Beverly Hills, 90210, which premiered in 1990, took adolescence seriously enough to treat it like melodrama. The show applied the same earnestness to both the after-school special storylines that dominated its early seasons and the romantic and interpersonal entanglements of the eight teenagers, most of them played by actors in their 20s and 30s, who made up its cast. Very special episodes about suicide, cancer scares, and robberies were indistinguishable from ones about losing your virginity, absconding to Cabo for the weekend with your illicit boyfriend, stealing said boyfriend from your best friend, and needing the whole school to rally around you in the spirit of the 1960s because you got drunk at prom. In consistently bringing an overwrought, adult intensity to what had often been treated as nostalgia or youthful shenanigans, the show invented the modern teen drama. It got the baroque feelings of adolescence exactly right. In high school, when life is not a soap opera, you wish it would be.
Tantalizingly, the soap opera antics extended backstage. The show ran for 10 years—by its end, it was a more standard, adult soap opera with both high school and earnest messages left far behind—but the later years are distinct from “the Brenda Years,” the first four seasons of the series, and the ones in which Shannen Doherty was still a member of the cast. Initially, her character, Brenda Walsh, was, along with her twin brother, Brandon (Jason Priestley), the star of the show: The two of them were the point-of-view characters, part of a wholesome Minnesota nuclear family that was dropped into a swanky, snobby, elite ZIP code. Brenda, the rebellious one, took to it like a fish to water, but as Doherty became more difficult to work with—a difficulty that was chronicled fairly publicly for the time—she was pushed to the side of the series, and eventually, out of it completely.
The new iteration of 90210, BH90210, which starts Wednesday on Fox, relies more heavily on this behind-the-scenes drama DNA than its melodramatic inheritance. Conceptually, the new series gets an A for effort (she said with the cheery condescension of an embittered grade school teacher). The cast members all play versions of themselves, the onetime stars of the hit series Beverly Hills, 90210, who in the first episode gather together for a fan convention and, after a series of hijinks, begin to contemplate getting back together to make a reboot of the show that made them famous.
All of this is theoretically comedic and vaguely satirical, with the cast sending itself, and some of the mania for 90210, up. Tori Spelling, for example, plays Tori Spelling, a married mother of six with a floundering reality TV career who desperately needs to make some money; Shannen Doherty is off doing wildlife work and still estranged from the rest of the cast; Brian Austin Green is a stay-at-home dad married to someone much more famous (in real life, Megan Fox).
As the show goes on, these heightened “real” characters get caught up in dynamics that replicate those from the series. So, for example, on BH90210, Jennie Garth, who played Kelly Taylor, hates Jason Priestley, who played Brandon Walsh, yet the two have a simmering sexual connection that should satisfy everyone who loved Kelly and Brandon’s long-term romance on the original series. “Gabrielle Carteris” decides to use the reboot to explore her sexuality, satisfying all the fans who have long suspected that Andrea Zuckerman was a lesbian. Fan service is threaded through the satire as are over-the-top soap opera tropes, like a stalker who is probably just one of the cast members’ kids and a paternity lie.
In other words, there are a lot of spinning plates, and while none of them come crashing down, they wobble, slowly. Watching the first two episodes made me nervous: I kept expecting the whole thing to tip over into catastrophe. Instead, it stays in mediocrity. The show is clever, but it’s not funny or sharp. There is a touch of hubris in its very premise: the presumption that people are familiar enough with what the cast of Beverly Hills, 90210 is up to, that sending it up will scan as a sendup. The cast is willing to make fun of itself, but it’s the sort of self-lampooning that only goes far enough to make you look like a good sport, not to actually cut deep. Priestley, for example, is obsessed with being a director, has an anger problem, and cheats on his wife—but the show never questions whether he’s a halfway decent director in the first place.
As Marx said—and I’m paraphrasing here—TV shows repeat themselves, first as tragedy, and then as farce. But for all of BH90210’s efforts to be a knowing, soapy comedy, there’s something sadder—and realer, too—underneath its try-hard playfulness. The frenetic plot feels like a feint, one that’s trying to distract everyone who is participating and watching from the series’ true subject: the unstoppable forward momentum of time.
You could watch the whole show on mute and get solely from the actors’ faces and hairlines a better, more urgent understanding of the absurd pressures the onetime stars of Beverly Hills, 90210 are under to stay current, to stay working, to stay presentable—and how just like the rest of us, they won’t be able to, no matter how valiantly they try. I am fan enough of the original show—it was my gateway series: the one that made me love television—to admit that I probably would have forgiven the new iteration almost anything, if only it could have fan-serviced me. But it can’t. Brenda Walsh/Shannen Doherty and Dylan Mckay/Luke Perry can never have an on-screen reunion/renunciation because of Perry’s death earlier this year, which hangs over the series, a sadness that can’t be dissipated just by being acknowledged. There’s no moment in the show that is as moving as the shot it includes from the original series, in which Brandon and Dylan take a ride in a convertible, in all their dewy beauty. We all used to be younger.