I was in eighth grade, on the precipice of high school, when ads on the upstart Fox television network alerted me to a new show about teenage twins who move from Minnesota to Beverly Hills. Alone in my bedroom, awash in the glow emanating from the television set as the premiere aired, I became aware that I was in the presence of something illicit and important. Brenda and Brandon Walsh and their cohort weren’t anything like the goofy high schoolers on Saved by the Bell or Degrassi. They were brooding and horny, more adult than most adults I knew. Here was a portal to a realm where teenagers were as glamorous and reckless than my wildest imaginings.
Week after week, I faithfully dropped into a realm of dreamboats with sideburns (and mullets), girls with nose jobs and eating disorders, and house parties held in mansions that looked like spaceships. Beverly Hills 90210 was more mood than narrative, a Pinterest board before Pinterest existed. As befitted an Aaron Spelling production, though, there was no shortage of money and drugs and love triangles, with subplots about alcoholic parents, adoption, and date rape thrown into the mix.
“I wanted to examine the small issues of these characters in an almost narcissistic way,” recalls Darren Star, the then 27-year-old up-and-coming screenwriter who’d been tapped to write the series. “I took inspiration from Thirtysomething and John Hughes movies, which both had an authenticity you weren’t seeing on high school shows at the time.” His creation was soap opera and melodrama and after school special all in one. It was perfect.
October 4 marks 30 years since the show first premiered. The “kids” (for many of the actors were full-fledged adults) who appeared in 90210 have gone on to win Academy Awards (Hilary Swank), become full-fledged adults (Shannen Doherty, who’s currently battling Stage Four breast cancer), and even leave us too soon (Luke Perry, who died of a stroke in 2019 at 52 years old).
And 90210 itself has never truly rested, spinning off hits like Melrose Place and duds like Models, Inc., and, as recently as 2018, another rumored remake. Three decades on, the appeal has yet to wane, as if newcomers can sniff out the daring spirit that made the supposedly niche show an improbable hit. "Young people wanted to see themselves reflected on TV," recalls Star, whose latest series Emily in Paris, recently premiered. "What was groundbreaking was the way of looking at the lives of teens from their own point of view."
My devotion notwithstanding, the show did not enjoy the most auspicious of beginnings. Ratings paled. Critics balked. “Nothing if not predictable,” crowed the Los Angeles Times. The Washington Post informed its readers that the show’s makers—including Star—had “created a vacuum, a perfect void, a black hole in the already vast and empty TV schedule.” I vividly recall reading at the time of my burgeoning fandom a 1992 Sassy cover line: “Can anyone on 90210 act? We ask an expert.”
I kept tuning in, along with hordes of young Gen Xers who would come to consider Kelly’s sleepover revelation and the night Brenda loses her virginity to Dylan as their own personal touchstones. Somewhere around Season 3 I adopted a Brenda-like velvet choker and I purchased a Baja hoodie just like Dylan McKay’s—if I couldn’t date bad boy Dylan McKay at least I could dress like him. The show set in motion a new kind of high school melodrama, one shot through with a down and dirty spirit. It’s hard to imagine that the likes of Gossip Girl and Buffy, or Friday Night Lights and Euphoria, would have ever come along without their sun-dappled precursor.
Midway through 90210’s 10-season arc, I shipped off to college, where I found new inspiration in the work of “worthier” entertainers like Jean Luc Godard and Agnes Varda. I've moved on from that too. It's been some 30 years since that Thursday night premiere, but flashbacks of Dylan McKay stepping out of the shower at the Walsh residence, and the earwormish chant of “Donna Martin Graduates!” still visit me unbidden. You never forget your first.
You Might Also Like