Time determines who our cultural touchstones are, and right now, time would like you to welcome back Shannen Doherty.
That she never really went away is beside the point. Because tonight, on the series premiere of the CW’s “90210,” viewers will see Doherty, 37, as Brenda Walsh for the first time since the actress’ acrimonious departure from the original show in 1994. And this resurrection of Shannen / Brenda -- within the second coming of “90210" as a whole -- has brought about an almost profound catharsis among television fans that has overshadowed the rest of the fall season.
“Finally, My Side” reads the headline of the Doherty interview on the most recent US Weekly cover. “Jennie & Shannen: Reunited at Last!” is atop the Entertainment Weekly cover this week, above a photograph of Doherty and Jennie Garth, her once and again “Beverly Hills, 90210" costar. And Perez Hilton, the influential gossip blogger, who has been obsessed with Doherty’s return to Brenda-ness before it even seemed possible, enthusiastically posted both magazine covers on his site.
In other words: In our fickle, you-want-a-piece-of-me, celebrity-fixated world, which is more interested in destruction than renewal, Doherty is riding high on a wave of sudden -- and unexpected -- good will.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel it,” she said last week in her trailer on the “90210" set. “It definitely feels good. It also feels scary.”
“Because of interviews like this.”
“Because who wants to talk about stuff they did 15 years ago?”
Some of us never get asked about stuff we did 15 years ago.
The tempest template
The Shannen Doherty of the early ‘90s was the hot mess of Generation X, the archetype of famous girlie wreck. Hell-raising at clubs despite being underage; marrying the wrong guy after a five-minute courtship; fighting with her “90210" colleagues, and strangers too. Her spectacular behavior was memorably doled out by the pre-Internet celebrity press -- and a one-off ‘zine, as well -- that created a template for a now familiar character in the gossip world.
While her predecessors’ sins might have been relegated to the supermarket tabloid ghetto, Doherty’s notoriety occurred at the moment when our relationship to celebrities -- particularly young ones -- was evolving into a sport where we follow continuous narratives. And, as a result, that relationship was becoming a lot more personal, opinionated, mean.
Janice Min, the editor of US Weekly, said: “Any of us who were condemning Shannen Doherty in the early ‘90s were probably conducting ourselves in similar ways oftentimes. It just so happened she was one of the first young stars to be doing it in front of the cameras.”
And Henry Goldblatt, the deputy managing editor of Entertainment Weekly, said in a telephone interview, “In this world, Paris Hilton is a character, and Britney Spears is a character, and Lauren Conrad is a character. Shannen Doherty was the forerunner of that.”
Both Min and Perez Hilton remember that young Doherty character and imagine what their places would have been in shaping her story. “If US Weekly had existed in the days of ‘90210,’ she would have had the cover 52 weeks out of the year,” Min said.
And Hilton? “I wish I had my blog then,” he said. “She was a real, live car crash -- who was getting into accidents every night of the week.”
Things seemed very different on the set of the 2.0 version of “90210,” where Doherty was filming her third of the four episodes she has committed to (so far). She chatted with the cast and crew; she beamed when the director praised her for hitting her mark in take after take; she jokingly berated one of the show’s executive producers, Gabe Sachs, while he was speaking with this reporter (“Seriously, Gabe, keep your mouth shut.”). And she hugged -- yes, hugged -- a young cast member, Jessica Lowndes, after they completed a scene in which Lowndes’ character had to sing a cappella in front of the famous, intimidating Brenda Walsh, back at West Beverly High to direct (hilariously) the libidinal “Spring Awakening.”
And while interviewed in her trailer, Doherty was gratifyingly open, even when asked difficult questions about the stuff-from-15-years-ago.
But first, the present. Doherty got back into the “90210" world beginning when her friend and publicist, Leslie Sloane Zelnik, called her after the CW announced it was picking up the show. Doherty said: “I don’t know whether you know Leslie at all? She can be really pushy. I was like, ‘Les, I’m so not doing “90210.” ’ She’s like, ‘You have to! For people like me, it’s all about Brenda coming back.’ This is a woman who can recite every line from ‘90210' -- it’s pretty crazy.”
Of course, the idea that Doherty-as-Brenda was an essential element to attract old fans to the new show was widely held. After having a fun dinner with Sachs -- and later being assured by him that the once prickly Brenda, a character that she had “started to hate” back in the day, could be reintroduced “in the right way,” which was “without the drama” -- Doherty said yes to a test-run return.
By agreeing to such a high-profile gig, with such high expectations, Doherty has opened a door that she has assiduously tried to shut in recent years. But she’s confident that the structure of her life has made her safe, she said. “What are they going to gossip about? I mean, honestly. I don’t leave my house.”
Time to reassess
Doherty’s father has been sick since she was a kid; his illnesses reached a crisis point in the early ‘90s, and she blames her “acting out” then, in part, on her “just trying to escape.” “He’s had eight heart attacks, seven strokes, quintuple-bypass heart surgery,” she said. “He has heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure. His kidneys recently failed him and now he’s on dialysis.” Her eyes brimmed with tears: After his last heart surgery, she said, his doctors told him they can’t do any more to save his heart.
In the years after “90210,” Doherty did several million TV movies, the WB series “Charmed” and a few reality-show hosting gigs. A few years ago, when her father’s kidneys failed, she took two years off. Having been raised a Southern Baptist -- she was born in Memphis, Tenn., and lived there until her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 7 -- she wanted to feel more closely connected to God, among other things. “I had some soul-searching to do,” Doherty said. “Soul-searching about what it is that I really wanted to do with my life. And soul-searching about men because, to be honest, I had had just the worst track record ever.”
At the time, she said, she was reeling from the dissolution of her relationship with Rick Salomon, whom she married in 2002, and who soon after became infamous for starring in and distributing his “1 Night in Paris” Hilton sex tape. “It ended up being very embarrassing for me, and humiliating and disgusting,” Doherty said. “Like, how could somebody do that? How could somebody sell a tape?”
It was yet another moment when the public was allowed to question her judgment. “Way prior to that, I had already become a little bit of a recluse, and very private,” she said. “It was embarrassing that people could look at me, and say: ‘Again? She picked another one again?’ ”
See, she cares what you think. The Brenda (and Shannen) backlash, largely forgotten now in this cascade of nostalgia, caused wounds that are easily reopened. Probably because at the time, it seemed like an entire movement -- and was embodied in a single-issue ‘zine called the I Hate Brenda Newsletter. It was an independently printed, widely quoted publication that cheerfully spat antipathy toward Brenda, but more toward Doherty herself, the star of an insanely popular show who was misbehaving in public.
“You’re playing with somebody else’s career, their feelings,” Doherty said about how I Hate Brenda felt. “It’s mean. And I don’t want to come off sounding like a religious freak, but at some point we all answer to a higher power.”
In a discussion via e-mail, Darby Romeo, the ‘zine’s co-creator, said she thought that the media stir I Hate Brenda caused tapped into a larger issue about our feelings toward celebrities and how they should behave. “When suddenly we were getting calls from hundreds of newspapers/radio/TV for what we considered a prank, yes, it was way beyond us, and it was really beyond our part in it,” Romeo wrote.
If such a thing were to happen today, Doherty might not know about it -- she doesn’t go on the Internet, she said. She knows who Perez Hilton is because she is one of the few stars for whom he has professed his devotion, and her friends have told her so. “There’s a part of me that wants to meet him,” she said. “I want to get, like, a T-shirt made that says, ‘Perez Made Me Do It.’ And get him a T-shirt that says, ‘I Made Her Do It, Bitches.’ ”
Hilton, in an interview, said that he has written exactly one protest letter in his life, and it was to Fox when Doherty either quit or was fired from “90210,” when he was in early high school.
But a gossip blogger’s love is still a fickle thing. “I’d be really disappointed if she messed things up this time,” he said, sounding almost circumspect. Then he raised his voice: “And angry! I would be angry at her!”
When told about that, Doherty agreed. “It would be so irresponsible of me to mess things up again,” she said. “Because I feel like . . . " she groaned " . . . I feel like I have this weird responsibility. I pushed and I tested those boundaries and there’s a reason why I’ve been given so many chances.”
On the question of whether those chances will continue on “90210" in a more committed role, Sachs said, “We’re going to try to do as many as possible. We love her!”
Doherty is hesitant. She has a show of her own she’d like to do, and optioned a book she wants to direct and produce. And, “I really, really, really have learned to value the downtime in my personal life,” she said.
But perhaps most important, she wants to gauge the public reaction. “I kind of want to see how the audience responds first.” Shy suddenly, Doherty looked down and said, “I don’t want to overstay my welcome.”