'Beverly Hills' traps teens in a moral muddle

October 04, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Beverly Hills, 90210" is supposed to be a family drama. But it's mainly a teen drama -- lots of teen, not much drama.

That's the story in the 90-minute pilot, which premieres at 8:30 tonight on WBFF-TV (Channel 45), anyway.

The new Fox series is ostensibly about a family of four, the Walshes, that relocates from Minneapolis to Beverly Hills when the father of the family gets a job transfer. (The 90210 in the title is the zip code in Beverly Hills to which the family relocates.) But the father (played by James Eckhouse) is on camera for less than a minute. His one speaking line involves him walking into a room, seeing his daughter crying and saying, "Hey, what's going on here?" For the record, Eckhouse doesn't do all that well with the line.

The focus of "Beverly Hills, 90210" is Brandon (Jason Priestley) and Brenda (Shannen Doherty), the Walsh twins, and their first week at West Beverly Hills High School.

The week consists of: a couple of parties, a deep relationship for each, the chance to have sex for each, a faked I.D. for her, a big lie for him, a fashion make-over for her, an evening in a hot tub with a beautiful-and-rich classmate for him, an evening with an older attorney for her and a bonding experience with a brainy-but-not-so-beautiful-or-rich classmate for him.

The Walsh twins also sort of flit in and out of classes. But "Beverly Hills, 90210" does not appear to be much about schoolwork or class rooms.

What's the show really about? It seems as if it wants to be abouteen-agers feeling alienated and the clash between what the producers try to set up as the good values of the Midwest (honesty and simplicity) vs. the bad values of Beverly Hills (overemphasis on money, appearance and status). In a way, it's not that different than the dynamic of "The Beverly Hillbillies" -- where the simple folk values of the Clampetts were in conflict with and always proved superior to those of the jaded characters of Beverly Hills.

The problem is that the story line of "Beverly Hills, 90210" doesn't quite follow that grid. By and large, being popular is held up as a positive value and a serious goal of Brandon and Brenda. But being popular involves adopting the values of their new classmates. So the producers try to cut it both ways -- have the twins be popular but somehow morally superior. What it mainly makes for is confusion and moral muddle.

There is some talent here in Doherty and a few of the supporting players. But it does not look as if it is nearly enough talent to make up for the show's lack of clarity and vision.

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