[4 September 2008]
This year’s 90210 reboot comes with a Frankenstein-esque patchwork of a pedigree. Most obviously, the show takes its name from the ‘90s teen soap created by Darren Starr and produced by Aaron Spelling. This go-round sees Freaks and Geeks producers Jeff Judah and Gabe Sachs as executive producers and Veronica Mars’ Rob Thomas as an early creator.
With all of this talent behind it, we might hope 90210 will be in the mold of the best teen-targeted shows—full of glamour, fashion, and melodrama, yes, but also intellect and heart. Yet it seems content to trot along a well-worn path. Like the original Beverly Hills, 90210, the 2008 series—the 2 September series premiere re-airs Thursday night—begins when siblings Annie Wilson (Shenae Grimes) and adoptee Dixon Wilson (Tristan Wilds), move from the Midwest (well, Kansas) to a tony zip code in California. Their father, Harrison (Rob Estes), is the new principal of West Beverly Hills High. As the youngsters try to get acclimated to their new surroundings, they find themselves at the center of the usual sort of campus drama: drugs, betrayals, blogs, pranks, oral sex, adoption, theft, porn, anger, and sudden changes of heart. The siblings and their new friends end up in the principal’s office more than half a dozen times in the two-hour premiere. Dixon gets kicked off and reinstated on the lacrosse team no less than twice.
It looks as though 90210—like so many teen-focused shows before it—will be dividing its time between the mean girls and the underdogs. Because these sides are equally beautiful, fashionable, and rich, they’re differentiated only by expositional dialogue. Some of the players are obscenely wealthy (one of them, who takes a private jet to San Francisco for dinner, remarks that becoming fluent in Italian is “the upside to spending every summer in Italy… There is no downside”), while others merely upper-upper middle class. There are no outsiders—no witty Veronica Mars to shed light on the absurdity of it all.
While those looking for wittiness will find 90210 lacking, so will those who tune in feeling nostalgia for the original show. Sure, there are a few nods to the first series. “What is that girl, like, 30?” one of the teachers says of a student—a student named Hannah Zuckerman, presumably Andrea’s daughter. (Hannah, by the way, never makes another appearance in the premiere.) But for the most part, 90210 seems unsure what to do with the Gen-X demographic, fitting in an awkward assortment of teachers, guidance counselors, and big sisters alongside the kid stars.
While fans may appreciate the return of Jennie Garth and Shannen Doherty, they’re crowded out by the good-looking newbies, jetting around California and fretting about their love lives. At the halfway mark of the premiere, it’s revealed that Garth (now Kelly Taylor, the guidance counselor) is a young, single mother. Neither she nor her four-year-old is mentioned again for about 30 minutes, moving over to make way for the exploits of the West Beverly lacrosse team and their prank war on a rival high school.
With the teens scheming so hard to sort out their lives and their teachers desperate for attention, it seems almost unfair that the oldest character gets to breeze onto the screen and command her scenes instantaneously. Jessica Walter, who plays Wilson matriarch Tabitha, gives a performance worthy of a better series. The Wilson family moved back to California ostensibly to take care of her, but as she makes her entrance, Long Island iced tea in hand, it’s clear that she doesn’t need taking care of. “I need to finish my memoir before my friend Virginia does,” she says. “We’ve slept with all the same people.”
Tabitha, who bears more than a close resemblance to Walter’s Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development, possesses the detached cynicism and sharpness missing in everyone around her. “I’m ordering takeout,” she says after a home-cooked meal by her daughter-in-law. “Not that your tater tots weren’t to die for.” We can only hope that her gift for razor-sharp observation rubs off on her granddaughter and grandson, because someone needs to take the popular kids down a peg.