When the original Beverly Hills, 90210 first aired in 1990, I was eleven years old—the perfect age for the prime-time drama about cool, rich kids from California, their trials and tribulations. My girlfriends and I wanted to be Brenda or Kelly (I was a Brenda because of the brunette thing) and we kissed our Teen Beat pullouts of Luke Perry or Jason Priestly (Jason was always the one on my walls…kinda weird, now that I think about it, since I was a Brenda and the two were siblings on the show…). 90210 was a flop its first season out, but the great thing about series back then was, many times, they were shown a little patience. Series that went on to be megahits, like M*A*S*H and Cheers, and fan faves like Star Trek: The Next Generation, needed time to catch on. They bombed their first season out but, thanks to summer and reruns, ended up gaining the traction it would take to embed them in pop culture’s memory.
90210 has a similar story. The series picked up speed during a special summer season in 1991. My friends and I started craving it for two reasons: 1) because, for the era, the show shone a fairly realistic light on issues that were new to us, and 2) when it wasn’t covering issues of the day, it had some pretty fun melodrama. My guess is that this was a universal experience with its growing fan base. Pretty quickly in the first season, the writing turns from stereotypical tropes into solid story. ’90s teen caricatures (airhead Kelly, brainiac Andrea, disturbingly somewhat-racist Steve) turn into full-blooded (non-racist, thank goodness) characters you can actually root for and identify with. They lose that feeling of “some 40-something wrote his idea of a modern teen with shoe-horned slang” and the generic fog of late-’80s high school B movies (think Can’t Buy Me Love). Don’t get me wrong—90210 is hardly a pinnacle of original concept. Many of its storylines throughout its decade-long run are as soap opera as you can get. But around the time they drop “bogus,” “outrageous,” “jam,” “dork,“ “dope,” “you there?” and “studliest” from the dialogue, the show becomes watchable, even binge-worthy. If you’re nostalgic for the time, check out the early episodes for the clothes, the hair, and a few good-natured laughs. My college roommate loved the cheese factor of those early episodes, and I can still hear her giggles when I watch them. But if nostalgia isn’t reason enough for you to give 90210 another viewing, maybe with your own eleven-year-old kids, here are ten more (in two parts):
1. Manners, Boys
While the ’80s and ’90s came into their own with fresh faces in entertainment, new slang, trends, and ahem, M.C. Hammer pants, there was a strong tie to what came before. In 90210, you had the 1950s-themed Peach Pit diner (owned by Nat, played by veteran actor Joe E. Tata), which featured a jukebox packed with classic rock. You had a few glances back to Vietnam and student protests. And when I watched the episode “Dealer’s Choice” (S:9, E:3), I realized for the first time that throughout the series you had another throwback: simple but meaningful gestures of civility, like men standing when a woman gets up from the table, or holding doors open, or putting a jacket around a woman’s shoulders. Entertainment gives us fun, gives us escape, but it also gives us societal cues, cues like how to treat each other. Now, you might wonder if such positive behavior just might get cancelled out by all the soap operatic components and, you know, over-the-top backstabbing and cheating by so-called friends. But I don’t think it does in this case. Because we all know it’s bad to trick your boyfriend into taking drugs and then threaten to set the homecoming float on fire. The melodrama is so grandiose that we all know who’s right and who’s wrong in the morality play of the week. It’s the little things, the things that barely register with us, that seep into the subconscious. If you’re going to watch a guilty pleasure, I, for one, don’t think a few extra hits of civility is a bad by-product.
2. Sorry, Not Sorry
From a feminist’s point of view, 90210 may not be all that great a show. I mean, look at Donna Martin’s wardrobe after season 2—boobs boobs everywhere. Add to that the era of third-wave feminism and the debate over whether “sexual liberation” actually meant “objectification,” and I can see why some women would be put off by the show. But I’d argue that the series could get pretty gutsy when it wanted to, asserting the sometimes-unpopular feminist/progressive point of view, and doing it unapologetically. And whether you agree or not with where the politics go, you’ve got to give the writers points for crafting characters who stood by their convictions. Early in season three (starting with “Too Little, Too Late/Paris 75001”) there are a few episodes featuring a young Peter Krause as Andrea’s boyfriend. He’s Republican, she’s Democratic. Neither is wishy-washy. Neither is portrayed as uncool. They are who they are, and that’s all there is to it. Similarly, in “Skin Deep” (S:8, E:28), an entire storyline is based on how two female characters react very differently to a sex shop in the neighborhood: it makes Kelly uncomfortable, while Janet’s all good with it. In these episodes and those like them, 90210 showed us we could be respectful of others’ views while not compromising or feeling embarrassed about our own.
3. Dope Tunes
Speaking of not compromising our views, I’m just gonna say it: music from the ’80s and ’90s was awesome. Even pop had poetry. True, not every song or Peach Pit After Dark band is one for the ages, but you did have some winners and some effective use of a soundtrack supporting the story. 90210 fans were pretty bummed when seasons were released on DVD without the original music. It’s the same sad story of lots of great shows that came BD (Before Digital): music rights weren’t negotiated with the idea that someday people would be buying television shows to watch over and over. Getting those rights now is often astronomical. Happily, these days you can see the show as it was intended on Hulu, or if you get a cable channel that reruns episodes. One of my favorite uses of music in a show that became synonymous with launching new pop? “Wicked Game,” in two scenes with Emily Valentine on Lover’s Lane, first with Dylan and then with Brandon (“Wildfire,” S:2, E:8). Incidentally, this episode also featured “Addicted to Love,” Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz,” “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” “Leader of the Pack,” and the unforgettable “Teenage Mutant Kung-Fu Chickens.”
4. The Buck Stops Here
Ultimately, we are responsible for our actions. We can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We can kid ourselves. We can be swayed. We can be operating under false assumptions. We can have bad luck. But when it comes down to it, many if not most decisions in our lives are ones we can control, and if we make a bad one, we have to deal with the consequences. Even harder? We have to own it and admit we made the mistake. One of the great things about having the Minnesotan-transplant Walsh family was a built-in moral compass for the show. Often, the “moral of the story” moment was uber corny, and the parents, I’ve gotta say, could be rather wussy (not a commentary on actors Carol Potter or James Eckhouse—just how they were written). But there were times, like in season 2, episode 13’s “Halloween,” when the personal responsibility factor hit home. Kelly is nearly raped in the episode, and while the despicable actions of the assailant are never excused, Kelly does realize that her ultra-slutty witch’s costume, along with her less-than-sage action of following a stranger to a private room, contributed to a dangerous situation. Whether or not a woman should be able to dress and act however she wants is a separate argument—the truth is that, in our society, certain behavior begets certain behavior. 90210 reminds us that you can’t grow from laying blame; but you can grow from examining your own role in any given situation.
5. Dress Code
I’m not saying acid-wash jeans, pleated khakis, or Brenda’s necktie should necessarily come back in fashion (though any of these would be better than skinny jeans), but you have to admit the show had high standards when it came to style of the day. Guys and gals alike dressed for parties, clubs, concerts, even everyday life. I mean, if you’re gonna have a house party when your parents are gone for the weekend, why not wear sequins? Dumpy-looking jeans were reserved for the “troubled” characters, like Tara, the chick who went all Single White Female on Kelly and almost killed her (culminating in “The Big Hurt,” S:6, E:28). Athletic wear was reserved for, you know, athletics or athletes. I gotta say, after watching an episode or two, I’m inspired to change out of my weekend wear and throw on a posh skirt and cute sweater just to go to the store. Imagine if everyone watched an episode or two before planning out their wardrobe for the week. People would be better dressed for work than they’ve been since, well, ’round about 2000.
What do you think so far? Fun throwback show? Great ’90s nostalgia? Better than most of what’s on TV now? Hokey melodrama limited by its era? If you’re not convinced of 90210’sattributes yet (or if you are), come back next time for Ten Seasons, Ten Reasons: Part 2.