Tonight, just as she did last Thursday and the Thursday before that, 17-year-old Melissa Myers will preside over a meeting of Club 90210.
Members take their duties seriously as they sink into a curvy leather sofa in the Myers’ two-story Beverly Hills home. After 9 p.m., there will be no pizzas delivered, no beelines to the bathroom and no phone calls--except during commercial breaks.
Indeed, there will be a hush in the Myers’ den for 60 minutes. After all, club members have gathered to experience one of the finest hours ever of teen Angst: “Beverly Hills, 90210.”
The teen soap opera, which airs on KTTV Channel 11, revolves around twins Brenda and Brandon Walsh (Shannen Doherty and Jason Priestley), Minneapolis transplants who have moved to the land of Os-tentatious, and their new snobby friends at the well-dressed, -tressed and -stressed fictional West Beverly Hills High. Not surprisingly, everyone and everything on the show is beautiful. And there aren’t any books in sight.
Melissa and Company--about 20 of her classmates at Beverly Hills High School--have been preparing for hours, going through the motions that have become a Thursday night ritual: shooting pool, sipping diet strawberry sodas, racing through homework, passing around the phone and counting down to show time.
They like the story lines that focus on problems that affect all teens: AIDS, drug addiction, cheating, racial tension, alcoholic parents, date rape, drunk driving and sex.
And scores of BHHS students--there are several other versions of Club 90210--agree that they are downright flattered that Hollywood is knocking them off, even though the show carries a disclaimer that “any similarity to any real places or people is purely coincidental.”
But these same students are, well, suffering from some Angst of their own. They are downright displeased by the snobbery of some of the characters on the show. The social-climbing aspect of “90210,” they say, has been exaggerated so much that they feel forced to lie about where they go to school and where they live.
These BHHS kids want the world to know that they don’t drink Perrier from their water fountains or have valet parking.
(It should be noted, of course, that Beverly Hills High has its own oil wells and planetarium, among other well-heeled facilities. The campus is well-known for its celebrity offspring. And a few of the folks gathered in the Myers home don’t deny that many students--including, maybe a few in the room--drive BMWs, Porsches and Jeeps to school or leave cellular phones and beepers in their cars or get nose jobs during summer vacation.)
Students like Farshad Askari, 17, who often watches the show at Myers’ home, says, “We are not all white, all perfect-looking” like the characters on the program.
Since the show hit the small screen, several Beverly Hills High students say they have had to defend their school because they are associated with the silver platter image of the program.
“It’s so bad, like if we go out of state, because people criticize everything about us and Beverly Hills,” says Gregg Meyer, 17, a senior.
Recently, says Meyer, the school’s principal “told us to be proud of where you live and don’t be afraid to say what school you go to.” School administrators, however, declined to comment on the show.
Gil Chesterton, a journalism teacher at Beverly Hills High for 20 years, says he likes the teen issues addressed in the show but adds that “90210" and people in general are “guilty of stereotyping our school and students. They think everybody drives a BMW, every kid in my class is the child of a celebrity and that we are rolling in money.”
None of this prevents Club 90210 from gathering every Thursday.
Last week, club members were joined by almost 10 million viewers nationwide; the show, in its second season, ranked 59th out of 97 shows and has been called a solid drama and “no fluke” by television writers. During the summer, while other shows were operating on reruns, “90210,” with new shows, consistently landed in the Top 20.
Melissa, her sister, Sara, a sophomore, and a few of their pals pass out handmade “90210" calling cards, in addition to hosting the potluck get-togethers.
Melissa is so hooked that she has videotaped every program, just in case a pal needs a Friday fix. She has amassed a telephone book-sized scrapbook of clippings about the show and its actors.
“She’s our ‘90210' historian,” says Sara. But Melissa, like many of her friends, just wishes that some of the stereotypes--particularly the one about image being everything--didn’t exist and that the hype about living in Beverly Hills would die down.
The show’s creator and supervising producer, Darren Star, has a slightly different take on “90210.”
“I don’t think we are stereotyping Beverly Hills at all,” he says. “I can’t tell you how shallow a lot of rich kids are out there.”
Star says the show’s writers are going out of their way to make the fictionalized Beverly Hills kids kinder and gentler than their real counterparts.
“We are going to the extreme to portray these kids (the show’s characters) as full-bodied emotional people whose problems are universal. . . . If I was interested in portraying Beverly Hills life, we would end up with a show that is nothing but a cliche.”
New York-based teen researcher Irma Zandl says almost 60% of 12- to 18-year-old girls in the United States report that “Beverly Hills, 90210" is their favorite show; that actor Luke Perry, who portrays Dylan McKay, has dethroned Johnny Depp as their favorite hunk and that Shannen Doherty-type bangs are going over big time.
“The show grew very rapidly from its inception because” the problems that confront the characters seem universal, says Zandl, president of Xtreme Inc., a teen-ager research and marketing firm. “They also like it because it’s set in glamorous Beverly Hills instead of a school the kids from ‘Roseanne’ would attend.” Viewers want “fantasy” she says, and that means fast cars and adolescent rebellion.
Julie Laufer, editor of Burbank-based teen magazines Bop and The Big Bopper, says mail about the show’s stars--who are featured on the covers monthly--pours in daily.
“Ninety-nine percent of our readers don’t live in Beverly Hills,” Laufer says, “but they love the show, the cute guys, the clothes and the characters driving around in convertibles.”
Peggy Charren, founder of the 23-year-old lobbying organization Action for Children’s Television, based in Cambridge, Mass., says “90210" has “hooked teen-agers because the show is a rich white kids’ program with soap opera appeal.”
“And teen-agers love soaps,” she says, adding that the “90210" serial characters--with their modern-day sagas, including the on-again, off-again relationship between Dylan and Brenda--"are people you can get involved with because their lives are exposed.”
But she adds, “The show talks to both sexes, and it succeeds. They do AIDS right and condoms right. This is not some teen sitcom baby-sitter kind of program, it is an interesting phenomenon for a change.”
Suzanne Frentz, associate dean of the College of Communications and Fine Arts at Loyola Marymount University, says other teen shows like “The Partridge Family” and “James at 15" were as popular in their heyday as “90210" is today. But what “90210" has done to perfection--unlike its teen show predecessors--is carry out “an ingenious mix of materialism and teen woes” in its programs.
Frentz, who has studied the transmission of societal values through television viewing, says the show works because “even kids who live in Utopia have real problems.”