Teens Sulk and Emote on Cue, but Adults Grab the Spotlight

Media Reviews for Media People: CW's '90210'

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When the original "Beverly Hills, 90210" barreled into the mainstream during the summer of 1991, I was sequestered at a sleep-away camp in the Poconos. Nonetheless, breathless reports about the show's new direction -- less moralizing, more tail -- managed to penetrate our insular little universe, courtesy of the teen magazines visited upon our female counterparts via the U.S. post. Upon hearing their squeals and eyeing the sculpted cheekbones of the "90210" pinups, we manly-boys of hormones percolatin' pronounced the series hopelessly, inexorably girly.
It's doubtful that younger viewers not weaned on 'Beverly Hills, 90210' reruns will stick around to find out why Kelly, the blonde guidance counselor, hovers like a whiny helicopter.
It's doubtful that younger viewers not weaned on 'Beverly Hills, 90210' reruns will stick around to find out why Kelly, the blonde guidance counselor, hovers like a whiny helicopter. Credit: The CW

Of course, when I returned to Jer-Z several weeks later, every kid in town was sporting meticulously poofed hair and sideburns that stretched halfway down his jaw -- and I, predictably, was saddled with a 'do that a wise man would later call "a haircut you could set your watch to." So I resented "Beverly Hills, 90210" on general principle ... until I watched an episode. Within weeks, my fandom went from reluctant to willing to, finally, unrepentant. "90210" broke me down.

Lessons on growing up
I hung on every asinine plot twist. I reveled in the broadly sketched characterizations and dewy-eyed confrontations. I learned important life lessons about drugs ("don't do 'em"), alcohol ("don't drink"), teenage pregnancy ("has consequences"), domestic violence ("illegal in most municipalities") and date rape ("not very gentlemanly"). Above all, I was entertained, always, even as the show's slow decline coincided with the expansion of the cable universe and rise of the web.

When "Beverly Hills, 90210" was finally put down, it was the right call. Silly and synthetic in its best days, "90210" had become just another drama about insufferably fetching young adults. What it lost -- and what nouveau "90210" has to recapture if it plans to ensnare the OMG! generation -- were the fresh-faced kids and the vicarious delight we took in their triumphs, setbacks and discoveries.

So how is this "90210" different from its predecessor? The Walsh family from Minnesota is now the Wilson family from Kansas. A smattering of non-Caucasians now inhabits Beverly Hills. The synth-happy show theme has been emo'd up.

Also, it's unwatchable.

Here's the big problem: The new "90210" wants to capture the pretty-teen sheen of "Gossip Girl" and its practiced nastiness, as witnessed by the unmistakable suggestion of oral sex within the show's first 10 minutes. But the "90210" brand only allows for so much of that, because it simultaneously has to make time for the actors who came out of semi-retirement to give the update most of its buzz.

Hence we have a teen-oriented show that devotes an inordinate share of attention to adult characters. Younger viewers not weaned on "90210" reruns will wonder why the burlap-faced dude who owns the local hangout is allotted three wisecracks per episode and why the blond guidance counselor hovers like a whiny helicopter. I doubt they'll stick around to solve these mysteries.

Actors give it their all
I'll say this: The cast tries very hard. Brenda 2008 -- I'll refer to the second-generation characters by their first-generation names -- emotes so laboriously that she'll likely tear a facial muscle before "90210" gets its back-nine pickup. Kelly 2008 throws a mean snit-fit, Dylan 2008 sulks like a pro, and Cindy 2008 ably dramatizes the challenges of parenthood while wearing a tank top. It breaks my heart that Tristan Wilds, the astonishing young actor who played Michael Lee on "The Wire," goes into meathead mode as Brandon 2008, just as it saddens me to see Jessica Walter doing a far dumber spin on her "Arrested Development" matriarch.

But there are still lessons. Like, stealing from your pal to pay off your drug dealer is bad. Or, standing up for your friends is good. Nothing in the first two episodes is on par with the original "90210" prom scene -- in which Brenda 1991 discovered, much to her surprise, that sex won't make her ladyparts crumble and fail -- but I get the feeling we're in for many, many more Very Special Episodes.

The ads? Pretty much what you'd expect: Target, McDonald's and family-themed AT&T and T-Mobile spots (too, the T-Mobile Sidekick is integrated effortlessly into the premiere). Obviously, marketers were quite excited about the "90210" update: One snared a full minute of airtime for a flick, "Confessions of a Shopaholic," that doesn't open until February.

Magic just isn't there
These marketers (and viewers) will easily migrate elsewhere when the new "90210" goes away. That the show doesn't live up to its brain-candy potential isn't much of a pop-cultural catastrophe, when you think about it. When "Beverly Hills, 90210" debuted, no program on the air remotely resembled it. Now, there are two other dramas -- on the same network no less -- that feel and look the same. All but the hardest of the hard-core "90210" nostalgists can easily turn it off and locate something similar, and more entertaining, within 10 clicks of the remote.

The original "Beverly Hills, 90210" caught lightning -- modestly sexy lightning! -- in a bottle. The new "90210" doesn't. It happens. The world, I suspect, will not veer off its axis.
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