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Not-So Dangerous Liaisons: "90210" Too Tame for This Zip Code

Cue those familiar guitar chords that have echoed in our heads for the last, oh, umpteen years.

Yes, folks, I am talking about the CW's 90210, which launched last night and brought the denizens of one of the world's most famous zip codes back to the airwaves. Of course, a lot has happened since the original Beverly Hills 90210 went off the air back in 2001 and the hallowed halls of teen drama heaven have been joined by such series as MTV's The Hills, FOX's The O.C. and the CW's own Gossip Girl... which seems to have better captured the excess and scandal du jour of the jet set better than this new 90210, which felt more than a little cheesy and trying way too hard to be hip.

One tipoff was the use of Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" in the opening scene. Had this aired prior to Coldplay's latest debuting back in June, I would have given the musical director snaps for choosing such a brilliant song, but here it feels a little dated, as did the reference to Superbad. Certainly Veronica Mars would never have settled for such a tired cultural touchstones and that series had enough wit and charm to spare.

It doesn't help that the script--originally written by Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas (albeit with a remarkably different ending than the version that aired) and rewritten by Freaks & Geeks writer/producers Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah--tries too hard to play it every which way but loose, injecting subplots about BevHills newbies Annie and Dixon Wilson (Degrassi's Shenae Grimes and The Wire's Tristan Wilds), parents Harry and Debbie Wilson (Women's Murder Club's Rob Estes and Summerland's Lori Loughlin), boozy grandmere Tabitha (Arrested Development's Jessica Walters, who provides the only laughs here), trophy couple Ethan (Runaway's Dustin Milligan) and Naomi (Nip/Tuck's AnnaLynn McCord), scruffy teacher Ryan Matthews (Dirt's Ryan Eggold), and familiar faces Kelly (Jennie Garth) and Brenda (Shannen Doherty). Hell, they even bring Nat (Joe E. Tata) out so he can grumble about espresso machines and kids today.

Annie and Dixon quickly find themselves enmeshed in a whole heap of trouble within the opening scenes as they discover that they are not quite fitting in at West Beverly High the way they did back in Kansas. This fish-out-of-water scenario, which worked so well in the original Beverly Hills 90210, pales in comparison with those present in Gossip Girl or The O.C., which both are at their core about the pull between the haves and have-nots, though both of these series crafted such charismatic, instantly likable characters that it was impossible not to fall under their spell.

Within minutes of the opening chords of the title sequence, the Wilson kids find themselves in the immediate orbit of some of West Beverly High's power players, including mean girl Naomi, jock Ethan, journalism zealot Navid (Michael Steger), clearly having inherited the mantle of school paper geek from Andrea Zuckerman, and Kelly's rebellious lil' sis Silver (Jessica Stroup), whose mean-spirited blog takes attacks at other BH students.... and somehow garners "half a million hits" per installment.

Lest you think that 90210 will stick to the tried-and-true moral lessons of the original series' early years, the writers have crammed in as many "decadent" behaviors as possible into the two-hour installment. There's a lacrosse team prank involving pigs taken from a porno set, an impromptu jet trip to San Francisco for a first date, term paper cheating, vehicular oral coitus interruptus, and a whole host of other subplots jockeying for center stage, including a bizarre subplot in which Rob Estes' high school principal Harry Wilson discovers that his high school girlfriend--who happens to be Naomi's mother--gave up their illegitimate child for adoption. (This jars somewhat with the already established role of adoption on the series, as Estes and Loughlin's characters adopted Wilds' Dixon.)

And yet none of this so-called decadence seems to compare to that embodied by the teens on Gossip Girl who seem able to be so much hipper, badder, and stylish without trying so damn hard. McCord's bitchy Naomi would be eaten alive by Leighton Meester's Blair Waldorf. (Hell, at this point, Naomi seems like she could easily be dethroned by little Jenny Humphreys, in between sewing some high-end garments.)

Ultimately, I felt like this update was trying way too hard to please everyone: fans of the original aching to catch up with familiar faces Brenda and Kelly (just whom was she talking to on the phone?) and teens barely old enough to remember that there was an original series that this is based on. To me, the most exciting elements were Jessica Walters' boozy Tabitha (her line about ordering takeout from Dan Tana's rather than eat Debbie's tater tots was classic Lucille Bluth) and the reunion of Kelly and Brenda, whose scene together crackled with possibility and long-buried emotion.

As for the rest, the kids do their best with some obvious storylines amid a persistent need on the writers' part to bring everything squarely back to Rob Estes' principal. I'm not sure why he needs to be quite such a large presence amid all of these plots, but time and time again, everyone keeps finding themselves in the principal's office for one infraction or another.

My advice: let Estes slip into the background a little bit and pull the focus on to the kids, with some subplot time given to Kelly, Brenda, and Ryan, and for the love of all things holy, add some much needed depth and charm to the main characters, who all come off as more than a little vapid and one-dimensional. Yes, we get that spoiled Naomi is more sensitive than she seems, that Silver's aggression is really just the sting of betrayal, and Annie is wide-eyed and naive... but that's really just Character Development 101. Where's the clearly defined motivation for these characters? Why should we as an audience be connected to them or care about them?

While the opening installment of 90210 doesn't quite live up to its first line of dialogue ("this sucks"), it proves that it still has a long way to go if it hopes to inherit the mantle of touchstone teen drama. Longer, one can't help but think, than the distance between Kansas and Beverly Hills.

Next week on 90210 ("Lucky Strike"), Harry and Debbie plan a family bowling night without consulting Dixon and Annie first, Naomi has an awful evening with her father, Dixon finds Silver asleep in his car, and Kelly must deal with her mother.


Anonymous said…
I only watched about 20 mins before I got bored. I would rather watch GG or The O.C. any day than tune into this garbage. Boring.
I totally agree that the best thing about this show is Jessica Walters and the reunion between Kelly and Brenda. I found their scenes much more interesting than anything having to do with the new brat pack. The original 90210 was groundbreaking but now that ground has been trodden over time and time again and with much better results (Veronica Mars, Mean Girls, Gossip Girl, etc.) than this new rehashing of an old concept.
Rich said…
maybe it's because i'm an old-school 90210/melrose fan who never watched the OC and have only seen about 3.75 eps of Gossip Girl, but the new 90210 cracked me up. i thought it was decent enough to watch another 2 or 3 eps to see what direction they will take it. i've got solid $$ down that the writers are going to cross the teacher/student hookup line at some point. i seriously cracked up with the english teacher/lacrosse coach was sipping a cocktail at the PPAD [peach pit after dark, as brandon walsh used to call it] which was packed with students with fake id's from west bev h.s.!
Anonymous said…
I liked it. And I actually thought the character development was decent and much better than the pilots for the original 90210 and The OC. In those shows Kelly and Summer started off as completely superficial and completely bitchy and were unrecognizable by the time the series went off the air. At least here we've seen there's a little more to Naomi and have a reason to sympathize with her. I also think the characters are a lot more realistic than say, Gossip Girl. I love that show, but do you really think anyone in the world behaves like Blair or Chuck? I think this show had enough decadence to be relevant and interesting to today's kids and enough heart to be true to the original show.
Rich said…
the only other comment i might (jokingly) add is that the show seemed to have some form of bias against people who weigh more than 90 pounds soaking wet. i only spotted on person in the background that looked like she weighed a "chunky" 125 pounds! :)
Anonymous said…
@rich: that's the whole point. I don't think it was meant to be intentionally funny that Ryan went to the PPAD where it was filled with high schoolers. I just don't buy it. I think they are trying to play it both ways with lines like "she looks like she's 30" and also being earnest. I won't be tuning in again.
Anonymous said…
WTF was up with Doherty's teeth? She looked awful.
Anonymous said…
@anonymous - her teeth have ALWAYS been bad.

I thought she looked great.

The show wasn't great, or even good, but neither was the original 90210 pilot. I will give it a few more eps. I think the biggest problem, like you said, is not living up to the original, but trying to stay relevant in a GG/OC world.

I had fun watching it, even if my friends and I spent half the time asking "who is that again?" "Is that pill girl?" "No, that's kelly's sister." "Well, then, who is that?" "Have we seen that guy yet?" "Who is THAT?"

Biggest complaint - not nearly enough Brenda! And who was that on the phone? I need to know now!
Rich said…
@annie. the thing is about ALL of these kinds of shows is that NONE of them really have much grounding in REALITY...but that's where you've got to find the amusement/entertainment/lol-moments.

i mean, did you see the hs parking lot scenes? there were kids stepping out of lamborghini gallardos, bentleys, ferraris, etc. it was so over the top that it was hilarious.

i found elements like that amusing, along with hammered-grandma who needed to go out for more refills of "iced tea".

i would definitely tune out if i were watching new-90210 for some sort of real-life angle on what high school life is like in beverly hills. :)
The CineManiac said…
How come no one's asking Jace the obvious Question?!?!?
What was Rob Thomas' Original Ending?!?!?!?

I've only watched half the show so far, I'll give it a couple more weeks and then see if the wife wants to keep watching it or not. It's not horrible, it's not great, it's not nearly as good as Gossip Girl.
BHay said…
Your review was dead on. Watching this back to back with Gossip Girl, it was impossible not to notice how hard this new 90210 was sweating, trying to be cool.

But yeah, I second the call for you to please reveal Rob Thomas' original ending!?!
Anonymous said…
I love that a show with drinking, drug deals, and oral sex is being called "too tame." Are you kidding me? This wasn't exactly Gossip Girl, but it wasn't exactly 7th Heaven either. If anything it was surprsisingly realistic.
Anonymous said…
Anonymous, if you want a teen drama with all of that and shocking realism, watch "Skins".
Anonymous said…
I really don't get your jibe at the fact that they used a song that was a little old. Since when are teen dramas only allowed to include the newest songs? If I were a producer on a show I'd use just as many OLD songs as new.

But anyways.
Anonymous said…
Your beloved Gossip Girl also featured songs that were already worn by the time the series premiered ("What Goes Around... Comes Around", "The Way I Are"). So is that a relevant argument?
Anonymous said…
@Anonymous. At least none of those were featured in an iTunes commercial MONTHS before the series premiered. Can you say overplayed?
Anonymous said…
Coldplay overplayed? Never. :)

There are alot of anonymouses here I think. Personally I'm too lazy to log in.
Anonymous said…
You do realize you don't need to "log in". You click Name/URL and put your name. Why is that so hard?

Coldplay is overplayed especially that song this summer so I think it's stupid that they used it as the opening.
Anonymous said…
Jace - i agree with your review.

I feel that the pilot was trying to hard to please everyone and in the end probably didn't please anyone.

Not only was the first hour dull, but it was cliched, with crappy dialogue and a not so very good plot. It seems to me that they were trying to copy the OC, with little success.

You are right. The characters are one dimensional. The adults come across as more interesting than the younger characters. Ethan is dull and Annie is alittle annoying.

The only characters i have warmed to so far is Grandma Wilson and Dixon.

I'm sure it will improve over time and i will definitely be watching next week.

Just one more point. Why did the producers and writers feel the need to cram so much into the pilot? There were at least two storylines that i can think of, that could have been revealed in future ep's. Way too much happened in the pilot.
The CineManiac said…
One of you Anons -
Surprisingly Realistic?!?!?
I've been to BH and seen the high school there and it's nothing like this, everyone isn't driving their new porsche, Cadillac, etc to school and I'm pretty sure none of them have a private jet that they can just take to San Fran for dinner.
Get Real.

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