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TV Preview: Beverly Hills 90210 bows o-u-t

Tuesday, May 16, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Critic

After tomorrow it's 9-0-2-1-Over for the prime-time graduates of West Beverly Hills High School.

(Illustration by Anita Dufalla, Post-Gazette) 
And thank goodness. Seems like their 10-year reunion is right around the corner. But I come not to slam "Beverly Hills, 90210," just to bury it. Already the corpse is pretty desiccated.

What began as the story of Midwesterners Brandon (Jason Priestley) and Brenda Walsh (Shannen Doherty) who moved to ritzy Beverly Hills with their understanding parental units -- Jim (James Eckhouse) and Cindy (Carol Potter) -- has devolved into a twentysomething soap with some cast members pushing 40.

Once the characters worried about prom dates. In a recent episode Steve (Ian Ziering) was considering the merits of being "financially secure."

It's been six years since Brenda left, and even the snarky reminders of her -- a postcard here, a phone call there -- have dried up. Brainy Andrea (Gabrielle Carteris) visits every now and then, and Dylan (Luke Perry) returned last season after a three-year absence. But the show just hasn't been the same since Brandon and Kelly (Jennie Garth) called off their wedding and Brandon departed for a newspaper job in New York.

    TV Preview

"Beverly Hills, 90210"

When: Tomorrow at 8 p.m. on Fox.

Starring: Luke Perry, Jennie Garth, Ian Ziering, Brian Austin Green, Tori Spelling, Joe E. Tata.

Those crazy kids were meant for each other, and it was a major letdown when they canceled their wedding on the season finale two years ago. It was a "90210" outrage, but losing Brandon -- the show's moral compass -- was worse. Without him "90210" lost its center. It didn't help that "Dawson's Creek," so superior in its first season and now a shell of its former self, aired in the same time slot.

The routine introduction of new characters helped reinvigorate "90210" over the years, but recent character additions have failed to keep viewers watching (ratings are down significantly from the show's peak).

I still miss Steve's ex-girlfriend, Clare (Kathleen Robertson), the chancellor's daughter who was introduced as a nymphet and morphed into a sexy brainiac. Another Steve conquest, Carly (played by Hilary Swank a few years before her Oscar win), was infinitely likable, but she lasted only half a season.

"90210" began as a modern, racy "Afterschool Special" with the occasional fantasy sequence, but later became a standard night-time soap, complete with shootings, amnesia, death, resurrection, addiction, abuse, unintended pregnancies, rape, infidelity and the occasional transvestite (remember the one Steve tried to pick up while pumping gas?).

There's no way "90210," in any of its incarnations, could be considered quality TV, but the show did usher in a new era of television. It's not an era everyone is fond of nowadays, but "90210" paved the way for "Friends," "Party of Five," and the entire WB network.

The 1980s were the decade of Boomer TV. From "Family Ties" to "thirtysomething," programs of the era focused on Boomer-aged characters. Teens and twentysomethings were underrepresented, often amounting to little more than adornments.

"90210" reversed the trend, making kids the stars and relegating their parents to supporting roles. After a while Ma and Pa Walsh became so irrelevant they were written out of the series (sent packing to Hong Kong), leaving only Peach Pit owner Nat (Joe E. Tata) to serve burgers with an occasional side-order of wisdom.

Through all the changes and all the melodrama, Aaron Spelling's "90210" writers developed the core characters, allowing them to learn as they aged while keeping their personalities fairly consistent. Even if they weren't likable -- snobby Kelly (Jennie Garth), hipper-than-thou Dylan (Luke Perry) -- they remained true to themselves and to one another.

Just a few weeks ago, after the death of Donna's doctor father, the gang put up a Christmas tree in her parents' house so Donna (Tori Spelling) could celebrate one last Christmas there. It was a moment of kindness demonstrating how the characters still care for one another after all these years. To longtime fans, it was a touching scene --dare I suggest, a very special "90210."

This seems as good a time as any to launch a spirited defense of Tori Spelling. She took many knocks for her acting talent (or lack thereof) and for simply being the daughter of the show's executive producer. But her character was easily the nicest on the series, the most open-minded and the most sensitive. She also emerged as a pretty skilled comedian. It's not surprising to know she has filmed a Fox sitcom pilot. She's got a decent sense of comic timing, and her ability to make viewers believe dramatic moments has certainly improved with time.

The reunion of David (Brian Austin Green) and one-time professional virgin Donna, and their expected marriage in tomorrow's two-hour finale, is a fitting "90210" conclusion (Carteris and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen make it back for the wedding; TV Guide reports Priestley appears on a videotaped congratulatory greeting).

Even as "90210" prepares to depart the airwaves, I don't think we've heard the last from these kids. A few years from now there will be an inevitable TV reunion movie. And I wouldn't rule out a big screen parody ala "The Brady Bunch Movie."

That would be appropriate. Gen X viewers began their lives with "The Brady Bunch" and grew into adulthood with "90210." Both shows are the TV equivalent of comfort food.

Whatever the future holds, "90210" will rise again.

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