It’s 10 PM. You’ve just watched the two hour finale to the epic that was 90210. You feel dirty like you have just spent yourself in a lust fueled sexual encounter that your brain kept telling you was a terrible idea from the start, and you think back and you realize the damage that you have done to your life. Ten years. A decade of Wednesdays you have wasted watching what might easily be described as the most shallow use of airspace in the history of broadcast entertainment, and yet you watched. You not only watched, you looked forward to it. You ached when they stopped showing new episodes over the summer, and now you look back and you desperately try to figure out why. Why did I watch this, what does it all mean?
I have to admit that I tried to free myself of the fix. When Jason Priestly left the show, it seemed like continuing would have made as much sense as watching the Cosby show after the Huxtables perished in some tragic fiery plane crash. What would be the point? Has any other show in the history of television had the audacity to blindly move forward in the face of the absence of not one but every essential main character in the show’s pilot? I know they tried to keep Happy Days going without Ron Howard, and in the back of my mind I remember something about Archie Bunker, a bar and a little girl, but was anyone really watching then?
What? Kelly got raped? She shot her rapist and got away with it? What is Donna up to? Is that guy Noah actually still on the show? It was like heroin. I had taken the freebie and now I was just another junky with good intentions and a lot of excuses. Why?
Remember how it all started. Wholesome Minnesotans, the Walsh’s move to Beverly Hills. I’m pretty sure that Jim and Cindy, Brandon and Brenda, they were there to save the lepers. They were the American Family these poor rich kids could only dream about. Steve, Kelly, Donna, David and Dylan. Sure they had money, but did they know true happiness? The parents were all divorced or cheating. There was plastic surgery. There would be hairpieces. For some incredible reason none of the gang even merited a sibling. Sure I know eventually David’s cheating Dad would marry Kelly’s coke addled mother. Dylan somehow ended up with a whole witness protected program family of his supposedly mob blown up father that he would never know. Steve’s father came up with another son or two when Randy Spelling needed a job. Even the one seemingly saintly parent, Donna’s Father, somehow had a mid-70’s roll in the hay with his sister-in-law, that would one day blow up in recriminations of a daughter spurned and ignored, but let’s look back at the beginning.
It was pretty apparent how this was supposed to go. The saintly Walsh family would serve as a beacon of light to the lost generation of wealthy, beautiful, but empty Beverly Hills brats. They would grow, cry, bond, and become better people. Dylan, the beautifully lonely dreamer, reader of Blake, survivor of Alcohol, would someday marry Brenda. Brandon would date every hot girl in town before finally settling down with the studiously normal Andrea Zucherman. Donna and David would get together, and the hopelessly shallow Steve and Kelly would remain hopelessly shallow. This would have made for a perfect three year arc for a perfectly mediocre show we could have looked back on with some measure of good will.
Somewhere along the way the whole thing went magnificently awry. Maybe it was the sideburns. The show caught on. Mall kids across the country went Beatlemania and shoppers across the country found themselves amid a Who sellout of unrivaled proportions, and a funny thing happened. In the fight of good vs. evil, shallowness vs. wholesomeness, good intentions vs rich white trash, the trash won, and a nation about to embark on perhaps its most prosperous decade ever celebrated with glee. What better expression of the Bill Clinton decade was there than Beverly Hills 90210? We wanted money, we wanted to be beautiful, and we wanted our chicks for free. Brenda became a bitch, who saw that coming? And of course everyone but Donna had sex like it was going out of style.
Remember how they tried to introduce that Black family for an episode? The dad owned a popcorn empire or something. Hey c’mon don’t bring us down. Someone fill out a missing persons report on the popcorn king.
Emily slipped Brandon some Uforia, whatever that was, the Yellow Mustang was trashed and she went Fatal Attraction on the farm boy. Alcohol was consumed. Cocaine was ingested. Crystal Meth was sampled, and heroin was smoked.
Remember how in the beginning of the show, there were the two geeks, David and Scott? Well somewhere along the way David started getting cool, and the glorious solution was that Scott had to die. If you aren’t cool enough to reside in the code you accidentally shoot yourself, playing with your uncle’s revolver. Sure we’ll mourn a little while and then on with the fun.
Kelly almost burns to death in a fire with a smitten lesbian, only to heal in about three weeks. Ray hits Donna and cheats on her, like all of Donna’s unsatisfied lovers do. The kids all go to the same college despite Andrea’s brilliance and Steve’s density. Andrea tells Donna that “she really enjoyed being virgins with her”, but she had serious problems now.
I think the first big kink in the show’s armor was the Andrea pregnancy. It just didn’t make any sense. This girl was nothing but PC in high school, and almost had a cow when West Beverly refused to install condom dispensers with the valet parking. Unfortunately, for us purists, Gabrielle Cateris wanted to have a baby in “real life” so Andrea got pregnant nearly fifteen minutes after the CU Freshman Mixer. Once that happened it was open season on plot lines. Anything goes.
Dylan’s Dad goes to jail. Kelly’s dad goes to jail. David’s Dad cheats on Kelly’s mom. Dylan ditches Brenda for Kelly. Shannon shows up late and gets sent to London. Val shows up smoking a joint. The wholesome Jim and Cindy Walsh disapprove? Off to Japan with those fossils. Maybe we’ll have one of them back for a wedding or something.
Steve somehow forgets every episode that every time he cheats or cuts a corner it blows up in his face, and yet like a samurai he bravely pushes on. Dylan goes to re-hab. David goes to re-hab. Kelly goes to re-hab and brings back another psycho “single white female.” Dylan’s wife gets blown away by her mob boss father. Brandon sleeps with everyone and is elected president. In a solemn moment Brandon decides he has matured, cuts his sideburns and trades his yellow classic Mustang for a new black one. Remember how Brandon had to work two jobs to get that first Mustang? Well by year six or so someone decides it is just better to not think about how he paid for the new car.
Kelly’s boyfriend, Colin, leads the LAPD on a chase to make OJ proud. Donna gets addicted to pain killers. Donna sleeps with David because “he waited”. Kelly almost gets raped. Donna almost gets raped. Donna is stalked. Kelly does get raped. Through it all the only consistent element of the show was that Donna’s mother Felice Martin would continue to be the single most evil and socially repellant character in the history of episodic TV.
So why watch? Why the fascination with the rich and the shallow? The world where to be ugly or gain weight means you can’t go to the prom. Where Kelly’s dad is never there for her, but throws her a great party before he goes to jail. Why? Because sap that I am, for some strange eerie reason these are my characters and some vulnerable lost soul inside of me wants to see them happy. These lovable misfits held captive by ten years of plot twists and carnality. Something inside me wants to see them happy and embarrassing though it may be a tear came to my eye when I saw David marry Donna, and everyone else end grown, coupled up, and happy. Fairy tales do come true even we have to sift through ten years of glitz and all the drugs in the Columbian cartel. As if anything can happen and somehow in the end we can all be redeemed like in some new wave Shakespearean comedy. Try as I might to act like I watch out of some retro-cool vision of excellence from trash, in the end it’s almost enough to understand why my mom called them her “stories”.