Zip It

Having created the mold for the teen drama, '90210' heads for the hills with one last laugh at those who ridiculed it.

May 17, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Tonight's series' finale of "Beverly Hills 90210" ends on the wedding of Donna Martin (Tori Spelling) and David Silver (Brian Austin Green), with all their friends joining them for this rite of passage into adulthood. The final scene at the reception -- with Donna, David, Brandon, Dylan, Kelly, Andrea and Steve moving as one on a tightly packed dance floor -- has a truly tribal feel to it.

In a cultural sense, this is a near-perfect conclusion to the 10-year, prime-time teen drama, according to Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University and author of "Television's Second Golden Age," a look at network drama in the 1980s and '90s.

"Beverly Hills, 90210" began with Brenda (Shannen Doherty) and Brandon Walsh (Jason Priestley) coming from Minnesota with their parents and starting school at West Beverly Hills High. It was not a great drama. In fact, Thompson calls it "downright cheesy looking" compared to such richly textured current hits as "The West Wing" or "The Practice." But, culturally, it was highly important for the way it redefined adolescence in American life and ultimately made network TV the principal storyteller of that journey from childhood to adulthood.

"This is one of those programs that's so easy to make fun of -- or even to trash -- that you can lose sight of how truly important it was," Thompson says.

"It started all kinds of new trends that we tend not to recognize. It carved out a new genre besides cops, detectives, lawyers and doctors by identifying that the teen-age nation can in fact be the locus of really important American storytelling in a way that `Welcome Back Kotter,' `Head of the Class,' `Fame' and a couple of the other relatively lame attempts to explore this terrain were never able to achieve," he explains.

Actually, "90210" is not network television's first serious attempt to tell teen stories in prime time. "James at 15," a brilliant 1977 NBC drama written by novelist Dan Wakefield, was the first by more than a decade.

The story of a sensitive teen-ager (Lance Kerwin) uprooted by his family's move from Oregon to Boston, "James" dealt with topics ranging from teen alcoholism to James' loss of virginity. James was the first teen character in network history, in fact, to have sex, and the controversy was enormous.

Nor is "90210" the longest-running drama on television, as the New York Times recently reported. NBC's "Law & Order" has been on longer.

It is also incorrect to say "90210" is the show on which the fledgling Fox network was built, as a number of recent farewell pieces have. "Married With Children," which debuted in 1987, and "The Simpsons," which launched in 1989, arrived first and provided the essential underpinning for Rupert Murdoch's vision.

Popularity breeds imitators

But "90210" is the first teen drama that caught on with millions of young viewers, and its success is directly responsible for all of the series that followed, from "My So-Called Life" to "Dawson's Creek" and "Party of Five," which ended its six-year run earlier this month. Thompson is right when he says "90210" is the teen series that carved out the genre; in network television, only the commercially successful spawn imitators.

But success was not immediate for "90210." The series premiered in the fall of 1990 and was almost lost in a sea of sitcoms about teen life: "Ferris Bueller," "Parker Lewis Can't Lose," "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" and "Hull High."

But Jamie Kellner and Garth Ancier, then the programmers at Fox, went outside the box and, instead of ending the season in May and resuming it September, as is still the general practice in network TV, they kept "90210" on the air during the summer of 1991.

Furthermore, they tried to collapse the distance between TV reality and the real lives of young viewers with episodes showing how the high-school-age characters were spending their summer vacations.

Offering fresh programs to teens during the summer when they were more available as viewers was a brilliant move by Kellner, now the chairman of the WB network, and Ancier, the current entertainment president at NBC.

It is a move still being imitated today with "Young Americans," a new teen drama for the WB that is filming in Baltimore.

The series about life at a New England prep school will debut July 12 rather than during fall premiere week, when it could easily get lost amid the clutter of new series and when many teens are preoccupied with their return to school.

By the end of the summer of 1991, "90210" was a hit, and the mainstream press, which had generally ignored or trashed the series, was filled with stories on the stars -- Priestley, Doherty, Luke Perry and Jennie Garth -- being mobbed in personal appearances at shopping malls and state fairs.

New parenting approach

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