Some new zip in the ‘90210'
There’s A ginormous silver “N” on the wall behind the center bar at Boulevard3 in Hollywood, which isn’t usually there. A blond, pretty adolescent girl vogues for her guests on 15 plasma screens spread throughout the chic two-tier nightclub. Indie pop band Tilly and the Wall has never performed here before, but it does fit in. One hundred or so dolled-up teenagers who wouldn’t normally be allowed anywhere near this Sunset Boulevard venue bop to the band.
But tonight Boulevard3 is a set, and this extravaganza of millionaire proportions is a Sweet 16 celebration for Beverly Hills queen bee Naomi Clark (AnnaLynne McCord). As the band grooves, Naomi greets Internet celebrity-party girl Cory Kennedy and her photographer pal, the Cobrasnake (who play themselves), and the truth is revealed: This is not your mama’s drama.
This is “90210,” the CW spinoff, and, boy, is it au courant: The pivotal moment in this scene involves a betrayal exposed by Sidekick, captured on video by TMZish high school journalist Navid Shirazi (Michael Steger). The party’s decadence is one thing, but Cory and Tilly and the Wall in the same room? Ridiculous! (And we thought Dylan McKay was cool.)
Only eight years have passed since “Beverly Hills, 90210" went off the air, but, thanks to technology, the world has shrunk in the time it takes two classes to graduate from high school. Back in the day, Kelly (Jennie Garth) and Brenda (Shannen Doherty) would never have blabbed about a cheating boyfriend in a text message or vlogged their secrets. Nat (Joe E. Tata) didn’t serve cappuccinos to teens at the Peach Pit, like he does in the spinoff’s first episode.
“Not everyone was texting each other and taking their phones everywhere and IMing,” said co-creator and executive producer Gabe Sachs. “What e-mail has done to relationships, I think, it has ruined high school. You used to have to go to a girl and talk to her. They text now. It’s a different world, and all of that stuff is great for stories.”
Nostalgia over the older version has been palpable, albeit virtually, with every stage of development of the series enthusiastically dissected on the Internet. (For the record: Garth and Doherty are in; Tori Spelling is out.) But a spinoff of a pop-culture phenomenon is tricky business, and the new show’s success might depend on its ability to both depict and comment on the global culture in which the new West Beverly High crew is growing up, while balancing the beloved elements of the first series. It premieres Tuesday.
‘All the same emotions’
“We’re trying to make it reflective of what kids really do and what it’s really like,” said co-creator and executive producer Jeff Judah. “Our version is a little dirtier and edgier. But it’s also going to show that, despite how much money these kids come from, essentially they want to be popular and liked. It’s all the same emotions, whether you grew up working class in Michigan or upper class in Beverly Hills.”
Sachs and Judah, of the Judd Apatow empire, are not the names that pop into mind for a spinoff of an Aaron Spelling show that managed to be both groundbreaking yet wholesome and turned its young cast into household names. The CW contacted the producers of “Freaks and Geeks” and “Life as We Know It” after Rob Thomas (“Veronica Mars”), who wrote the first draft of the pilot, had to resign.
“Trust me, your concerns about Sachs-Judah doing ‘90210' are the same concerns everyone’s having, including Jeff and I,” Sachs said. “We were the first ones to go: Can we pull this off?”
Revisiting Spelling’s idea
In THIS era of buying foreign formats to produce in American versions, Creative Artists Agency, which manages the Spelling estate, approached the CW about staying closer to home and developing new versions of “Beverly Hills, 90210" or its first spinoff, “Melrose Place.” CW President of Entertainment Dawn Ostroff perked up at the prospect of a new West Beverly High gang, thinking it would appeal to the network’s core 18- to 34-year-old audience, as well as teenagers and older fans of the original, which aired on Fox from 1990 to 2000. Repeats of the original air on SoapNet, which is presenting a 24-hour marathon of 24 episodes on Monday. The series also is available on DVD.
“There are so many things that are very important now that didn’t exist eight years ago,” said Ostroff. “When you look at the old show, the characters look very outdated and the fashion is outdated, so there’s a new version to do. But what I loved the most about redeveloping the show was having people from a different part of the country move to Beverly Hills and contemporizing that point of view.”
Ostroff balks at the notion that her ratings-challenged, 3-year-old network’s fate is in the hands of a spinoff, as some have speculated. The joint venture of the CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. has struggled in the ratings since it launched, leading to industrywide speculation that both companies could abandon the network if ratings did not improve. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’ve never seen quite the amount of attention that this network has been getting from ‘Gossip Girl’ and ‘90210,’ ” Ostroff said. “I think there’s something to be said about being a part of pop culture right now and building assets for our parent companies. There’s got to be a new way of measuring viewers, because our viewers are much younger and they consume content differently.”
Sachs and Judah acknowledge they feel a “huge mountain of pressure.” The series -- as edgy as “Gossip Girl” but with a more relatable family at its center -- was ordered before a pilot was made, and production began in July, putting them behind schedule before they even started. For now, they’re producing 13 episodes.
“We’re used to doing shows that a couple of years later people say, ‘Oh, I saw that on DVD’ and that it was really good,” Judah said. “We’re not used to people knowing exactly what we did until two years after it’s been canceled.”
Like the original, the spinoff centers on a transplanted family, the Wilsons. But this family has ties to Beverly Hills, as opposed to the Walshes, who moved from Minneapolis when Jim Walsh landed a job here. The son of a 1970s movie star, Harry (Rob Estes), was Kelly Taylor’s (Garth) neighbor until he went to college in Kansas and never returned. Harry moves his family back to the famous ZIP Code to take care of his alcoholic mother, Tabitha (Jessica Walter). Harry becomes principal of West Beverly High, where Kelly works as a guidance counselor, and Brenda (Doherty) will take a job as the director of a musical. Debbie Wilson (Lori Loughlin) takes a job as a famous photographer’s assistant.
Like the Walshes, the Wilsons have two teenage children who are the same age. Brenda and Brandon Walsh (Jason Priestley) were twins. Annie’s (Shenae Grimes) brother, Dixon (Tristan Wilds), was adopted when he was 8. Annie had to leave her boyfriend and her first lead role in a musical because of the move.
Mere children in 1990
“The OLD show was great because it put issues out there, but the way that it handled it was very after-school special,” said Grimes, 19, who watched the show in reruns with her mother. The six lead actors were 1 to 6 years old when the original launched. “You had the Walsh family always at home, ready to listen to their problems and give them snacks. In this show, the parents have their own lives and their own drama, and it’s just more realistic.”
Indeed, the text-message madness is nothing compared to what happens to Harry when he crashes the party at Boulevard3 to take his daughter home.
“You think it’s all glitz and glam and everybody’s rich,” said Wilds, 19. “But people have some secrets, and they hide them. You get to see the lives of real people and how they adapt to somewhere as beautiful and as ugly as Beverly Hills.”
There’s even some analysis of the beautiful ugly, courtesy of Navid’s “Blaze News” videos, which run on screens inside the high school, and on Erin Silver’s (Jessica Stroup) personal vlogs. To be sure, a hot topic is the romance between Naomi, the most popular girl in school, and lacrosse star Ethan Ward (Dustin Milligan).
“Gabe and Jeff have so much to say about their own coming-of-age stories,” Milligan said. “It’s something they really enjoy writing, and it’s evident in the script.”
One burning question: Why did the producers shorten the show’s title?
“This is the dumbest answer: We thought it was cooler,” Sachs said.
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Heads of the class
They say things like “I was only 3 years old when the show came on,” which some of us might find a little annoying. But, given that their lives may never be the same after “90210" premieres, we’ll cut them a little slack. Here are the main characters:
Annie Wilson (Shenae Grimes), a musical theater buff, was just starting to be cool in Kansas -- she even had a boyfriend -- when Dad transplanted the family to La-La Land. Dad, you’ve ruined everything! We hate you!
Dixon Wilson (Tristan Wilds) would be in big trouble if the Wilsons had not adopted him. The lacrosse star now poses a threat to West Beverly’s boy wonder, Ethan Ward. A word of advice to Ethan: Don’t make Dixon angry. Boy’s still got some issues.
Erin Silver’s (Jessica Stroup) name is loaded; you are not wrong. Her mom is alcoholic Jackie Taylor (Ann Gillespie), also mom to Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth) and David Silver (Brian Austin Green). This makes the young Silver lash out on the Web. We like her ‘tude.
Ethan Ward (Dustin Milligan) is a pretty boy and star athlete, and he’s got the hottest girl in school. Of course, that’s not enough for him. More advice for Ethan: Don’t go to Naomi’s party.
Naomi Clark (AnnaLynne McCord) rules the school. She’s pretty, popular, wealthy and doesn’t let people get close. Except for Ethan, who now has messed that up.
Navid Shirazi (Michael Steger) is a self-entitled entrepreneur. His TMZ-like videos run on screens throughout the school. But this is just a stepping stone. He’s already thinking about life after high school. We predict a hook-up with Silver.
-- Maria Elena Fernandez