It seemed like a surefire recipe: Take the No. 1 teen drama in TV history, update it, stoke the publicity fires with news of returning favorite characters from the original, and the CW would land a huge hit.
But "90210" is suffering a serious case of adolescent angst. Instead of becoming prime time's cocky homecoming king, the series developed more like the shy, insecure kid with no date to the dance.
Then, to make matters worse, there has been that mean girl "American Idol" to contend with. Sharing a Tuesday at 8 slot in January with the most popular show on television has meant that a sizable chunk of "90210" viewers fled.
Looking to woo them back, the CW will move the show to 9 p.m. -- out of "Idol's" destructive path -- after a six-week hiatus that begins Feb. 17. The network is still hoping to hit another "Gossip Girl"-type jackpot with a second series about teenage angst in a tony neighborhood, and that "90210's" success would lead to a trifecta next season with a remake of "Melrose Place," now in development. And "90210" is already a moneymaker for studio CBS Paramount, which has sold it to more than 170 markets abroad.
In the U.S., however, "90210" has traveled a bumpy road, even before it had to compete with "Idol." Getting out of "Gossip Girl's" shadow has been a struggle, especially when initial reviews for "90210" were lukewarm at best. As "Gossip Girl" continues to dominate blog headlines as well as score strong ratings in the network's core audience, newbie "90210" settled into just-acceptable ratings after debuting to the largest premiere audience in CW history. Moreover, the series has floundered creatively and has no irresistible Dylan-Brenda couple to root for.
"The show may have tried out more voices than most other first-year shows," said executive producer Rebecca Rand Kirshner Sinclair, who took over the show in September and is "90210's" third steward since its development. "The only solution, and my challenge, is to have time to fix and develop story lines organically."
Throughout the fall, the series made news only when "Beverly Hills, 90210" stars Jennie Garth or Shannen Doherty were due on set -- or when one of the actors in the new cast acted out. Those headlines have focused almost entirely on 19-year-old actress Shenae Grimes, who plays good girl Annie, the show's lead character. The New York Post's Page Six reported in September that Grimes was often rude on set and was once overheard saying, "This is my show -- everyone else is riding my coattails." Grimes also has become a target of gossip blogger Perez Hilton.
At a "90210" party last month, Grimes said she doesn't pay attention to the negative press because "you'd go nuts if you did." But some of her costars and producers said the intense coverage hurts the young cast, especially a recent US Weekly cover story about the potentially dangerous example Grimes and her thin costars, Jessica Stroup and AnnaLynne McCord, set for the show's younger viewers.
"I like that people are talking about the show, but not when it hurts the kids," executive producer Gabe Sachs said.
CW President Dawn Ostroff is also worried about the damage "Idol" could cause.
Over the last two weeks, Fox's pile driver talent show has snatched more than a third of "90210's" total audience, a problem Monday night denizen "Gossip Girl" never had to face.
"Obviously, we took a little bit of a hit," Ostroff said in an interview after "Idol" premiered. "We all knew we would. But our hope is that everyone settles down, samples a couple of other shows, and then comes back to '90210.' "
"Idol" typically steamrolls its winter competition -- except for CBS' older-skewing lineup -- but much is at stake for the CW with "90210." The network's attempt this fall to farm out Sunday night programming to an entertainment company quickly failed, and other rookie series, "Privileged" and "13," appear to be duds. That makes saving "90210" a top priority, but it won't be easy.
The nostalgia hook, for one, is proving difficult to maintain. Brenda announced she was ready to become a mom in her last appearance, but Doherty has not signed on for more episodes. Jennie Garth's Kelly, now a guidance counselor at West Beverly High, is only slated for one more, and Tori Spelling's Donna Martin will be back for a limited run.
In some respects, the old characters that attracted wistful viewers have proved to be a distraction.
"The show got so much attention for being a '90210' update that it's really taken some time to explain to the teens that this is their '90210' too," Ostroff said.
But arriving at what the show is, exactly, is a bigger challenge when creative hands already have changed three times. The CW announced it was fast-tracking the remake last April, bringing aboard Rob Thomas of "Veronica Mars" fame, but he abandoned it after his first draft because of a commitment with ABC. The network then recruited Sachs and Jeff Judah, known for mining the anxieties of working-class teens in the male-driven dramas "Life as We Know It" and "Freaks and Geeks."
Because of the time crunch, the pair sped through writing the first six episodes without the benefit of evaluating a produced pilot to guide future story lines. Then the clashes with network executives began. The CW wanted "90210" to have a female perspective and focus more on money and glitz, like "Gossip Girl." But Judah and Sachs were more comfortable writing for men -- read: an oral sex scene played for laughs in the pilot -- so they stopped writing. Judah now handles postproduction duties, including editing and music supervision, and Sachs runs the production on set.
"It was sort of like a big, flashing neon sign that we just drove by when we accepted this job," Judah said. "But at the time, we thought we'd give it a shot and see what happens. . . . Ultimately, what the network wanted isn't what we do. I'm not as witty as ['Gossip Girl' executive producer] Josh Schwartz and I never will be. I'm fifth-generation white trash, so I'm not even beginning to be able to write like that."
The tension was not lost on the cast. Dustin Milligan, 23, plays Ethan Ward, a character conceived as a star athlete/outsider with an autistic brother, who has morphed solely into Annie's love interest, a romance that certainly hasn't lighted viewers on fire.
"I don't think the network knew exactly what they wanted," Milligan said. "I know Gabe and Jeff were working really hard and doing a really good job with bringing in the quirky moments and the humor and the realism -- but a lot of that never quite made it into the episodes. We were all pretty upset about it."
With Judah and Sachs out of the writers room in September, the CW hired Kirshner Sinclair, who has built a reputation working on the beloved teen shows "Gilmore Girls" and " Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Among her biggest tasks is figuring out what to do with Annie, the girl with the charmed life, never encountering a problem she can't solve or a boy who doesn't fall for her.
Kirshner Sinclair can relate. She too stayed out of trouble during her teen years. "Annie is probably closer to who I was in high school," she said. "So if [the writers and I] could just dig more, I think we could do some genuine things with her."
What would be best for Annie, it appears, would be for Kirshner Sinclair to stay. The writer-producer would like to be around in some capacity for "90210's" second season, which is a sure bet at this point. The network and studio are pleased with the show's direction now and would like Kirshner Sinclair to continue as show runner. A decision about her role will be made soon. (It seems clear Judah and Sachs will not work on the second season.)
For now, Kirshner Sinclair is feeling optimistic. The remaining 10 episodes will bring Spelling's return (and, yes, Donna's still married to David Silver), the arrival of Dixon's ( Tristan Wilds) estranged mother, Adrianna's ( Jessica Lowndes) baby drama, and the much-needed addition of a Dylan McKay bad-boy type (Matt Lanter).
"Before, working on the show was pretty frantic, like solving puzzles," she said. "But by the end of this season, I think we'll have the right tone down. It's finally getting exciting."