Aaron Spelling, the legendary television producer who died earlier this year, left a pop-culture legacy that spanned 50 years and dozens of shows. But none of his series reflected its era quite as much as Beverly Hills, 90210, which ran for the entire span of the 1990s and helped a generation of teenagers negotiate the trauma of adolescence. The first season has just been released on a 6-DVD box set and is a perfect time capsule of the culture wars, identity politics, and really appalling fashion of the pre-Nirvana era.
The series was created by Darren Star in 1990 for the still-fledgling Fox network. As he notes in the commentary to the pilot, Star tried to create a TV version of a John Hughes movie—with the same mix of romance, comedy, and serious issues. The show revolves around the Walsh family, proud Minnesotans newly relocated to Beverly Hills. There’s 16-year-old Brandon, the gratingly moral good twin, and his four-minutes-younger sister, Brenda, who’s kind of dogmatic, really dramatic, and utterly obsessed with being taken seriously. In other words, she’s by far the more realistic teenager. Their parents, Jim and Cindy, who are the kind of people who perch on the side of their children’s beds at the end of each episode for a satisfying heart-to-heart, worry that their adopted home will corrupt their Midwestern values.
Cut to West Beverly Hills High School (it’s fictional; they couldn’t use the real Beverly Hills High School for legal reasons), which, as the setting of the opening montage, does nothing to dispel myths of Californian excess: valet parking, a couple of young sheiks, guys wearing shoulder-padded power suits, girls who look straight out of a Nagel painting, car phones the size of bricks, copious Ray-Bans, and a laptop so enormous it doesn’t even register as a computer. On their first day of school, Brandon’s mullet isn’t exactly a fashion statement in Beverly Hills, and he has trouble figuring out which clique to sit with at lunch, while Brenda assimilates more readily, embracing Beverly Hills’ plasticity and developing an instant California twang (“byeeeee”). But both wholeheartedly take to their new life in no time. Before the episode is over, Brandon is making out with a rich girl at the “back-to-school jam”—this being Beverly Hills, the whole school was naturally invited via aerial banner—and Brenda’s on a date with a lawyer who thinks she’s a sorority sister at UCLA.
As Star points out, he and Spelling were trying to create a fantasy of teen friendship as much as a fantasy of living in Beverly Hills. Shots of kids driving BMW convertibles and peppering the dialogue with references to platinum American Express cards get old pretty quickly. Brenda and Brandon make instant friends among the locals, including: Kelly, a snobby blonde with a new nose and a party mom; Steve, whose entire personality can be summed up by his Corvette’s “I8A 4RE” license plate; Dylan, the tortured surfer styled like James Dean who’s really a mature Byron reader; Andrea (always pronounced “Ohndrea”), the newspaper editor with crow’s feet who secretly lives in the Valley; Donna, the glorified extra who gets a learning disability storyline late in the season (played by Tori Spelling, her ever-expanding role, despite a total lack of acting prowess, can be traced to her dad, Aaron Spelling); David, the sycophantic geek who’s the school’s pubescent Vanilla Ice; and Scott, David’s token friend until he accidentally shoots himself and dies in the second season.
The only thing these spoiled kids lack are values, boundaries, and rules—as David puts it, “that’s what happens when your parents get divorced … your dad lets you do incredibly stupid things because he only sees you on weekends.” The show debuted at the tail end of the latchkey-kid era, and Star and Spelling were banking on their audience relating. Viewers could aspire to the intense friendships and family values depicted on 90120 instead of, or in addition to, the money, fashion, and sex. When Kelly’s mom has a drug-induced freakout at the mother-daughter fashion show, she takes shelter at Casa Walsh. In a ripped-from-the-headlines plot reminiscent of the Menendez Brothers, the school tennis star (guest starring a pre-Friends Matthew Perry) writes a screenplay about killing his overbearing father, and Brandon intercepts his gun. When Dylan’s white-collar-criminal dad flees to Mexico to resist indictment, he cries on Brenda’s shoulder. (All this drama was set to early ‘90s hits like “Joey” and “Wicked Game” that are sadly missing from the DVD episodes.) But that list doesn’t even begin to cover the issues the show crams into its first season: shoplifting, long distance relationships, language barriers with your Hispanic maid, cheating, drugs, adultery, AIDS, teen pregnancy, sex ed in schools, breast cancer, fear of heights, date rape, and affirmative action. The world of 90210, Star says, was a “slightly synthetic world, but the emotions are real.” And that combination of soap opera and hot topics made the show a sleeper hit.
It also helped that Spelling and Star bound the series together with a central romance in the tradition of Moonlighting and Cheers but with liberal helpings of teen angst. The relationship arc between Dylan and Brenda is given precious little screen time over the course of the first season, but it resulted in one of the most mature and optimistic depictions of teen sex ever shown on television. After a few close calls, Brenda loses her virginity to Dylan at the Spring Dance, in the second-to-last episode. The most shocking part was that she shows no remorse. A teen girl having sex—even if she used a condom—and gloating about it didn’t go unnoticed (or unpunished). After the episode aired, angry parents called network affiliates to complain. Clearly, the problem was that a female character was enjoying sex, because Brandon had lost his virginity earlier in the season with no backlash. The producers were forced to create a mea culpa episode for Brenda—by the beginning of the next season, she has a pregnancy scare, decides she’s not ready for sex after all, and breaks up with Dylan.
As a character, Brenda would never regain the same place in the show. She increasingly became the scapegoat, in the Walsh family, within her group of friends, and within the world at large—the I Hate Brenda newsletter, which was published by the editors of the zine Ben Is Dead and featured a “Shannen Snitch Line” for readers to call in with gossip on actress Shannen Doherty, as well as an album with songs like “Brenda Can’t Dance to This,” is now a cult legend. Making the show’s female lead the bitchiest character was a bizarre and depressing move for a series that catered to—and was mostly enjoyed by—adolescent girls. Of course, the downfall of Brenda should be partly attributed to Doherty, who played Brenda with a haughtiness that could only be authentic and who was said to clash with the rest of the cast. Doherty wouldn’t leave the cast for another three years, but for Brenda, the end of season one was already the beginning of the end.
By the mid-’90s, 90210’s spinoff, Melrose Place, became a breakaway hit, the characters entered college, and core members of the cast started looking a bit long in the tooth—Gabrielle Carteris, who played Andrea, was 34 but playing 19 when she left the cast in 1995. The show had evolved into a plodding soap opera, but Fox refused to cancel 90210 until 2000. It’s all too easy to remember the show for its protracted twilight years, but this first season is a reminder of just how great it once was.