‘90210’: Weighing in on the broadcast premiere

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Except that it interfered with my sleep — since I had to write this review immediately after the broadcast premiere Tuesday night — I was not personally put out by the fact that the CW did not make available ahead of time the first (or any) episode of ‘90210,’ the spinoff/sequel to that touchstone of end-of-the-20th-century culture, ‘Beverly Hills, 90210.’ The decision to forgo advance reviews is often read as a tacit admission that a show is bad. This show actually is not bad; it is what it is, and that’s all that it is. I can see why the network wanted to keep a tight rein on the rollout, so as not to kill the buzz it so carefully, doggedly engineered. ‘90210,’ it claimed, was ‘the most anticipated event of the year,’ ‘the television phenomenon everyone’s been waiting for,’ as if ‘phenomenon’ could possibly describe something that hadn’t even happened yet.

I was not a follower in the time of the original series, which carpeted the 1990s from end to end, although I did go through a period of watching it with some fascination in afternoon reruns. (I must have been in some sort of crisis.) Indeed, my own interest in the new ‘90210’ has less to do with memories of the old, or with the epochal re-teaming of Jennie Garth and Shannen Doherty, than with the fact that it has been developed by Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah, who wrote and produced for ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ who took over from Rob Thomas, who created ‘Veronica Mars.’ (Darren Star, later of ‘Sex and the City,’ created the first ‘Beverly Hills, 90210’; its producer, Aaron Spelling, died in 2006.)


None of the rarer flavors peculiar to those shows are found here, however. ‘90210’ is a conventional, if crazily busy, teenage drama, true to the spirit of the original. It is essentially wholesome, with an emphasis on striving toward the right behavior, while at the same time trying for something distressingly modern: There is implied oral sex four minutes into the first episode. (That’s 8:04 p.m., America.). The parties are bigger and crazier and shot in real Hollywood nightclubs; the girls are way skinnier; the rich kids more obviously rich. They’re still hanging out at the Peach Pit, but they’ve got cappuccino there now.

The story begins with the Wilson family, like the Walsh family 18 years before them, moving to Beverly Hills from the Midwest. It’s a new school in a new town for Annie (Shenae Grimes) and Dixon (Tristan Wilds), her adopted African American brother, as well as for daddy Harry (Rob Estes), who will be their principal. (I can barely remember a teenage drama that didn’t start with kids in a new town or at a new school.) They have all moved in with Harry’s mother (Jessica Walter), a former screen star and comical alcoholic, in a toned-down version of her ‘Arrested Development’ role. Mom is Lori Loughlin, and she has not yet had all that much to do.

The show is best when something is going wrong, or about to; most of the characters are not that interesting in repose. Within the first two hyperactive hours, Annie is friends and then enemies with spoiled rich girl Naomi (AnnaLynne McCord), whose boyfriend Ethan (Dustin Milligan) is cheating on her, and in any case, likes Annie, who likes him. But then tall and handsome Ty (Adam Gregory) asks her out, and they fly to San Francisco in his private jet. And she’s enemies and then friends with dark and moody Silver (Jessica Stroup), despite the fact that Silver has mocked her in an animation on her blog (garnering a highly unlikely ‘half a million hits’). Dixon makes the lacrosse team, is kicked off the lacrosse team, gets back on, is kicked off, and gets on again. His friend Navid (Michael Steger) is there as a kind of guide and accomplice, in dramatic terms, as well as a necessary acknowledgment that the real Beverly Hills is full of Persians — though he’s the only one we see. Meanwhile, Harry, who dated Naomi’s mother years before, learns for the first time that they have a child somewhere, given up years before for adoption. So much for easing in.

And then there are the old school’s Kelly (Garth) and Brenda (Doherty), guest stars for an indeterminate number of episodes. Kelly is now the single mother of a 4-year-old, working as a guidance counselor alongside Principal Harry and liked by English teacher Ryan (Ryan Eggold). Brenda, who has become a great actress of the London stage, is back in town to do a play. They have had their issues in the past, but they’re all grown up now, and reasonable and mature. It looks good on them.

— Robert Lloyd

(Pictured: Jessica Stroup as Silver, Shenae Grimes as Annie, Michael Steger as Navid and Tristan Wilds as Dixon. Photo courtesy Michael Desmond / The CW)