'Beverly Hills, 90210' reboot 'BH90210' is a demented, nostalgic mockumentary — that kind of works

But as sunny and fun as the new show is, “BH90210” can’t escape one shadow from the past: Luke Perry.
Image:
Gabrielle Carteris, Tori Spelling, Brian Austin Green, Jason Priestley, Shannen Doherty, Jennie Garth and Ian Ziering apart of the new series "BH90210."Brian Bowen Smith / FOX
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By Ani Bundel

Hollywood has never met a show it couldn’t reboot in some way.

From reality shows such as “The Hills” and “Jersey Shore” to the 25-year-later revival of “Roseanne” (now “The Conners”) and “Murphy Brown,” every era is being mined for eyeballs. But perhaps the strangest revival of all is one that’s been several attempts in the making: the 1990s famous teen soap, “Beverly Hills, 90210.”

The original show ran 10 years, from 1990-2000, and built a franchise that included spinoffs such as “Melrose Place” and “Models Inc.” But current teen-soap fare is deeply genre-fied, with nearly ever successful series on TV right now inspired by comic books, like “Marvel’s Runaways” and “Supergirl.” This new revival attempts to bridge the divide between reality and teen soap by taking the original cast, throwing them back together and pretending to get “real” to keep up with the times. Despite the strange and slightly convoluted premise, it mostly works.

This new revival attempts to bridge the divide between reality and teen soap by taking the original cast, throwing them back together and pretending to get “real” to keep up with the times.

One of the very few teen-oriented dramas of the era, “Beverly Hills, 90210” seemed at first like an Americanized knockoff of the far more popular Canadian series “Degrassi High,” which had recently started running on PBS. Created by Darren Star and produced by Aaron Spelling, the latter of whom was known for exploitative silliness like “Charlie’s Angels” and “The Love Boat,” the show revolved around a pair of clean cut, fresh-faced Midwestern teens Brandon (Jason Priestley) and Brenda Walsh (Shannen Doherty) experiencing the culture shock of one of California’s toniest communities.

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Indeed, it might not have survived beyond a single season had not Fox, then a newcomer to the broadcast scene, decide to take a risk on it. After a regular season run from October to May didn’t do much for ratings, Fox began airing season two smack in the middle of summer reruns, with a premiere just after July 4. It also increased the network order from 22 episodes to 28 and added some longer breaks between episodes (because Fox wasn’t quite ready to end a show before May sweeps). And it somehow worked, with the second season finding an audience of middle-and-high schoolers with little to do but watch TV.

Suddenly, the show was a teenage phenomenon. Brenda’s love affair with Dylan McKay (Luke Perry) became one of the most talked about love triangles of the decade when it began to include Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth). The show also became a forerunner of other teen soaps that followed, including introducing the strange heterosexual tribalism of girls choosing whether they were “Team Dylan” vs “Team Brandon.” When the show moved to Wednesday at the beginning of the third season, it became a high school mid-week staple.

But the massive popularity of “90210” also meant that the drama behind the scenes became media fodder as well, covered breathlessly by pop culture blog “Tiger Beat” and the like. Most of the stars were teenagers when they were first cast in the roles, and painfully unready for the celebrity that followed. Doherty was singled out for wild behavior, both on and off the set, with rumors that she was unable to get along with her co-stars. These ugly rumors spread through the show’s fandom, with many viewers turning on her. (I actually remember people wearing “I Hate Brenda” T-shirts in middle school.)

The original cast of "Beverly Hills 90210."Alamy

This heady mix of real and fictional drama culminated in season four, in which the writers wrote Brenda off the show, sending her to London to go to the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts. It was the show’s most watched season ever, peaking at almost 21 million viewers for her final episode. Aaron’s daughter Tori Spelling, who played Donna Martin, later boasted it was she who got Doherty removed.

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The show never quite reached the peak of Brenda’s departure, but this strange mix of the actors' personal lives intertwined with their on-screen personas also never really left the series, either. In the later years, fans would complain about Tori Spelling/Donna Martin’s front and center placement just as bitterly as they once did about Doherty’s Brenda.

The show never quite reached the peak of Brenda’s departure, but this strange mix of the actors' personal lives intertwined with their on-screen personas also never really left the series, either.

Spelling knew it too, parlaying her decade on the show into the sitcom “So NoTORIous” — the first of many series where she played on-screen versions of herself, which quickly morphed into reality shows such as “Tori & Dean: sTORIbook Weddings.”

So perhaps it’s not a surprise that after two failed attempts at bringing back the franchise, first with a “90210” reboot in 2008 and then with a “Melrose Place” revival in 2009, it was Tori Spelling, along with Garth, who came up with the idea to merge the reality genre with the “90210” brand. The new show is not quite reality, but it’s definitely not “Beverly Hills” either. Instead, the cast is playing themselves in a faux-reality series called “BH90210,” a sort of demented mockumentary, where “Beverly Hills 90210” is real and made them famous, but their lives are fictionalized, complete with fake families for the very real actors. The stars have aged by a quarter century, but their memories of who they were on screen remain frozen in time — except when the random clips from key episodes roll, of course.

Speaking of clips from key episodes, as sunny and fun as the new show is, “BH90210” can’t escape one shadow from the past. Luke Perry, who passed away from a stroke back in March of this year, was the only cast member who did not sign up to do the series, though it was unclear if the choice was his to pass, or just mandated by the CW contract for his hit show “Riverdale.” It is unknown how the show originally planned to deal with his absence — as the only “90210” star with a comeback career, playing the father to a new generation’s teen soap heartthrob, it might have been ripe for their series’ comedy stylings. But his passing puts a bit of a pall over the opening episode, a reminder that the teens they once played in “90210” may be forever preserved in celluloid, but in the real world, time marches ever on.

That being said, “BH90210” has the landscape mostly to itself right now. Broadcast still doesn’t bring out most of its new stuff in the depths of summer. And despite the accidental intrusions of reality, this kind of hybrid nostalgia play is a clever notion at an astute time in the schedule. It’s also an idea that doesn’t demand too much from a cast, not all of whom were ever the best actors to begin with. After all, you can’t go wrong playing yourself, nostalgic for your younger years, in a time gone by.