Remember the first day of school? Blundering around lost, filled with a sense of unseen peril, hot dread, and anticipation? For those of us too old or too traumatized to remember, the CW's thrown together a refresher course that will evoke all those emotions -- 90210.
Not that 90210 will have much resemblance to most Americans' high school experience. 90210, which premiered Sept. 2, is a vulgar little thing -- it tries too hard, changing subplots and personalities like outfits. Part of the problem may be classic pilot-itis, of course, wherein producers trot out their glossy casts and buzziest storylines in the hopes of avoiding a gruesome end. But the pilot also hearkened back to an earlier time -- the dreary first days of the original Beverly Hills, 90210, which ran in the 1990s on the Fox network.
I just moved back to the States from several years in Thailand, so hearing that 90210 had risen from the ashes was the perfect welcome home. Any ex-expat has a certain fear of being outed as an anachronistic freak, and I made a few slip-ups by gawking at the new Pringles flavors in the grocery store, etc. But I had avoided full-on hazing until I flounced into my friend Randy's living room and asked, "Who is this … Miley Cyrus?"
The look on his face was familiar to me from watching Borat on a crappy pirated DVD off the streets of Patpong (I didn't buy it! I swear!) -- a combination of incredulity, horrified amusement, and awwww, we have to be nice to the foreigner. After hearing of this incident, our friend Aaron yelled out the title I had earned by adding cultural ignorance to my pre-existing problems with loud, inappropriate conversation and loud, inappropriate outfits.
"Drag-queen exchange student!" I cowered by the toaster. "First, you're getting rid of those leopard-print platforms. And then we are gonna put you in re-education camp. It's going to be exhaustive -- and exhausting."
We began with Project Runway. Then Sex and the City -- just a refresher to get the rhythm of bitchy banter and syrupy sweetness back. I learned how to work TiVo, and watched Dark Knight and a series of YouTube videos of people and babies vomiting, falling down, or getting kicked in the head by break dancers. I felt like Rocky Balboa punching cow carcasses in a slaughterhouse. In the midst of this training montage -- some smart cuts and fancy editing are required to make screeching on the couch look exciting -- insert the one ray of light: the prospect of a reincarnated 90210.
I knew the show's venerable predecessor, thanks to being old, as Aaron liked to remind me. At one low, unemployed point in my life, I watched two hours of Beverly Hills, 90210 reruns a day. I also liked the trashy glories of Aaron Spelling's other baby, Melrose Place --- remember when Kimberly takes her wig off? But there was something so reassuring about the 90210 universe. It was so hip to be square, and no matter how hard it tried to be risqué -- drug abuse! Teenage pregnancy! -- it couldn't scrub off the smell of eau d'afterschool special. For all its cattiness and feints at social relevance, the original was sort of sweet in its soapiness -- a drama about the cool people that, by dint of its deep dorkiness, showed that they were just people, too.
90210's current incarnation is not so different -- but its viewers are. Thanks to being old, I'm more aware of the tick-tock of mortality and of my reluctance to watch TV tartlets pout and mince when I could be looking for grey hairs. 90210's producers are desperate to tap the nostalgia factor for the post-teen set. The producers have cast the old show's queens in supporting roles. Popular girl Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth) is now a guidance counselor at her alma mater, and enfant terrible Brenda Walsh (played by actor terrible Shannen Doherty) has returned to, what? Wreak more romantic havoc? Storm off the set in real life? The producers hope we are rubbing our hands in anticipation.
The set-up of the new 90201 is the same -- nice Midwestern family moves to Beverly Hills and is confronted by the silicone stylings of the natives. But the producers have tried tweaking the white-bread formula a bit. Instead of the Walsh twins, Annie (Shanae Grimes, clearly the valedictorian of the Renee Zellweger School of Method Squinting) and her adopted African American brother Dixon Wilson (Tristan Wilds, wasted in an underwritten part) are the stars, in a nod to the world outside of TV. And the one in it, too -- the adopted bit seems reminiscent of the adoption of "class outsider" Ryan by an affluent family in The OC.
In fact, most of the new elements seem stolen from other shows or movies -- there's a blow-job scene in the car that's a sad grab at the Gossip Girl audience, alpha-female Naomi is just a Mean Girl, nerdy Navin is a knock-off OC Seth. The characters' dilemmas have old-fogey concern written all over them, along with old-fogey writing -- drugs are hidden in a cut-up schoolbook, Naomi cheats on an English paper -- and attempts to bring the show up-to-date with tattling text messages and taunting blog storylines show just how archaic it is at its core. Everything feels tired -- dated, dare I say -- even the young cast members, who make little impression outside of their terrifyingly white smiles. Has the fluoride in L.A. been irradiated or something? Too much.
The much-courted nostalgia factor is an unstable element -- it could actually wind up driving viewers away. We were in love with the older sister and don't want anything to do with this mawkish colt, dressed up in borrowed clothing. The original suffered from the same problems in the beginning -- the welter of subplots, the cheesy moralizing -- but I find myself so attached to the first series that I have a decreased patience for this even more plastic and derivative incarnation. I mean, I loved Brenda's hideous black-and-white Spring Dance dress that she wore to consummate her love with bad-boy Dylan (Kelly wore the same dress that night, cue meowfest!) . I loved Donna Martin graduating. I loved dorky Andrea, beacon of hope and social acceptance for dorks worldwide. But most of all, I loved Kelly's finest moment, where she's choosing between Dylan and his sideburns and Brandon and his mousse-hardened Lego hair: "I choose … me," she declares, and walks away from them both. Let us take a line from Kelly -- it's time to walk away.