Ahead of Their Class : Fox Rings The Bell Early For 30 New Episodes of Popular 'Beverly Hills, 90210'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It seems that every decade, a movie or a TV series speaks to teen-agers. James Dean's "Rebel Without a Cause" personified the Angst of the '50s teen. The 1960s teen-ager tuned in and turned on to such TV series as "Mr. Novak," "The Mod Squad" and "Room 222." And teens laughed away their problems in the '70s with "Welcome Back, Kotter." The '80s teen went to "The Head of the Class."

And now Fox's "Beverly Hills, 90210" has struck a chord with '90s youth. The series began with a whimper last fall. The ratings were dismal and reviews were less than spectacular. The Times' Howard Rosenberg described the series as: "A zip code for stereotypes and stock characters

Yet "90210" ended the season with a bang. The ratings have steadily increased even though it airs opposite "Cheers," the country's favorite program. In its time slot, "90210" is the No. 1 series with teen-agers and kids and No. 2 with adults, 18-34, according to the A.C. Nielsen Co.

The series' young stars--Shannen Doherty, Jason Priestly and Luke Perry--have become the new teen dreams of the airwaves, plastered on the covers of teen fanzines and receiving hundreds of fan letters per week. A "90210" clothing line is in development.

Not only has Fox renewed the series for a second season, the network has ordered an unprecedented 30 episodes, instead of the customary full-season order of 22. And in another first, Fox is getting a two-month jump start on the fall season, debuting the new episodes of "90210" beginning Thursday.

Darren Star, creator and supervising producer of "Beverly Hills," isn't at all bothered by Fox's unorthodox summer programming strategy: "It's really smart because the show gained a tremendous amount of momentum in the spring and they are capitalizing on that."

"I think the show has heat and momentum," said Peter Chernin, Fox Entertainment Group president. "We felt we could keep that momentum going. We also felt creatively what makes the show work is that people have a real connection with the characters. ... they don't view these characters going away for four months. It made sense to continue the series (during the summer)."

For those without teen-agers, a brief synopsis: "90210" focuses on the Walsh family---a solid, traditional Midwestern clan with teen-age twins, Brandon (Priestly) and Brenda (Doherty), who find their lives and values are turned upside-down when they move to Beverly Hills.

"90210" was just one of several high school-oriented series that premiered last fall. NBC's heavily hyped "Hull High" and "Ferris Bueller" quickly failed. Only Fox's quirky "Parker Lewis Can't Lose!" and "90210" received passing notices.

"We were the dark horse," Star said. "But our show was still different. No one has done a really good show about high school recently that spoke to kids the way 'thirtysomething' spoke to its audience, that took them to their own level, that took them very seriously and had their voice."

Aaron Spelling, whose Torand Productions Inc. produces the show, was interested in the series exploring "the joys and traumas of being a teen-ager." Spelling's teen-age daughter, Tori, is a regular on the series.

Star describes "90210" as a "dramedy," but the humor is outweighed by the heady subjects it tackles, including breast cancer, AIDS, date rape, alcohol and drug abuse and teen motherhood.

Star said he never set out to turn "90210" into an issue-of-the-week series. "I was worried when Fox started talking about issues," he said. "When we do issues they have got to be really organic to the show."

"The episode we did on drunk driving struck a lot of chords with people," Priestly said. "All of us have had friends and family members die as a result of drunk driving. I think the episode we did on AIDS hit home with a lot of people. We are not doing things that are farcical and beyond the realm of possibility."

"But we don't pound you over the head," Doherty said. "We like to make people laugh while they think."

"Everybody hates issues shows," said Spelling, who also created and produced "The Mod Squad" more than 20 years ago. "We have been lucky to do (two) story lines, so one is lighter."

While developing the series, Star never visited Beverly Hills High School or talked with any of the students. He felt no need.

(Even the exteriors aren't filmed at Beverly Hills High; Torrance High School stands in for the series.)

"I wanted to make this school universal," he said. "If the characters were universal, the thought that they were wealthy wouldn't matter. Also, with Brandon and Brenda, I tried to create two Everyman characters people could put themselves into--people who had a moral center. I had come from the Washington, D.C., area to go to school at UCLA, and so I had some of the same kind of culture shock."

"The fact we live in Beverly Hills has nothing to do with the show," Doherty said. "'This isn't another stupid teen show. We are not a teen show. It's really about a family."

The pilot episode of "90210" did play up the Beverly Hills element. "You have to hook an audience," Star said. "It would be stupid to ignore it in the pilot. After a while, you can start to go away from your premise a bit."

Carol Potter, who plays loving mom Cindy Walsh, said the parents' roles were almost nonexistent in the pilot. "The issues in the pilot were a little more glitzy," she said. "Jason gets in a hot tub at a party with a beautiful girl. Since then they have come down to earth in terms of dealing with things teen-agers have to deal with. They made a conscious decision to focus on the family."

Priestly and Doherty have both discussed the series with students from Beverly Hills High School.

"They either love or hate the show," Doherty said.

"Some actually came over to the set one day," Priestly said. "They said we were pretty realistic in what we are doing. They said they loved the show. Though the ones who were throwing rotten tomatoes probably didn't like it."

Adults certainly didn't like a spring episode in which Brenda slept with her recovering alcoholic boyfriend Dylan (Luke Perry).

"After it aired, we got a lot of angry letters from adults," Star said. "The letters said, 'You just told my girl it was OK to sleep with her boyfriend.' It suddenly hit home that people are watching this show."

Star noticed someone was watching the show last winter when the ratings slowly started to rise and Fox began to air more promotions. "Before that, the show hardly existed in the minds of most people, except for teen-agers," he said.

"Beverly Hills," Star said, was an easier sell in Great Britain, where it premiered in January. "They just go nuts for it over there," Star said. "I think maybe they are a little bit more enamored of Beverly Hills. I think Beverly Hills has played itself out in the United States. People have seen too many lousy shows with Beverly Hills in the title. People consciously avoided the series, but once they sort of decided to watch it, they kept watching."

And just what's in store for the "90210" gang this summer?

Brenda will be taking drama class. "Brandon is working at a beach club," Priestly said. "It's very 'Flamingo Kid'--esque."

Because of the 30-episode commitment and the early premiere date, the writing staff of "90210" wasn't able to take a break. "I guess the fact the show is really catching on is exciting and invigorating," Star said. "So you know, it's not like we are writing for the walls, which is what we were doing at the beginning. Maybe next year at this time I will feel a little burned out.".

"Beverly Hills, 90210" airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.

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