Brow Beat

Luke Perry Made Being a Teenager Seem Dangerous and Safe at the Same Time

How could we resist him, this boy with the troubles of a screwed-up man?

Luke Perry as Dylan McKay in 90210 photo shoot.
Luke Perry in a photo shoot on Aug. 1, 1991.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mikel Roberts/Sygma via Getty Images.

The first time I encountered the name “Dylan McKay,” it had a black sharpie heart around it. An older girl had scrawled the name on the outside of her three-ring binder—it was the glory days of Trapper Keepers, but this was a denim number—and even though I had to ask who this “Dylan McKay” was, there was something about this kind of public crushing, longing performed in swoopy penmanship, that screamed teenager to me, at a time when being an angsty teenager seemed like the coolest thing anyone could possibly be.

By the time I actually laid eyes on Dylan a few weeks later, when a friend’s older sister was watching Beverly Hills, 90210, I was primed to like him. Obviously, I would have grokked his appeal anyway. As played by Luke Perry, who died Monday at the tender age of 52, Dylan McKay was a bad boy with a heart of gold, a surfer dude with an old soul, a poor little rich boy with negligent parents and a drinking problem. He was a brooding Heathcliff with a Porsche, a Byron of monosyllabic California brah poetry (“It’s Dylan, you know the drill”), and—with his pompadour, sideburns, trick eyebrow, leather jacket, white T-shirts, and sensitive soul—most certainly a knockoff James Dean. This last charge, that Perry and his co-star Jason Priestley were some sort of ersatz, teeny-bop distillation of Rebel Without a Cause, mattered to me not at all. I remember smuggling a Tiger Beat into my house, underneath my shirt, my heart smashing, my shame and guilt about my purchase communicating so much more about the meaning of the magazine’s contents than the cheesy, wholesome pinup photos inside.

Two pages from a scrapbook featuring Luke Perry.
The first published magazine work of Slate’s TV critic.
Willa Paskin

Every generation just gets the teen idols that it gets. But we were so lucky to get Dylan McKay and Luke Perry! (Don’t these names go together? It’s like how all the actors and characters on Gossip Girl had names like Chance Van Der Roe, but elegant.) With the scar in his eyebrow and the expression lines in his forehead, Perry, who was 24 when the show began, didn’t look 15. But this doubleness was kind of the whole point of Dylan: Spiritually, he was older than a regular teen, more experienced, more knowing, definitely not a virgin. Not to get all tragic hero about a character who wore Baja sweaters, but Dylan’s maturity was his tragedy. His worldliness was a result of his own parents’ neglect, but it kept him from being fully embraced by his would-be surrogate family, the Walshes, whose paterfamilias could never trust his sexual worldliness.

Dylan’s sophistication (and, yes, his face) was his appeal. Think of his first date with the sheltered Brenda Walsh (Shannen Doherty), which gets extremely melodramatic when they arrive at Dylan’s hotel suite and he has a fight with his father, a white-collar criminal. Dylan wants a drink. Brenda wants to leave. Downstairs, she tries to speak with him about what happened, but instead, he smashes a flowerpot on the street, scaring her. She runs from him, and he gives chase, bear-hugging her from behind, sobbing, apologizing, his nose running, until they kiss. He’s a threatening, awful mess, but he is also irresistible, a dramatic, romantic, vulnerable boy with all the baggage of a screwed-up man. (And that was before he watched his father get blown up by a car bomb or his wife get murdered in his Porsche!)

This age kabuki, this barely submerged maturity, was a quality of almost the entire cast, and while it was (and is) fun to make fun of—I love looking up Gabrielle Carteris’ age, because as old as I think she is, she’s always older—it’s also what made the show work, what made it dangerous and safe all at once. When 90210 premiered in 1990, inventing the teen soap opera, it trafficked in a semi-wholesome mix of melodrama and public service announcement, navigating love triangles, relationships, and almost not being able to graduate high school because you got drunk at the senior prom, along with anti-drug warnings, eating disorders, teen sex, and STD testing. That these adults-as-teens were navigating all of this—both the breast cancer scares and the thirtysomething dating habits of Brandon Walsh—made it naughtily fascinating, while also keeping everything at a distance, assuringly once-removed. This was definitely a show for teens, but there was no expectation that one could actually be these teens, an alienating yet comforting balance that contemporary teen shows, 90210’s offspring every single one, don’t quite strike.

At 52, Luke Perry was too young to die, a feeling that is only compounded by the fact that he was best known for playing someone so young. (How’d he even get to be 52? Let alone die at 52?) But the thing is, though Luke Perry did, like all of us, get older, doing good and varied work all the while, I still feel as though Dylan McKay, like every other character on 90210 (except David Silver), is older than me, even though I have now lapped him by decades. That was 90210’s, and Dylan’s, power, holding up a version of adolescence you could never quite reach but that, because you were lucky, you could watch.