Test Pilot: File #5, Beverly Hills, 90210

Test Pilot #5: Beverly Hills, 90210

Debut date: October 4, 1990

Series legacy: The first teen drama to really explode on television (and perhaps the remotely successful teen drama, period), the origin for countless series of similar ilk and one of the biggest television-related phenomenons of all-time.

Welcome to the newest regular feature here at TV Surveillance, the fantastically titled, Test Pilot. In this bi-weekly feature, I will be joined by a rotating batch of guest writers in an analysis of, you guessed it, television pilots. In this space, we’re hoping to analyze pilot episodes in a number of ways in hopes of discussing its historical, cultural and industrial context. To get a well-rounded opinion, this feature will include two perspectives from individuals who have just watched the pilot, one coming from a writer with full knowledge of the series following the pilot develops, the other coming from a writer who is not as familiar with the series. I’m hoping that this can be a fun way to add some less time-sensitive material to the site, but also expand coverage back through history of the medium.

We have now entered to the second quadrant of Test Pilot Files. After touching base with four of the medium’s most important series of the current era with a fair amount of success, this space is now kind of open to whatever direction we would like to take it. For the next batch, it’s time to explore my favorite genre of television texts, teen dramas! Teen dramas represent an interesting conundrum, as the critical community usually avoids them or derides them, yet there is certainly an audience out there for this kind of series. Despite that schism, there’s no questioning the fact that teen dramas have value in American television. Perhaps more so than any other genre, they exist in a very specific moment that can tell us things about the how, what, when, where and why they came to be and were successful. Teen dramas depict trends of certain times with relative ease and serve as time capsules for their moment. But how do the genre’s capstone series relate to one another? How do they differ? What have been the evolutions in the cycle since the early 1990s? That’s what we hope to discuss over the next four entries.

Today, we begin with, well, the beginning: Beverly Hills, 90210. It’s easy to look back now and make fun of it, but without the series, we’d be without so many great and so many awful series. Though I promised this second quad will include series I’ve actually seen before, this one is unfortunately not in that category. I swear, starting with the next file, I’ll have actually seen more than a handful of episodes of what I’m talking about. Thus, for the veteran viewpoint, I asked my buddy Craig Byrne from KSiteTV.com, Kryptonsite.com and a number of other solid web sites to discuss a series he seems fairly close to. He has an interesting take that discusses how the pilot episode really hit back then. Take it away, Craig:

When Beverly Hills, 90210 premiered a little over 20 years ago, I don’t think anyone from either watching or participating in the production knew that it would spawn a legacy that would last for ten seasons and multiple spin-offs. When TV Guide’s Fall Preview listed it, it didn’t even have the same title – it was referred to Class of Beverly Hills.

My hazy memories think that came with an image of Jason Priestley, Jennie Garth, and Shannen Doherty that could have been taken at an Olan Mills portrait studio. The days of selling the “sexy” were not yet there.

There are other things people might not recall about the pilot. The biggest is that, despite what the DVD’s would have you believe, the familiar theme music was NOT present. For whatever reason, the DVD collection substituted the theme heard in Season 2 over whatever was there the original time. Melrose Place had the same situation, though at least there the original theme can be heard on the pilot closing credits.

David Silver (Brian Austin Green) was played in the early days much as the eager freshman, always hanging out with his best friend, the doomed Scott Scanlan (Douglas Emerson). Later, he ended up being a contemporary of the older students. Was the age thing ever addressed later? I honestly don’t remember. [From my researching, they fudged the rest of the kids’ ages down and David’s up in season two – C.B.]

The other oddity in the pilot, that many people do recall, is that Luke Perry’s Dylan McKay didn’t show up until the first post-pilot episode.

Back in 1990, especially compared to the present day, the world of Beverly Hills was a bit more foreign to audiences. We didn’t have a proliferation of reality TV showing us what it was like; and growing up in Maryland, I was about as far from knowing what it was “really” like.

There’s a lot more location shooting than you’d see in today’s television, and a lot more attention to the classroom. There are multiple teachers of various backgrounds – not just one or two as we have seen in this generation’s 90210. Realities, such as Andrea bussing herself to Beverly Hills to be in a better school district, are present where they might be considered irrelevant now. Characters are characters and not just created to be love interests or sex objects for others. Sure, there’s the trope that some of the actors were much older than the characters they played, but the actors were capable and immediately worth latching on to. Nose jobs are a bigger scandal than blow jobs in 90210 ’90. And the parents, Cindy and Jim, have more of a role in the series than the parents of the current-generation 90210 ever will.

Another difference I’ve noticed, (and I don’t mean to sound mean to some of the folks who were employed as extras in classic 90210) is that the background players were not always “hot” and in some cases were even kind of homely. Even some of the recurring players – such as Tori Spelling’s Donna, who is barely seen or heard in the pilot – aren’t the prettiest, though part of that can be attributed to her atrocious 1990’s hair.

Honestly, I didn’t see much of 90210‘s first season when it was originally on. I remember seeing some promos, and I wasn’t particularly interested. For me, it was the summer of 1991 when I (and the rest of the world) seemed to catch on.

That summer, FOX rolled the dice and took a risk, airing new episodes of 90210 over the summer when everything else was in repeats. Beyond that, the episodes – in which Brandon & co. worked at the Beverly Hills Beach Club and Brenda was in Paris with Dean Cain while her boyfriend Dylan was sleeping with Kelly – were really, really good. That game of chance for FOX paid off, because then the show was a hit. Those next few seasons aired while I was in high school, and my classmates in their target audience would talk about what they had seen. For season two, the theme song was jazzed up to its familiar beat, the logo changed, Scott Scanlan played with a gun, and all was right in the world.

Socially, seeing the pilot episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 is pretty fascinating. Most of these kids – even being rich – do not have cell phones. Computers are rarely seen. Pop culture references and an overabundance of pop music of the day aren’t heard. There are curfews. There are mullets. But, there’s an honesty to it that I think a lot of TV is lacking today. So often the TV universe today is developed around brands and marketing of the “next hot character,” but in honesty, 90210 gained popularity by giving us characters that we can care about, who are more than just a list of characteristics from a playbook. The producers of the current incarnation could take some lessons.

One final major difference between classic 90210 and the new CW’ed up version is something the new one could only wish they could reach on a coolness level: the opening title sequence. Sure, the whole spin-around-and-pucker-or-nod-at-the-camera thing was cheesy, but it set the tone for the series. It created personalities of its cast, so you knew who they were, and it helped set the show’s identity. Even better, if I’d hear the theme song from the next room, I’d come into the room to see what was going on.

On the flip side, I watch 90210 now and cringe at their “artsy” opening. There is no real brand identity to it and it’s done in such a way that you don’t even notice when cast members like Rob Estes leave, or when others such as Trevor Donovan and Gillain Zinser join in. More so, it’s a chance to look kind of ridiculous; not shallow, but fun.

–Craig Byrne

And now, my take, as someone who has literally seen no full episodes of the series before my viewing of the pilot:

My, have times changed. As someone who’s been interested in teen dramas for a long time, probably because I grew up right during the genre’s apex, I’ve always thought of Beverly Hills, 90210 as this innovative, perhaps challenging entity. And while I am absolutely certain that was part of its popularity during the 1990s, watching a little more than 20 years after the first airing of the series’ pilot episode, I found myself completely shocked in how boring, tame and almost puritanical the whole thing was.

Pilots are tricky business anyway, but clocking in at just over 93 minutes, this episode is a slog to get through and frankly, is rarely interesting at any point. What’s really interesting is that as a viewer from a completely different era, I don’t think that there is any way that I wouldn’t react in this way. Teen dramas today are fast-paced, usually to their own detriment, full of pop culture references, cool music, great fashion and a sleekness that make it the most appealing to the most people.

This…is not any of those things. As Craig suggested, the pilot episode features little to no pop culture references, even of the moment, doesn’t include any particular kind of music — though there are countless ’80s guitar riffs during the supposedly sad moments — and thinks that risqué storytelling means having a character get a nose job, another date an older man and a third live outside the school district zone. In short, there is no way that if this episode aired today, people in the 10-24 age bracket would watch. It’s way too slow and way too pure. It’d be made fun of beyond belief.

However, what’s crucial about this episode is that while it doesn’t hold up over time — a defining trait of teen dramas, in my opinion — is that it’s clearly the skeleton for all the stories we’ve seen since. The episode does a nice job of setting the stage for the classic fish out water story framework that exists in a ridiculous amount of teen dramas — Dawson’s Creek, Roswell, The O.C., Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, I could go on — and plays up how challenging it is to be in high school, no matter how beautiful or plain-looking you are.

This pilot also uses a number of tropes that despite the changing times, still exist: Fake ids, dating older people, fitting in with the cool kids, lying to parents, rumors, alcoholism, fashion and probably 63 other things I can’t remember because I’m still confounded by the fact that Brian Austin Green looks nine years old in this episode. Seriously, go check out the episode on Fancast.com. Megan Fox’s husband everyone! It also includes a slew of character archetypes that haven’t especially changed in the genre in the snobby rich girl who’s not so snobby as she seems (Kelly), the awkward friend (David), the dumb(ish) partier (Steve) and the wise and idealistic lead (Brandon).

Moreover, like almost every teen drama of all-time, barring a few quality outliers, Beverly Hills, 90210 attempts to create class distinctions without really doing so. Craig notes that not everyone in this episode is absolutely good-looking, and while that’s true, I think that could be more representative of the time. Instead, this episode is drawing on the aforementioned fish-out-water tale and also supposedly includes a person who lives outside the district, but they all seem fairly middle class, and of course, white. That’s a situation typical for television, but when trying to make the audience think that the Walsh’s and Andrea are not really part of this world, there should probably be more of an effort made. I mean, at least Ryan’s mom wore trashy make-up in The O.C. pilot.

In any event, as Craig suggests, though these stories don’t seem particularly interesting or dangerous to us here in the 21st century, they certainly weren’t commonplace in 1990. And from what I understand about the series, as things progressed, the stories became more insane and heightened, which is why most teen dramas now start the place of heightened drama that this series eventually built to. Without 90210, we couldn’t have had the kind of insanity that occurs on a One Tree Hill each week.

Nevertheless, what is particularly interesting to me about this episode is how upbeat and fairly bright things are. While there were certain series that emphasized and embraced the lavish lifestyles of people in partially unusual places like Dynasty or Dallas, that kind of approach hadn’t been attempted with kids in such a way before. I don’t want to make a blanket statement, but this specific series could probably be attributed with some doing in the culture’s focus on lavish gated communities in bright, warm climates where consumerism is king and plastic surgery is all the rage. I’m  not suggesting people didn’t know about these things before Beverly Hills, 90210, but they were positioned in such a way here that it’s hard to suggest the series didn’t have a major impact on television from the 1990s onward.

And where I think a lot of that influence comes from is how this series tapped into a specific market that while not necessarily ignored beforehand, became a major demographic in the aftermath: teens. At the time, the biggest series on the air were sitcoms like Cheers, Roseanne, A Different World, Cosby, Murphy Brown, etc. These were series that while surely watched by youngsters, didn’t specifically appeal to them. Beverly Hills, 90210 was the first step in making sure television series appealed to those people in the 18-34 demographic and even younger.

Although this episode doesn’t include much of either, my research tells me that Beverly Hills quickly figured out how to integrate products, music and fashion into its storylines with relative ease, and thus the series became an arena for consumerism where the people in that growing-in-power dynamic felt like they had to purchase things to keep up with the characters on the series. It’s not as if this series was the first to push its viewers into consumerism, but it’s one that took the lessons of series before it and applied it to a specific, targeted audience that helped make it a cultural phenomenon.

Again, I don’t want to make assumptions, but you have to think that the people growing up with this series who moved into the entertainment industry were probably in favor of the reality series that take the “rich people, great locales” framework and apply it to “real life.” The Hills, The City, Laguna Beach, Real Housewives, etc., they’re all indirectly related to the kind of television that came from 90210.

Back to the time period in which the series was created, I find myself really intrigued by the late 1980s and early 1990s. As someone who was born in that time but grew up in a very different mid-to-late 1990s world, it seems like the 1987-1990 era is one that is completely glossed over culturally. The most important events I can think of came right there towards the end of this randomly defined-by-me period in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Gulf War, but it still feels like this amorphous time where MTV’s already established but grunge hasn’t happened and Bill Clinton isn’t president yet. For me, it’s a completely undefinable period, one that gets lost in between the more clearly defined Reagan and Clinton eras where things weren’t as bad as they seemed in the former or as good as they seemed in the latter.

And in a way, I read the series in the same way. Beverly Hills, 90210 isn’t a particularly conservative series or even problematic in the ways that the mid 1980s teen films were, nor is it completely over-the-top wild, open and progressive in the ways that we might look at the mid 1990s. The pilot exists in this weird time where people, particularly young people, were growing more accustomed to things like open discussion about sex, plastic surgery or drinking, but they weren’t so okay with them that they wanted to see it all over television in a wild manner. The pilot isn’t artificially optimistic in the way that suggests it’s a direct product of the Reagan era, nor is it overtly critical in a way that suggests it’s a part of the same era that brought something like The X-Files to popularity just a year later. It’s almost directly in this odd middle ground that doesn’t really speak for anything, but doesn’t necessarily speak for nothing. That’s stupidly abstract, but I think I’m coming across in the proper way. Like I said, this is totally the perspective from someone of a different moment and particularly, a different moment of teen dramas, but I think it holds up. As time passed, this series became more representative of what a mid 1990s series would be, even if it still held on to some of its ideals.

In the end, it’s hard for me to take Beverly Hills, 90210‘s pilot seriously. It’s both horrible and intriguing to watch because it’s exactly what I expected it to be. I do believe that a number of the series that stemmed from this one’s success were better, but let me again pose a question that refers back to things I’ve been saying for a while: Is it even possible for someone like me to evaluate something like this? As I noted above, teen dramas are so particular to their moment that someone without the right semiotic codes and cultural capital from that time might feel like they’re watching a foreign film or something. I would never say this is a good episode of teen drama, let alone television, but perhaps I just can’t do that anyway. This is something we’ll try to pursue further with the next three entries.

–Cory Barker

Conclusions on legacy: Inherently flawed as pilot with the noticeable blueprints for later success laid, both for this series and dozens of others in the future.

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