There are a few ways that tween and teen crushes can haunt and hurt. They can die young, leaving only memories and unfulfilled potential, like James Dean or River Phoenix; they can morph from dewy-skinned gods to belligerent trolls to fans, like Kristy Swanson or Scott Baio, making us question our fandom at all. Or they can live long enough to survive the hype of their star-making projects and grow into the kind of professional who inspires loving messages from service industry workers to show-runners and everyone in between when they do pass, horrifying us all with the reminder of our own mortality.
Luke Perry, who died on Monday at 52 — a few days after reportedly suffering a stroke — will be best remembered by a significant proportion of his fan base for playing Dylan McKay, the sensitive teen alcoholic not-so-bad boy on "Beverly Hills 90210." He was, by all accounts, friendly to fans and humble about the role that made him famous enough to cause riots in shopping malls. He also rode a motorcycle and vanquished the undead in the original “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” movie and worked consistently in television for 20 years, most recently as Fred Andrews on "Riverdale."
Perry was also the first adult actor I aggressively crushed on as a child, which makes me one of thousands of older millennials.
With his squinty stare, cocked eyebrow and Valley Boy voice, Perry was always too cool for whatever was happening, but he never made the leap to actual villain. In the universe of teen protagonists, Dylan would have been more likely to beat up "Gossip Girl" antihero Chuck Bass than cheer his sexual predation, and I’d like to think he’d have given Rayanne Graf on "My So-Called Life" an intervention (which his friends did with him in season five) instead of sleeping with her.
"90210" feels dated now for its earnestness more than its aesthetics, but it’s surprisingly sweet in 2019 to see Dylan attending a teen AA meeting and talking at length with his girlfriend Brenda about having sex for the first time. On the prime time soap scale, Perry committed to his role, through Dylan’s multiple love triangles, being conned out of his trust fund, discovering past lives and marrying a mobster’s daughter only to see her murdered in a hit meant for him. In fact, he's perfect throughout — as is the way he sells a description of Lord Byron, whose book Brandon notices in the show’s third episode. “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know, That was him and that’s me.”
But he wasn't; not really. And that's what we loved about him and, by extension, the always gracious-seeming Perry.
I know that even the most iconic of teen idols from childhood will get older and more vulnerable, and there are worse problems in the world than facing a television-induced existential crisis. But it’s jarring to see people fewer than 20 years your senior get sick or die suddenly, especially when they have achieved a level of success and financial security through which they could probably afford decent health insurance.
TV shows like "Beverly Hills 90210" and its imitators are pure escapism, and any break from reality is a relief from news overload and the challenges of navigating economic precarity and everything that comes with it. If even Luke Perry — still crush-worthy Luke Perry, playing the dad-type that Dylan once fought with and wanted so badly — can be felled by a stroke and leave behind grieving family and friends, what hope is there for those of us who have to crowdfund for cancer treatment or work multiple jobs to afford decade old student loan payments?
The prospect of losing other stalwarts of the early 90s — especially those who were fortunate enough to build lasting, diverse careers — feels almost too much to bear, and more inevitable than it did on Sunday. Gillian Anderson is 50 and still on stage, television and screen; Keanu Reeves is 54 and just made "John Wick 3." Ethan Hawke is 48 and doing some of the best work of his career. (There is, though, something bitterly unfair about the fact that Jared Leto, the object of desire of "My So-Called Life," can have an Oscar and a reputation as a massive creep at 47. But I digress.)
Thanks to the explosion of streaming series, there is more room now for the megastars of yesterday to continue working and us to relive the best of their earlier work, which is a welcome alternative to becoming tragedy gossip fodder for episodes of "E! True Hollywood Story." But Perry, who somehow epitomized the bad boy with a heart of gold for a generation of optimistic-but-worried kids, found his niche in life and in Hollywood (and marched in solidarity with writers during the 2008 writers’ strike) is no longer living. And part of what makes it so devastating that he’s the first of that generation of heartthrobs to die of natural causes.
American culture fetishizes youth and novelty, but even the stars of "Riverdale" who worked alongside Perry will one day turn 40, like "OC" star Adam Brody will later this year. I find that fact almost as surreal as knowing there are 20-somethings who were born while I was in high school. Almost.