pit) popping up periodically, one might forget this was a spinoff series at all. The wholesomeness of the Kansas gang is an interesting contrast to the spoiled rotten West Beverly crowd, and the show wisely uses the decadent worlds of The Hills and My Super Sweet 16 as touchstones for the audience’s understanding of these characters.
The writers also toss diehards like myself a few knowing winks, giving hints about the identity of Kelly Taylor’s babydaddy, a joke about Andrea’s daughter looking “thirty,” (Gabrielle Carteris’ real age in season one of the original series) and even giving us a brief (and likely to be expanded) cameo from one of the aforementioned Minnesotans, Brenda Walsh herself (who has apparently been living hard—are those dentures?).
Some of the efforts to update the show stick out unpleasantly, like the obligatory Internet age subplots about text-messaging and “Blogisodes” but for the most part, the soap elements of good-hearted kids trying to fit in (with the added handicap of the school principal being their father) works quite well, helped along by some worthy and believable performances.
At times the show does veer into needless “shock,” taking pages from the quasi-controversial Gossip Girl, especially in our introduction to the ersatz Dylan McKay guy, “Ethan,” but the show’s heart is largely in the right place. The Wilson family genuinely seek to do the right thing, in situations complicated by compromised judgment and unforeseen circumstances.
While none of 90210’s leads thus far seem as charismatic as the original gang of men-and-women-playing-younger, the new series does benefit from comparison in one respect—the parents. While Jim and Cindy from the old show were good actors, whose characters’ wholesome advice kept the Walsh twins morally centered, I think most young fans of the show tolerated their presence more than they welcomed it. With Dad Wilson in the children’s lives on a daily basis as Principal of West Bev, and Mom Wilson with the semi-interesting career of professional photographer, the parents were a more important and desirable element of the 90210 pilot than their predecessors, and in no way brought interest in the show to a screeching halt in the same way an appearance from the folks’ would in a show like, say, The O.C.
It’s difficult, as a Beverly Hills, 90210 lifer, to view this show with the same eyes I would if there had never been a show about the perils of twins from the Midwest (who later left their own show, but I digress…) the new 90210 works pretty well, both as 90’s love-letter, and high school angst-fest. The first two hours (which I worry will be the last bearing Rob Thomas’ name) established the program as a pretty compelling evening soap, with appropriate nods to the original source material. It might not (yet) be appointment television, but all the same I’m likely to keep watching, both to see if Annie Wilson ends up with the much more interesting Christopher Reeve lookalike, Ty, or the much duller and predictable Ethan—and also to see what Steve Sanders has been up to in the intervening years. Besides balding, that is.
Don Sparrow is a freelance writer and illustrator in Saskatchewan.
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