TIME WARP: It’s still a teen show — for the teens of yesteryear.
When the CW did not send out screeners of the pilot of 90210 (Tuesdays at 8 pm) — its update of the popular ’90s teen soap Beverly Hills, 90210 — some observers took that as a bad sign. Was the new show so bad that the network had to do an end run around the press? Others took it as a good sign, confirmation that the new 90210 would be ideal guilty-pleasure viewing.
As it turns out, both groups were wrong. The new 90210 is on exactly the same level as the old 90210. Which is to say not particularly good, but endearing and goofy enough to yield some memorable moments down the line.
The focus is on the Wilson family: dad Harry (Rob Estes), mom Debbie (Lori Laughlin), and the two kids, Annie (Shenae Grimes) and Dixon (Tristan Wilds — he’s the adopted African-American son). They’ve moved to Beverly Hills so they can better care for Harry’s troubled mother, Tabitha (Jessica Walter). The kids enroll at West Beverly High School and culture shock ensues. Annie stays out past curfew with a local rich kid; Dixon persuades his teammates to release some pigs on a rival school’s campus. Meant to be up-to-date, it’s all very familiar: who hasn’t seen TV teens stay out past curfew and pull pranks? The show’s creators, Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah, worked on the brilliant, short-lived NBC series Freaks and Geeks, which eschewed teen television clichés; it’s disappointing to see them resigning themselves to such weary storylines. They do, however, deserve credit for not trying to pander to teens: though there is an implied fellatio scene, 90210 is tame and sanitized compared with, say, Degrassi.
Or maybe Sachs and Judah aren’t trying to appeal to teens at all. This new edition seems aimed more at the twenty- and thirtysomethings in the audience who are nostalgic for the 90210 of their youth. Self-referential in-jokes abound. “What is that girl, like 30?” a teacher remarks about one student, as if aware that many of the actors playing high-schoolers on the original show were close to 30 off screen. Two original cast members are back: Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth) is now a guidance counselor at West Beverly and Brenda Walsh (Shannen Doherty) is the new drama teacher in town. It’s hard to imagine teens caring about these characters, let alone the storylines surrounding them. Some current high-schoolers weren’t even born until Beverly Hills, 90210’s third or fourth season, so this isn’t really their nostalgia. The modern elements feel odd — Annie’s friend Erin has a video blog, but it comes off as a pasted-on conceit. Even a scene where Dixon’s playing video games with one of his bro’s is anachronistic: instead of huddling over some generic Mortal Kombat clone, shouldn’t they be playing Call of Duty on XBox Live?
Some have wondered how Wilds, fresh off an intense turn as Michael on the last two seasons of The Wire, would fare in a more mainstream role. Perhaps he is acting down to the material a little bit, but he seems to be having fun with it. And after negotiating the turmoil of inner-city Baltimore, he’s earned the right to slum in Beverly Hills. But the show’s real saving grace is a different veteran performer imported from a critical favorite: Jessica Walter of Arrested Development. She’s playing a slightly watered down version of her AD character, Lucille Bluth: boozy, snooty, verbally abusive. Only this time she’s also a washed-up actress, and the writers have had the wit to give her at least one perfect name drop — Ricardo Montalbán. Just another reference today’s teens won’t understand.