Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Sometimes Newer Isn't Always Better...

Rob Estes was already turning heads from his days as Sergeant Lorenzo on Silk Stalkings when he signed on to play Kyle McBride on Aaron Spelling's primetime soap, Melrose Place, but the wider popularity of that program (due undoubtedly in part to the built in audience from being a part of the 90210 family) was what really made him a household name. Now, almost ten years after his reign there ended, he has come back to the franchise that made him famous as Harry Wilson, the new vice principal and doting dad in The CW's new 90210. To ask Estes, it may be a bit like coming home; after all, life didn’t just change for him because of his newfound fame but also because he met his wife and the mother of his children on that program.

So after only its first, albeit double-stuffed, episode aired, how does the new 90210 match up against the old? Well, perhaps Shannen Doherty said it best in her Entertainment Weekly interview when she divulged days before the premiere that "there's a girl giving a guy a blow job in the first episode!" Though her character of Brenda Walsh was always on the outskirts of morality in the original series, the older and wiser actress showcased a bit of disgust when making that announcement. It was almost as if she had felt like all of the good memories of her own adolescence (and of Aaron Spelling's influence) had been degraded with that one line in the new script. And she wouldn't be alone in feeling that way: 90210 ("The New Class," as it were) is much more for its teen audience than anyone who may have been around during the prequel.

Times, they certainly have changed here at West Beverly High since Brenda and Kelly ruled the halls as the "it" girls. Their world included lipliner, hairspray, and a sidekick who was proud of being a virgin, and their relationship drama was very much about the "I like him, but he likes her, but he still kissed me" sort of petty triangle we came to know and love with nineties television. Compared with the kids of today's generation, though, they look like amateurs. Of course it is necessary to update the show and make sure the storylines are relevant for the issues today's youth faces-- and increasingly that does include sexual relationships, underage drinking, and party drugs-- but there is a thin line between reflecting real life and sensationalizing it for dramatic effect. It's amazing what a few years can do: Beverly Hills, 90210 now looks wholesome by comparison-- which may explain why Lori Laughlin signed on to play Harry's fashion photographer wife: after years of cookie cutter programming (Full House, Summerland) dotting her resume, she may have finally felt the need for something a little spicier. So far, the show seems poised to deliver, not only providing brand new eye candy (Tristan Wilds, Dustin Milligan, Ryan Eggold), but also planting seeds of controversy among cast relationships as well as upcoming storylines. Though Doherty may have been living under a rock these last few years, 90210 really should not be a culture shock for anyone who has kept up-to-date with teen programming, especially last season's melodramatic predecessor, Gossip Girl, which is still the show to beat in terms of characters being everything of a parent's worst nightmare.

It is refreshing to see Jennie Garth's Kelly walk the halls of her alma mater as a strong, confident, sophisticated woman who (seemingly) isn't phased by the superficiality of high school drama. In the first episode, she doesn't seem affected by what she sees around her, despite being the guidance counselor and therefore assumedly the most connected adult in the school, and she even scoffs at Harry (Rob Estes)'s response, saying: "C'mon, you know what Beverly Hills is like." She seems very much an unjaded, unaffected, mature woman who has risen above the shortcomings and exaggeration of her town. In a way, she is a simple nod to all of the adolescents that grew up with her on Beverly Hills, 90210 because even if they haven't moved past the experiences of their teenage years, she has, and through her example, they will soon follow.

Beverly Hills, 90210 offered role models to its young viewers. There were characters who were insecure, flawed, and sometimes downright devious, but oddly enough, despite their hard-to-obtain zip code, they were quite down-to-Earth in the way they were just trying to figure out who they were in the crazy world surrounding them. They were typical teenagers, and for that, viewers could relate and even desire to emulate. In the much flashier, much more glam world of 90210, though, it seems the role models are only those characters who have already come through it. In Beverly Hills, 90210, the adults were few and far between (and even then hardly ever on-screen), but this time around, they are the coolest ones of the bunch.

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