‘90210’: Leave Your Morals With the Maid

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The teen drama “90210,” which makes its premiere tonight on the CW Network, features a premise that may sound familiar to those who came of age in the 1990s: A brother and sister experience culture shock when their family moves to a famously posh Los Angeles suburb from a middle-class Midwestern community.

Like its forebear, the iconic “Beverly Hills, 90210,” which went off the air in 2000 following a 10-year run on Fox, the new series showcases the mostly wealthy student body at the fictional West Beverly High School, and counts among its cast of characters Brenda Walsh and Kelly Taylor, who are again played by Shannen Doherty and Jennie Garth, respectively. What viewers are not likely to see reprised: balding fathers, frumpy “mom jeans,” and heavy-handed moralizing to the backdrop of a swelling synthesized underscore.

Nor should they expect those things. The teen-targeted model of object lessons wrapped in a blanket of pomp and flash, which was pioneered in many ways by the original “Beverly Hills, 90210,” has since given way to strictly pomp and flash on dramas and reality series about teenagers and young adults.

In the original ZIP-coded drama, Brenda and her twin brother, Brandon, provided a dose of traditional values, sometimes in stark opposition to the exorbitant wealth and privilege embodied by their new hometown. Their corn-fed parents, Jim and Cindy, offered up chestnuts that would seem hopelessly out of place on the recent teen shows: “If people only like you for your appearance, they don’t really like you” or “We just want you to realize, in this day and age especially, sex is not a game, no matter how it may look in movies and on TV.”

Indeed, as Darren Star, the creator of “Beverly Hills, 90210” — and later, of HBO’s “Sex and the City” — once explained, the show “was all about the appearance of Beverly Hills being this amazing place, but the reality of people’s lives not improving despite the fact that they had everything. All the materialistic toys they could get their hands on, that really didn’t make anyone happier.”

More than any show that came before it, “Beverly Hills, 90210” defined the aspirational teen-drama genre. Its television progeny includes, most notably, the beloved 2003-07 Fox series “The O.C.,” about a group of precocious teenagers living in the moneyed Orange County community of Newport Beach, Calif., and “Gossip Girl,” the CW Network sensation about the exploits of couture-clad, cocaine-snorting students in Manhattan’s elite private preparatory schools. “Beverly Hills, 90210” and its successors also spawned unabashedly soulless reality series such as MTV’s “Laguna Beach,” as well as a successful spin-off, “The Hills,” in which there is nothing cautionary about excessive wealth, materialism, and narcissism. “90210” (minus the “Beverly Hills”) could be the logical next step in the moral sterilization of the TV template that its namesake helped invent.

“90210” centers on the lives of Kansas-bred teenagers Annie Wilson (Shenae Grimes) and her foster-brother-turned-adopted-brother, Dixon (Tristan Wilds). Their parents, Debbie and Harry (played by Rob Estes and Lori Loughlin), are moving the brood to California’s most well-known ZIP code to care for the family matriarch. The Wilson family, however, may more closely resemble the nicer-than-their-peers Cohen family in “The O.C.” or the Humphrey family in “Gossip Girl,” than the original Walsh family in “Beverly Hills, 90210.” That’s because rich-teen series in recent years have embraced a new formula, one replete with the kind of wealth that buys office buildings and private jets, and the kind of parents who sport Pilates bodies and behave as recklessly as their boundary-testing children.

The distinctions between insider and outsider, between nice girl and mean girl, between mensch and player, have become blurred. And the preachy parents, with their wholesome, bite-size lessons, have been all but banished to the likes of ABC Family and the Disney Channel.

As one media and cultural studies professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Elana Levine, recently noted, “It could have something to do with living in a more cynical culture, where there is an awareness that the ideal audiences of these shows are suspicious of these lessons. They’re not willing to accept these lessons as part of the storytelling.”

The result: television that is darker, more fantastical, and further removed from the lived experiences of young viewers, who are more likely than not to have curfews and spending limits, and parents who give lectures. That dose of fantasy, increasingly unfettered by object lessons, is precisely the appeal.


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