Friday, September 5, 2008

90210: Back to West Beverly High With the Next Generation

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Okay, if you're over the age of 35 and didn't catch the premiere of "90210" (CW, Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern), let me answer the number one question I'm sure you have on your mind: Yes, the new show uses the same theme song, although it's rocked up a bit for the new century. (And I'm sure the duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh riff is now firmly implanted in your head.)

Is the show similarly updated for new audiences? Very much so.

Don't get me wrong: "90210" is fully a nighttime soap, invested in issues of who is sleeping with whom (or who slept with whom, or who is dating whom) and with dramatic plot shifts and coincidences and sometimes overwrought dialogue. (Sample: A girl asks as guy, "Are you breaking up with me?", to which the guy responds earnestly, "I'm breaking up with us.") But the current version of "90210" is smarter, better acted and ultimately more enjoyable than it's 1990s predecessor.

The newbies to West Beverly High in the new "90210" are the brother and sister team of Annie and Dixon Wilson (Shenae Grimes of "Degrassi: The Next Generation" and Tristan Wilds of "The Wire"), whose parents, Harry and Debbie ("Melrose Place" refugee Rob Estes and TV veteran Lori Laughlin, most recently of the sitcom "In Case of Emergency"), have taken them halfway across the country from Kansas to live with Harry's boozy ex-actress mother Tabitha (Jessica Walter, not far from her brilliant parent-from-hell turn on "Arrested Development"). Harry, who grew up in Beverly Hills and attended West Beverly High, is taking over as principal there, much to the chagrin of Annie and Dixon, who don't relish life as the principal's kids. The 21st century update to the central siblings is that rather than being twins like Brandon and Brenda Walsh, Dixon is African-American and adopted.

Annie and Dixon are immediately thrust into the middle of drama in their new school. Annie, who has a boyfriend back in Kansas, is looking forward to seeing Ethan Ward (Dustin Milligan of "Supernatural"), a boy with whom she had a summer fling a couple of years back. But when she first sees Ethan, he is in an SUV being orally serviced by a girl who turns out to be a drug-addicted friend of his girlfriend. If that's not bad enough, Annie soon stumbles into a friendship with queen bee, rich girl Naomi Clark (AnnaLynne McCord of "Nip/Tuck"), who, surprise, happens to be Ethan's girlfriend. Annie also finds herself the subject of a vicious blog attack by Erin Silver (Jessica Stroup of "Reaper"), who goes by Silver and, we soon learn, is the half-sister of Kelly Taylor, as the offspring of her mother and David Silver's father, Mel, all characters from the original series. Annie's crime was allowing Naomi, Silver's arch enemy, to drag her away from their conversation.

Meanwhile, Dixon tries out for the lacrosse team, and when he takes the spot in the starting lineup of pretty boy Steve (Chuck Hittinger), the guy slashes him with his stick, leading to a fight. Ethan, covering for his teammate, initially lies and says Dixon started the fight, leaving the too-cool-for-school English teacher/lacrosse coach Ryan Matthews (Ryan Eggold of "Dirt") with no choice but to boot Dixon off of the team.

The adults have their own issues, too. Tabitha isn't interested in giving up her "iced tea" (of the Long Island variety) or her desire to drive, which is a bad combination. She also makes no effort to hide her dislike of Debbie. But Debbie has bigger fish to fry once Harry's high school girlfriend Tracy (Christina Moore, the replacement Laurie on "That 70s Show") starts hanging around him (after she asks Harry to drive her home, Debbie offers to drive him instead, saying, "We can swap stories about Harry's penis," to which a defeated Tracy replies, "I have enough of them"). The reason, we find out, is that Harry fathered Tracy's child in high school, who she then put up for adoption. And since this is a soap, Tracy is Naomi's mother, so Harry and Tracy have to interact at school when Naomi fails to complete her English paper (she's too busy preparing for her party, an excuse her father can't believe the teacher won't accept).

If you think this is a lot of plot for a one-hour drama, it is. And yet executive producers Jeff Judah and Gabe Sachs (writers on Judd Apatow's classic "Freaks and Geeks") manage to cram a whole lot of the original "90210" into the new version. In addition to Erin Silver, there are passing references that fans of the 1990s incarnation are sure to catch (like a glimpse of Hannah Zuckerman-Vazquez, the offspring of Andrea Zuckerman and Jesse Vazquez, and how Annie and Dixon's rooms are connected by a Jack-and-Jill bathroom, just like Brenda and Brandon's rooms back in the day). But even more prominent is the presence of Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth), now a single mother and guidance counselor at West Beverly High, who is being courted by fellow teacher Ryan, and Brenda Walsh (Shannen Doherty), visiting for a month to do a play in Los Angeles. Joe E. Tata also returns as Nat, owner of the hangout the Peach Pit, which is now a hip cappuccino place rather than the old-fashioned diner Kelly, Brenda, Brandon and the gang used to frequent.

It was a smart move to rope in the older generation with the characters from the original series, but their story lines, at least as of now, seem almost jammed in, separate and disconnected from the new generation's goings on. (Quick check-ins between Kelly and Silver aren't enough to bridge the gap.) And observing how time has been quite unkind to some of the original actors, especially Doherty, takes some of the fun out of the nostalgia factor.

But other than the collision of the two versions of the show, Judah and Sachs have made exceptional choices with their characters and stories, as well as infusing the scripts with enough smart lines to let you know that this is not the old "90210."

Annie is way more likable and relatable than Brenda ever was. (Some might call her the anti-Brenda, considering the strong dislike many fans held for Doherty's character.) Annie is smart and unassuming, but also not perfect, willing to jet to San Francisco for a first-date dinner even though she knows her mother would not approve (and does not, when her trip comes to light). Annie's will-they-won't-they relationship with Ethan is far more compelling than the Brenda-Dylan connection, mostly because Ethan isn't a cartoon like Dylan was. Dixon is an interesting character too, less of a goody-goody than Brandon, but also more fun and less pompous. There are some interesting elements to explore with the relationship with his family.

In fact, all of the actors in "90210" are infinitely more low-key and less angsty than their colleagues from the 1990s. From Luke Perry's James-Dean-on-Valium moves as Dylan, to the hysterics of Doherty, Garth and Tori Spelling, "subtlety" is not a term that would ever apply to the original cast. But even with over-the-top characters like Naomi, McCord, Grimes, Wilds and the others in the new "90210" don't try and do too much with the soapy material. They approach the scripts like they're real dramatic stories, a tribute to both their skill and the writing of Judah and Sachs.

Most of all, the new "90210" just feels less cartoony, and yet also more grand, than it's forerunner. The debut episode's central event was Naomi's "not so sweet 16" party, an event lavish enough to put the dog and pony shows of some of the girls featured on MTV's "My Super Sweet 16" to shame. (And, in the "90210" tradition, the band at the party was the hip Omaha indie pop outfit Tilly and the Wall, just as indie legends the Flaming Lips appeared at the Pit in the 1990s version of the show.)

I loved many of the casually tossed off lines, from a reference to Ethan that "he's the one with the spotlight shining out of his ass," to Naomi responding to Annie's declaration that she would love to attend her birthday party with, "Of course you would."

In my article two weeks ago listing the five new shows I was most looking forward to watching, I wrote that I hoped the choice of Judah and Sachs to run "90210" would mean that the network envisioned the show having more depth than the original series. It's clear that while nobody will confuse "90210" with "The Wire," it just may be a smart, fun escapist romp, closer to "Dirty Sexy Money" than, well, the original "90210."

I wrote in my top-five article that while I would watch the first episode of "90210," I couldn't promise that I'd watch the second one. Well, the CW aired the first and second installments back-to-back, and I did, in fact, watch both. I'll even watch the third one next week. Based on the ratings of the debut, which were the highest for a fiction show in the network's short history, I will be far from the only one.