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Class Dismissed!

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are the dog days of “Beverly Hills, 90210,” the last gasps of a teen soap grown up and grown old: Episode No. 299, titled “The Penultimate.” In this scene, for the umpteenth time, Dylan McCay (Luke Perry) and Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth) will (almost) profess their love for each other. Dylan will ask, “How’s Matt?,” meaning Kelly’s boyfriend, and Kelly will say, “He’s pretty devastated,” because Matt’s something-or-other died, and Dylan will say, “The other night. You wanted to know things. But you had to talk to Matt first. I was wondering if you’d done that,” and Kelly will say, “Not yet. No,” and Dylan will say, “Well, tell him I’m sorry for his loss, will you?,” and Kelly will say, “Of course.” And then Dylan will go to the door, as if to leave (where is he always going?). He will say, “I talked to David about Donna,” and Kelly will ask, “How’s he doing?” and Dylan will reply, “He can’t figure out how two people so obviously meant for each other can’t get together,” and then, before he exits, Dylan will add: “And frankly, neither can I.”

Outside the sound stage, waiting to be called back on set, Perry horses around on a vintage Schwinn he’s bought for his son. Garth, in a robe, smokes. Like “90210’s” other veteran stars, she has made a lot of money by sticking around, but today, no one confuses the show for television that matters.

“We always had such emotional, reality-based dialogue, and that has really been absent, I think, in the last couple of years,” says Tori Spelling, who has played the virtuous Donna Martin since the show’s inception, when she was 16. Ten years later, the show’s cancellation strikes Spelling as a not-very-surprising plot twist. “I’d say in the last two or three years I’ve really been bored. And it bums me out because I take real big pride in what I do and our show . . . and it’s just these talky, talky scenes with nothing going on.”

Teen Audience Dropped From 20% to Under 4%

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The audience has long since caught onto Spelling’s ennui. Twenty percent of the nation’s teens watched “90210" during its second season, but by the end of season nine that figure had dropped to under 4%, and the adults who continued to show up, if only to appreciate the show’s camp qualities, its earnest approach to nighttime soap, hardly comprised a viewing majority.

This sort of attrition is unavoidable, though to its credit “90210" told its story in real time--meaning the characters graduated high school, entered college, then left college for “the real world.” All that’s left now is the two-hour finale, airing tonight at 8 on Fox, and a vague sense of what the show--and the hysteria it prompted--once meant.

In the tradition of eulogies, you could be grandiose: “Beverly Hills, 90210" solidified a then-fledgling Fox network, resuscitated Aaron Spelling’s career, and sent the industry chasing after teens and twentysomething viewers like never before. “90210" didn’t invent the wheel (when the show arrived, for instance, a popular Canadian series, “Degrassi High,” was going off the air). But “90210’s” success was “the beginning of the younger-skewing drama,” says Jamie Kellner, who was Fox’s network president when the series launched and today is CEO of the WB, a network programmed for a modern-day “90210" audience, with “Dawson’s Creek,” “Popular” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Those shows are more explicit sexually, populated by a generation who speak with the morose sophistication of adults.

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“They’re in high school and they have their breasts sticking out halfway. We never did that. We never did that,” Aaron Spelling says through his pipe, interviewed recently in his spectacularly large Miracle Mile office. “They’re wild about sex but they have the vocabulary of someone who’s 50. That kinda throws me a little bit.”

The ubermensch of prime-time soap, Spelling says he cherishes “90210"--and not “Dynasty” or “Fantasy Island” or “Charlie’s Angels"--the most. Still in the game in the year 2000, at age 77, Spelling has two shows on the WB, “Charmed” and “7th Heaven,” and a new show, “Titans,” premiering on NBC in the fall. It is set, appropriately, in Beverly Hills.

When ABC canceled “Dynasty” in 1989, Spelling was supposedly through; his long reign at ABC was over, and all he had was a leftover deal at Fox, a 13-episode commitment for a “Charlie’s Angels” remake, titled “Angels ’88.” It was to feature a then-unknown Tea Leoni, but complications, including a strike by the industry’s television and screenwriters, shelved the pilot, and Spelling’s deal was eventually rolled into something else--a property still kicking around the executives’ offices called “Beverly Hills High.”

It was, in some form or another, Barry Diller’s idea or notion or phone call that got the ball rolling. Spelling insists the deal for “90210" had nothing to do with the one for “Angels ’88.” But everyone agrees that Diller, then CEO of Fox and a Beverly Hills High graduate, “had a conviction that anything about Beverly Hills was intrinsically interesting to people,” says Garth Ancier, Fox’s programming chief at the time and now head of entertainment at NBC. Among Diller’s first moves at Fox, in fact, was to commit money to a sitcom version of the film “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.”

That project went nowhere, but a reluctant Spelling was paired up with 28-year-old screenwriter Darren Star to develop “Beverly Hills High.” Their relationship, while not always amicable, nevertheless proved fruitful; in addition to “90210,” the two would collaborate on another hit for Fox, “Melrose Place.”

Star would go on to create bad TV (“Central Park West”) but also “Sex and the City,” a signature comedy for HBO, and today he says of “90210": “I feel a sense of accomplishment that people don’t even know I did it.”

Star Deserves Some Credit in Creating Show

And yet, Star, whose new show for the WB, “Grosse Point,” is being described as a parody of the teen-drama genre spawned by “90210,” wants at least some of the credit: He was the one who dreamed up the Walsh siblings, Brandon and Brenda, who move from Minnesota to glitzy Beverly Hills, where the kids at West Beverly High are so pampered they get their BMWs valet parked.

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Spelling, meanwhile, worked his magic in casting, shaping “90210’s” look according to time-honored show business adages (Spelling: “Dick Powell once told me something. He said, ‘Skinny, in this business you’re going to find out attention to detail is everything.’ ”)

Charles Rosin became an executive producer after the pilot and stayed until the end of the sixth season, by which time “the kids,” as they’re still called, were in college.

Today, actors on the show instantly perk up when you invoke his name. Rosin grew up in Beverly Hills in the left-leaning 1960s, and he believed that you could do a show about the idle rich without being cynical. “The premise that I made about Beverly Hills is that it’s a very image-conscious city, and yet at the time [in 1990], here was Beverly Hills with a bankrupt school district, every store seemed like it was up for lease, real estate values were plummeting, and yet the city was holding on to its world-class image. There seemed to me to be a disparity between the image and the reality. And I applied that to high school.”

Spelling, Rosin and current executive producer Paul Waigner will always have this defense: Back in the early days, when no one was paying much attention, the show did speak about teen sex, drugs and date rape, and did so boldly. By the time Brenda slept with Dylan on prom night and enjoyed it (although she worried she was pregnant), Fox understood it had something on its hands. A new run of originals was ordered, and Fox aired them in the summer, while the competition was in reruns.

“It wasn’t even that the audience solidified so much,” Rosin says. “It was that the media found us. And once the media found us it changed everything.”

For Priestley, Celebrity Status Was a Hard Road

On a cell phone a decade later, Jason Priestley says this about the media: “If anyone in the media has ever bestowed you with [the name] teen idol, it then gives everybody else in the media license to completely defecate on anything you do thereafter.”

He is calling from London, where he is starring in the seemingly defecation-proof, Tony Award-winning play “Side Man.” By various accounts, Priestley, who played the good-guy hunk Brandon for seven full seasons, had the roughest time with his “90210" celebrity, with the full-court press of personal appearances in the early days, when Spelling and Fox dispatched their budding stars into the heartland and beyond to stoke the show’s fan base.

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It seems quaint to recall, in today’s era of multimedia convergence, but “90210" fashioned a sense of mania the old-fashioned way--through mall appearances. Locked into five-year deals, the cast wasn’t drawing top dollar relative to the show’s emerging success; these global hit-and-runs, then, had the added benefit of lining their pockets.

“Every hiatus I would travel,” says Ian Ziering, who played the testosterone-driven party boy Steve Sanders for the life of the show. “Denmark, Finland, Israel, department stores, grocery stores--anywhere that I could, you know, [have] a mass of people come together and say hello [to] and, whatever, sign autographs.”

But if Ziering inhaled his popularity like a guy who knew it probably wouldn’t last, Priestley and Perry, the show’s true sex symbols, attempted a more detached pose, staring at fame and all the kooky crap that came with it through a cigarette haze. Today, neither have come full circle on that teen zine chapter in their lives--at least not enough to joke about it openly. They’re more prone to oblique rants on the nature of fame versus “the work,” as if the tabloid press is still rooting around in their trash for underwear.

Like Priestley, Perry left the show before the bitter end, but unlike Priestley he came back, two seasons ago, after a string of feature films didn’t work out as planned.

“Apathy coupled with whatever is a nasty cocktail,” he says, asked about doing the show now versus then. “Nobody is walking through anything on camera, that much I am sure of. But you know, it used to be a lot of fun and now it’s not as much fun and it still could be. I’m just a little disappointed about that.”

Tori Spelling, meanwhile, all along had to battle the notion that nepotism got her here. There is an apocryphal story that Spelling went out of her way to preserve her anonymity, auditioning for “90210" under the name Toria Mitchell. But a source formerly on the show says that Aaron Spelling was also given to writing “Where’s Tori?” in the margins of scripts.

Both Spellings proclaim amazement that a cloud still hovers--particularly given that Tori has since gone on to do independent films and recently shot a sitcom pilot for Fox.

“I’ve seen so many other actors who come from Hollywood families now coming about and they get no flak. Nothing,” she says. “It’s like, why me? I look back at old episodes, and I’m like, OK, I mean, I’ve grown. I’ve seen much worse. I don’t look at them and go, ‘That’s a bad performance. I was cute. I was 16.’ ”

Spelling, as it happened, got a juicy line in one of the more controversial “90210" episodes. Titled “Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘Bout It,” the show explored passing out condoms in high school, at a time when the Los Angeles Unified School District was confronting the same issue. As the virginal Donna, it was Spelling who spoke the show’s conscience by asking her conservative mother, in front of a roomful of adults: “If you have a swimming pool in your back yard, OK, you can tell your children not to go in. You can even build a fence around it. . . . But if you know they’re going to find a way to get in the water, don’t you think you ought to teach those kids how to swim?”

In the finale that airs tonight, no one talks about condoms, and post-marital sex is what’s in the air, as Donna and David finally tie the knot. It’s a reunion show of sorts, with the return of cast members Tiffani-Amber Thiessen and Gabrielle Carteris. Priestley appears, via videotape, to wish the newlyweds well, but his sister, Brenda, is nowhere to be found.

Shannen Doherty, who left in 1994, flirted with coming back, but ultimately the details couldn’t be worked out. There’s more to that story, but it’s hard to care--even if, as subplots go, it’s a tad more promising than anything emanating from the mother ship.

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* The two-hour series finale of “Beverly Hills, 90210" can be seen tonight at 8 on Fox. The network has rated it TV-PG-D (may be unsuitable for young children with special advisories for suggestive dialogue).


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