Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Time of the Season: S1 of Beverly Hills 90210 (’90-’91)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 4, 2007

The 90s, now officially 17 years old

It was sort of hard to explain to people why I wanted to rent the first season of Beverly Hills 90210, but I had a fair number of reasons. First, as a child of the 90s and a perpetual student of the decade’s culture, it’s criminal how little of the show I had seen thusfar. Second, as a fan of many of the teen dramas it helped make possible (mostly The O.C. and Dawson’s Creek), it didn’t seem right not to have properly experienced the godfather of them all. And third, the episodes I’d seen of it had been pretty good–not high art, exactly, but compelling teen drama nonetheless. So whatever–I’ve watched a fair number of brilliant-but-cancelled series recently, it seemed like time for some quality basic-but-enormously-popular viewing.

Unfortunately, 90210‘s first season was pretty far form the cultural landmark and thinking-TV respite I’d been hoping. I had no idea how different and largely inauspicious the show’s beginnings were compared to the next couple seasons–the 22 first-season episodes I watched beared little resemblance to the impression I had of the show, especially after the couple of episodes I saw over the summer. It gets points for originality (though it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when shows like 90210 weren’t ruling the airwaves), but not much else.

Really, the show just hadn’t found its stride yet. The soapiness that the show would soon become legendary for really wasn’t in place yet–according to Darren Star in one of the S1 DVD’s extras, it wasn’t until 90210 spawn Melrose Place set new standards for over-the-top drama that 90210 was forced to move in that direction itself. For the first season, at least, there was plenty of teen drama, but most of it wasn’t of the romantic kind. Instead, you get plenty of issue-a-week episodes dealing afterschool special-style with problems like drunk driving, breast cancer, teen parenthood, and so on. Today, it’s extremely cheesy stuff, and the show’s fairly conservative moralizing is nauseating at times.

The other principal difference is that for the first season, the show was pretty much just about Brandon (Jason Priestley) and Brenda (Shannon Doherty). Sure, most of the characters from later seasons are there, but the stories are still mainly Brandon and Brenda’s. Though they’re pretty good characters, and the relationship between the two gives the first season its most touching moments, they’re not strong enough to shoulder the whole show–90210 was meant to be an ensemble drama, wiith the Walshes just as the focal point, but it looks like it took at least until the second season for the show’s creators to realize it.

All this would be forgivable, though, if it wasn’t for the most apalling difference between the first season and the rest of the series–the theme song. The classic 90210 theme song–with its unforgettable opening four-chord, two-clap intro, and soaring sax and guitar hook–is nowhere to be found in the credit sequences of the first 22 episodes. Well that’s not totally true–it’s there, sort of, but in a neutered, horrifically dated, and most crucially, intro-less form, which just teases you by reminding you of what it’s not. A truly great theme song and credit sequence can salvage even the worst TV episodes, but with these, I ended up skipping the credits altogether. So sad.

If nothing else, I suppose 90210‘s first season is interesting in an “early years” sort of way, the way you study a director’s student films or an artist’s early demos to get a sense of what was to come and what had changed in the meantime. The most enjoyable thing about the show for me was watching David Silver, Brian Austin Green’s character, in his early days–Green was only 17 in the earliest episodes (a full decade younger than some of his castmates and supposed peers), he plays a 15-year-old, and he looks and acts like a 13-year-old (one who wears New Order shirts, for some reason). That this guy ever ended up as one of the show’s potential romantic leads is mind-boggling after watching his first year at 90210. And Tori Spelling, the butt of a thousand jokes for landing such a princess-y role in her daddy’s sitcom, is barely in the first season at all, a supporting character at best who actually seems fairly low-key compared to the rest of the cast. My guess is that this changes slightly in later episodes.

I’ll probably check out the second season sometime in the hopes that it gets better, and I think it will–supposedly the show didn’t really take off until then anyway. They better at least have the right theme song by then–I bet that’s what made all the difference.

(Side Note: Andrea Zuckerman might be the most annoying TV character in the history of the teen drama genre. And I want to be Steve Sanders.)

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One Response to “Time of the Season: S1 of Beverly Hills 90210 (’90-’91)”

  1. Kryss Peterson (aka Carlton Banks Dance Academy) said

    The first season is basically like the later years of Saved By The Bell, if instead of being shown on NBC on Saturday mornings, it was instead on Wednesday nights on Fox. The post-Melrose episodes are much better. But after Andrea gets pregnant, gets married, and then they start graduating from college… it gets really annoying.

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