Welcome to Part 2 of Ten Seasons, Ten Reasons (to watch Beverly Hills, 90210 all over again). If you haven’t read Part 1, click here to see the first five reasons why I think this is a series worth revisiting. But if you’re ready for more, then here it is, home skillets.
6. Light & Fluffy . . . or not.
Maybe I’m weird (okay, I’m definitely weird), but while I can appreciate some true grit here and there in my entertainment, usually if I’m kicking back, I want to do just that. I like entertainment as a relief from reality, not an exact replica of it. I don’t want to feel lousy, or uncomfortable. I don’t want to be distracted by a thin storyline built on a minefield of F-bombs. I’m no prude or saint, and I love writing that can be dramatic and that makes me think or see things from a different perspective. But the most effective way to do that is not to show the worst of humanity in all its realistic glory, but to show the story in some way that combines new ideas, humor, and drama with that all-important ingredient: relatability.
90210 addressed serious issues of the day from race relations to abuse to income inequality to cutting (“Skin Deep,” S:8, E:28) to payola (“Making Amends,” S:8, E:23). But we also had the Beverly Beat tabloid. Andrea picking winning horses with Nat at the track (“And Baby Makes Five,” S:2, E:22). Dylan and Brenda trying to find more cultural interests (“My Desperate Valentine,” S:2, E:16). Sometimes the storylines got too silly, sure, like delving into Dylan’s past life or Val’s hijinks with Jonesy, but I’ll take that any day over a dirge of thinly veiled realism. The most important part? All of this was against a backdrop of teens/20-somethings just trying to make it through life. And who can’t relate to that?
7. It’s a Family Thing
Along the lines of Reason #6, did you ever sit down to watch a show with your family, and then five minutes in want to crawl under a couch because the subject matter is sort of the last thing in the world you want to witness with blood relatives? Thing is, though, the “too much reality” problem has a more serious consequence than just embarrassment. It’s a way to lose potential teaching moments, be they with a teenager or your 40-year-old brother who’s stuck in his stubborn ways.
The best way to get the whole family talking about issues is to make them comfortable enough to bring them into the fold in the first place. Again and again in 90210, sex is one major theme that’s handled deftly. A kid can’t talk to her parents about sex unless everyone is in the room, and that won’t happen if the story is interrupted for five minutes of soft-core porn (this was handled well with Brenda and Dylan in “Spring Dance,” S:1, E:21). Now, yes, 90210 was a network show in the 90s. You were never going to see Game of Thrones-level sex anyway. But part of what the writers wanted to do, especially early on, was create opportunities for parents and teens to talk. As the series went on, that focus changed to create opportunities for people to talk about a myriad of controversial issues. They recognized that if a viewer’s uncomfortable at getting reality shoved in his face, whether that reality is graphic sex/violence or a controversial opinion, he’s changing the channel. If, however, a story handles the same subject matter deftly, it can change minds and hearts.
8. The Biggest Characters, Literally
I love the show Smallville, really all things Superman, but it slayed me when Lana Lang ran a coffee shop while still supposedly in high school. I don’t think anyone ever went to class in that show. Whole storylines of 90210 revolved around the high school (West Beverly) and college (California University). The institutions themselves were treated as characters, many times informing a plotline, rather than serving as inconvenient scenery. “Higher Education” (S:1, E:6) was an early example of this, where grading curves and the pressure for students to perform go under the microscope. The power of authority figures comes back again at CU, in “Violated” (S:6, E:7) when Val’s marketing professor gives her a D on a midterm for not sleeping with him. But in virtually every episode until college graduation, the writers never lose sight that these are kids/young adults, and school is a huge part of that. The great thing about doing this is that school and our formative years are celebrated, or at least given some modicum of validation as a unique period in life. In turn, this validates young viewers who happen to be going through that period. We expect our kids to grow up too fast as it is. Why can’t we portray them enjoying/dealing with school before shoving them out into the “real world”?
9. Coats of Many Colors
While, as I’ve talked about in this post, 90210 took on its fair share of issues, never did it confuse “issue” with “character.” One of the ways 90210 successfully took on issues was by way of human nature, all sides of it, without judgment. The show let viewers get to know the characters by representing their whole personality, not exploiting one facet. Donna has a learning disability (“April Is the Cruelest Month,” S:1, E:19), becomes a fashion designer, and steals drugs when she becomes an addict (“The Girl Who Cried Wolf,” S:8, E:21). Brandon has a gambling problem (culminating in “Duke’s Bad Boy,” S:3, E:23), is usually the Boy Scout of the show and class president at CU, and beds his professor’s wife (“Otherwise Engaged,” S:4, E:9). We’re human, no matter who we are. We make mistakes. Sometimes, our intentions and decisions are great. And, sometimes, though our intentions are good, our methods are wrong. And sometimes even our intentions aren’t much more than self-serving.
90210 also showed main characters—characters we’d grown to love and didn’t want to believe were bigoted—having problems with people who were different from them. Take Steve, who couldn’t handle it at first when his mother revealed she was a lesbian (“The Following Options,” S:9, E:10). Quite a risk, writing a beloved character, Steve, with such a politically incorrect flaw. But it’s actually more inclusive to respect his discomfort as well as her right to be who she is, ironically enough. Because then writers are telling the viewer, “Hey, we get that you’re uncomfortable. That’s valid. And now that we respected your right to be uncomfortable, hear us out here.” Plus, most viewers aren’t villains, despite the biases all of us have. But if a show portrays a biased character as a villain, a biased viewer can write it off. “Well, I may not like people who are different from me, but I must not be racist/sexist/homophobic because I’m not a villain.” By showing that a nice, relatively open-minded young man can have a bias about his own mom, viewers don’t have any excuses not to question their own thinking.
10. Dead Presidents
In a world glorifying little rich Beverly Hills kids, 90210 stays remarkably grounded. There are just as many characters who need a waitressing job at the Peach Pit, who are down on their luck, who have to scramble for an income as there are Richie Riches. Sometimes, the Richie Riches are the ones who fall from their ivory towers and have to scramble. Obviously, the truth gets stretched. Carly, a single mom and waitress we first meet in “Aloha Beverly Hills” (S:8, E:1), can afford a cute beach bungalow. Well, this is part soap opera, after all. But Kelly’s mom has to sell their home when alimony runs thin (“Dead End,” S:3, E:21). Mr. and Mrs. Walsh have doubts about affording college for both Brenda and Brandon (“Highwire,” S:3, E:9). Not every starlet makes it—David has to resort to writing jingles when his music career tanks. Most famously of the money-trouble storylines is Andrea using the address of her grandmother’s tiny Beverly Hills condo so she can attend West Beverly, because in reality she lives outside the wealthy district. These aren’t usually one-off mentions, either. Andrea’s secret, for instance, which we learn in the pilot, plagues her well into season 2, culminating in “Down and Out (of District) in Beverly Hills” (S:2, E:12). Money is a real concern in this show, the way it is for all of us. The truth may be stretched, but from time to time the dollars have to be, too.
There ya have it, fellow 90s lovers, my compendium of why 90210 holds up. Is it a perfect show? Of course not. No show that would end with Kelly choosing Dylan over Matt would be (“The Penultimate,” S:10, E:26). But it walks a nice line between entertaining and thought-provoking, slang and poetry, traditional and modern. Check it out tonight on Hulu or, if you get it, Pop cable channel. Know of anywhere else it’s playing? Please share in the comments!