As I grow older, there are some matters of taste from my past that I just can’t reconcile: the Mariah Carey singles, the wind pants with zippers up the sides, the frosted lipstick and the love of “TGIF” (post-Belvedere, even). One thing, however, has stayed consistent: my love of Beverly Hills, 90210, sparked at a very young age, and somehow burning bright into my thirties.
I was only seven years old when 90210 began in October of 1990, and it was not the kind of thing I typically watched. Freshly obsessed with The Little Mermaid and still fonder of animals than people, I was busy toting my plush Sebastian crab and Pound Puppies everywhere. But somehow I started watching it anyway, drawn into the world of impossibly mature high school students with their cars and love triangles and shoplifting problems, even as my cousin sat next to me on the couch, making gagging noises during the make-out scenes. Instead of crawling around the floor like a dog in my imaginary games, I started to pretend I was a popular teenager, which in my second-grade mind was the very best thing to be.
By fourth grade, I was tuning into 90210 every week, a proud owner of a neon-flecked 90210 tee-shirt and a Kelly Taylor Barbie doll (basically a regular Barbie with better hair, dressed in a strange career-gal skirt suit). My favorite characters were Brandon (goody two-shoes that I was) and Kelly who, despite my preteen hopes, didn’t manage to fall in lust until the series rambled into its college years (after what seemed like five or six years of high school). It’s hard to remember being at critical of the show then: how did I interpret Brenda’s sociopathic behavior, Brandon’s bleeding-heart liberalism, Dylan’s try-hard bad-boy persona, and Andrea’s clearly advanced age?
Impressionable youth that I was, it seems I swallowed it all without question, and the characters and their stories became fodder for my imagination. I pretended I was Kelly Taylor, a girl with a bad reputation, a nose job, and a recovering-addict mother. Having stolen my best friend’s boyfriend (with a pompadour and permanent grimace), I’d hop in his vintage car for a retro evening of pie and diet pills at The Peach Pit. Never mind that Kelly had less personality than Brenda, and less intelligence than Andrea. She was the blonde bombshell, which is what everyone wanted to be. Even those, like, me with thick dark hair and freckles and a slowly descending cloud of social awkwardness that wouldn’t lift until college.
Fitting, then, that once the West Beverly gang graduated from high school and I moved on through adolescence, my interest in the show waned. I had to deal with the realities of my own teenage-hood, much more mundane than those of Miss Kelly Taylor. After a failed cheerleading try-out in sixth grade, I easily threw in the towel on my half-hearted quest for popularity, settling instead for the life of the theater kid (though without Brenda’s starring roles and accolades).
As I slunk quietly through junior high and high school, the teenage dreams of my youth slowly faded away. Instead of riding to the Peach Pit in a ’68 Mustang, I was dropped off at the Dairy Queen or Steak N’ Shake, where there were no Megaburgers, no Nat, and nary a rockabilly haircut in sight.
Much of my time was spent watching TV, reading, or listening to music, three activities the teens of 90210 just didn’t partake of unless they were reading the West Beverly Blaze (or a diary from the 1960s that Brenda finds in her window seat), or listening to one of David’s demos.
My one and only high school boyfriend was no Dylan or Brandon, type, either. He was quiet like Dylan, but I’m pretty sure it was an awkward silence, not a brooding one. I think he was a liberal, but he wasn’t popular enough to be class president. And lord knows he was no David Silver on the dance floor. He was a skinny, girl-phobic sophomore fond of Monty Python and The Who. He had no car, and no more of a life than I did.
Needless to say, in high school I focused more on shows truer to my own experience: Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life, and perhaps the truest of them all, Daria. I became obsessed with Rent and Pavement and learned to play the guitar. I drove around with my friend listening to Bob Dylan and talking about Dave Eggers. Eventually, I grew to understand that a popular teenager was not, in fact, the best thing to be, nor was it something I was ever cut out for.
And yet somehow, years later, I returned to 90210 with a fervor that surprised me. While I no longer found it aspirational, what I found most charming about the show the second time around was how blatantly, wish-fulfillingly unrealistic it was.
The show had a distinctly innocent, 1950s flavor, which makes sense since it was conceived by a man, Aaron Spelling, then in his late sixties. Though billed as an edgy series focused on teen lives full of drugs, sex, and wealth, it is quaintly moralistic.
This wholesome group of friends may be popular, but they aren’t snobs or bullies, and though they may have struggled with substance abuse (Dylan) or legal trouble (Steve), they all seem wise beyond their years, loyal, and cautious. It’s no surprise that it appeals to young children, as it told us that throughout the problems of adolescence, family and friends would always have our backs. And if we did something really bad, our dads might send us on a trip to France (Brenda), or we might win enough money making a half-court shot at a basketball game to buy ourselves out of suspension (Steve).
The nostalgia of the show’s writers and creators comes through loud and clear: why can’t Beverly Hills rich kids, at the end of the day, still congregate at the old malt shop? In one typical high school episode (by which, I’m embarrassed to admit, I was moved), we are offered a rare glimpse of the friends all at peace with one another: Brenda, Kelly, and Dylan have called a temporary truce, and the gang gathers at the Peach Pit for Megaburgers and malts. The moody Dylan, of all people, starts up the jukebox, and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ “Let’s Hang On” fills the room (I don’t know what Dylan typically listens to, but I have a hard time believing he’s into The Four Seasons).
This moment, so full of sweetness and blatant disregard for the casual cruelty of real teenage-hood, is what makes 90210 worth watching. It’s high school fantasy to watch half-ironically, half-longingly. It’s incredibly silly but still, always, comforting. When I watch it now, Beverly Hills, 90210 doesn’t remind me of my own teenage experience at all; it reminds me of a time when I didn’t know what being a teenager was, and in my innocence I was free to dream Spelling-tinged dreams of Mustangs and Megaburgers.
(Images via FOX)