Beverly Hills, 90210: Hello & Goodbye
When the TV previews for the pilot episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 first came out in the fall of 1990, I already knew I was in. I was INNNNNN. I was a gawkard, nerdy, unpopular 11 yr old in possession of an almost-debilitatingly huge imagination and the kind of pubescent physical appearance that could make a baby cry. I had naturally curly hair that I was still growing out of the Sigourney-Weaver-in-Working-Girl-esque-bob my parents had encouraged me to get (which had forever convinced me that they did not, in fact, have my best interests at heart); I wore big, thick glasses that literally took up half my face; and I was still rocking some serious mouth hardware in the form of braces. Pretty and popular I was not.
Thus, it probably doesn’t surprise any self-actualized adult or licensed therapist that I also had an overwhelming desire to be three things: Pretty, Rich, and Popular. These aspirations so constantly informed my everyday waking life that my mom once ordered a stack of books from the Scholastic Book Club for me (those brand new book flyers featuring all the new and exciting books you could order were literally the highlight of my then-elementary-school life), which I was VERY excited about, until I realized that they all ended with the moral of how I shouldn’t compare myself to kids who were richer or prettier than me. And while my mom was obviously trying to be all, “be happy with what you have!” I was still like, “YO, why don’t you just make more money and move me out to Beverly Hills where I belong and then the problem is solved.”
The third selling point for my dork self was that it was obviously a show centered around the teen experience, which was something that I was also obsessed with (I didn’t have a lot of friends or after-school activities which happened to free up a lot of time to obsess over stuff OKAAAY). For as long as I could remember, I just wanted to be older. Growing up meant being able to kiss boys and go out on dates and go to hot downtown clubs and drive convertibles and go to fancy, formal parties. Literally the only reason why I ever played with Barbies when I was younger was so I could act out the scenarios I saw on MTV music videos, Paper Dolls, and the made-for-TV miniseries, I’ll Take Manhattan. I’d either pretend I was the super popular teen leader of the most popular girl clique in high school, or that I was a high-powered successful business woman who commanded a boardroom but was a total babe in the ballroom and the bedroom. (Looking back, it’s obvious that even if my priorities were messy, at least my aspiring leadership skills were on point)
When I started to feel too old for Barbies, I traded them in for teen magazines, John Hughes movies, paperback novels about cool teens in sticky situations, and any and all TV shows that had at least one teenage or teenage adjacent character. I studied anything that could teach me more about high school life, because…well, mostly because it was a way for me to escape the reality that I was a huge nerd that other kids didn’t really seem to like, whilst also convincing myself that a metamorphosis ala She’s Out of Control would absolutely happen and change all of that. And when it did, I wanted to be properly prepared for all the fantastic teen experiences sure to come my way.
Which is why I needed a show like Beverly Hills, 90210.
For those who didn’t live through it, it’s hard to understate the impact that Beverly Hills, 90210 had on the cultural landscape. It was one of the first shows to be considered “appointment TV” - miss it, and you had no idea what everyone was talking about the next day (and wouldn’t find out unless you were lucky enough to catch a rerun). It’s also one of the first shows I remember that had actual watch parties…even in the summer. There had already been a mix of sitcoms and made-for-tv movies that centered around teen characters - the ‘80s had been particularly obsessed with teen culture - but 90210 was the first show that was primarily centered around the lives of teens and “serious teen issues.” As Degrassi, The Next Generation would later coin…it went there. Even looking back now, I’m impressed with the gamut of topics that 90210 tackled…racism, date rape, eating disorders, gun control, STDs, teen pregnancy…even a Halloween episode about rape culture still mostly holds up. You name it, there was probably an episode on it. It was enough to seriously freak some parents out…they didn’t want to talk to their kids about sex and drugs, but a TV show comes along that wants to and they’re all “YOU BETTER NOT!” Even my own mom made a point to sit down with me after I watched 90210 to discuss whatever the hot topic was featured that week, which was super embarrassing (for her…I was like, COOL OUT, MOM, I CAN TOTALLY TELL THAT YOU’RE ONLY DOING THIS BECAUSE YOU READ ABOUT HOW YOU SHOULD IN YOUR LADIES HOME JOURNAL, I’M NOT TALKING TO YOU ABOUT ANY OF THIS AND YOU CAN’T MAKE ME.
But also, it was just fun. To me, Beverly Hills, 90210, is sunshine, blue skies, and palm trees; airy California houses with sandstone-colored walls in nice, quiet neighborhoods; the Louis Vuitton Chantilly purse; “All For Love” by Bryan Adams, Sting, and Rod Stewart; dreaming about moving out to sunny LA, buying a convertible, and working on movies like The Three Musketeers; wearing bodysuits with Guess jeans and mod headbands; going to bright, sprawling malls with sky lights; going to see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in the movie theater, crushing over Christian Slater, and spending a week of summer vacation waking up early just to sit in front of Vh1 all day and wait for them to play the music video for Bryan Adam’s “Everything I Do, I Do It For You”; dreaming about moving to the sunny South of France and buying a castle with Bryan Adams while he sings that song to you every night before you go to sleep; sporting L.A. Gear high tops, scrunchy white socks, polka-dot cotton bike shorts, and (shamefully) Hyper-Color t-shirts; smelling like Neutrogena, Sun-In, and Love’s Baby Soft (or Exclamation, if you wanted people to think you were experienced); and having endless, heated debates with your friends over who you wanted to be your boyfriend - Brandon or Dylan.
Almost 30 years later, I still don’t know how I most want to be my boyfriend! I think of Brandon’s baby blues and his kind ways and his inherent desire to always do the right thing and I’m like, “I’M OBVIOUSLY TEAM BRANDON.” But then I think about Dylan’s smoldering gaze, those James Dean sideburns, his roaring motorcycle, that Poor Little Rich Kid’s heart of gold and the way HE READ POETRY FOR FUNSIES and I’m like, “I’M OBVIOUSLY TEAM DYLAN.” BOTH of them were incredibly respectful to the women around them, to the point where one of the scenes that stands out most in my mind was when Brenda learns that Dylan is going on dates with Emily Valentine, so she confronts him on the West Beverly lawn and then blurts out that Emily’s on the pill (basically insinuating that Emily’s a slut, because Brenda was legitimately THE WOOOORST). Dylan sternly replies that Brenda lost all right to question him about his sex life when she decided she didn’t want to be a part of it, and ladies and gentleman, when my 12 yr old self watched that, I was SHEWK. It was such a cutting, yet totally mature response! And it stemmed from him respecting Emily Valentine’s privacy! What 17 yr old boy approached sex like that?!
Turns out, none! But nevertheless, it was really important for me and thousands of other kids in my generation to see guys depicted as such, because it really did raise the bar for what kind of behavior we expected from the guys in our life (we also subsequently learned to be severely disappointed, but that’s another thought piece for another time).
I could probably write a whole book about all the other stuff I’ve learned and experienced thanks to 90210, but as you can probably surmise, the real reason for this nostalgic run down the 90210 road is because yesterday we lost one of the most adored stars of that pinnacle show. From 1990 onward, Luke Perry was such a formative figure in both popular culture and my own adolescence…the first real heartthrob for so many girls in my generation (especially if, like me, the boys from NKOTB weren’t, in fact, The Right Stuff #didyouseewhatIdidthere), and an iconic, beloved symbol of that time. While he was never one to exactly embrace the role of teen idol, he ironically continued that legacy on Riverdale, in the most fitting of ways - by playing the dad of this generation’s newest heartthrob, on one of today’s already- iconic shows. He was also a long, tireless, and passionate advocate for the LGBTQ community, a father who loved his children, and a man who made no secret about preferring to sit in his backyard with his family rather than engage in any of the celebrity trappings that came with his chosen career.
I’ve never really been someone who got weepy over the death of celebrity…huge displays of emotion over the death of a star you’ve never actually met honestly creep me out a little bit. Like if you tell me that your classmate didn’t wash his hair for a month after Kurt Cobain died or that your other friend was legit sobbing at work after she heard about Prince passing, I can’t help but feel a little concerned for their mental health. Yet the older I get, the more I get it. Losing people like Robin Williams, David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, and even trash-box Karl Lagerfeld makes me feel like a little bit of my life history is also gone. These were people who informed so much of the culture I hungrily consumed, culture that defined the rest of my life. And now they’re just…gone? In the most illogical sense, I had always sort of just assumed that because these particular stars shined so bright in my own life, that they would always just be here. Their leaving this world just makes one feel a little more lonely.
So when the news notification popped up last week that Luke Perry had been rushed to the hospital after a massive stroke, I audibly gasped in the middle of a packed meeting…and when the same type of notification popped up yesterday that he had died, I’m not afraid to say that a few tears slipped out over the tributes to a man who lived such a bright light, and the condolences to his friends and family who lost a loved one too soon (also, 52 years old and died from a stroke? I don’t think I’m the only one whose own sense of mortality felt a little shaken by that).
And of course, after seeing the news, I canceled the rest of my day to sink into Buffy The Vampire Slayer (god that movie holds UP) and binge Beverly Hills, 90210 from the beginning. I’ve been playing with the idea of doing a retro recap of the series for…well, years, tbh…so now that the desire is keen and I’ve got some time off until summer, this is probably the perfect time to dive in. So stay tuned for a new series of recaps that will be appearing here on the blog, starting with the pilot episode and going all the way to when I decide I don’t want to do them anymore.
Anyway. Thanks for all the memories, Dylan McKay.