Series Premiere: 90210 (2008)

“We’re Not in Kansas Anymore, The Jet Set”

September 2nd, 2008

“That’s what a blog is supposed to do, make problems”

When The CW chose not to send screeners of their latest show out to critics, they were making a statement. Now that viewers have been able to see the show for themselves, we can finally discern what exactly that statement was: was it that the show is so poor that the network didn’t want critics ‘making problems’? Or, more positively, was it just that there are so many reasons to watch this show that they decided the critics were irrelevant?

I can understand the argument: between nostalgia and teen girls, a majority of 90210’s potential audience is probably already aware of the series’ existence. So those of us who either choose to or are employed to look past our personal interest to answer the question of whether or not the series is actually any good are not what they’re interested in.

But I don’t think they really needed to be quite so scared of our kind: no, the show is not a new standard in teen drama, and its various archetypes don’t offer the type of wit or charisma of even the network’s Gossip Girl, but if we’re judging the series on its ability to offer flashy melodrama with just enough substance to keep it afloat, 90210 lives up to its hype.

However, only time will tell if the real people The CW wants watching are going to feel the same way.

If we’re looking for a comparative series example for us folks too young to have been under the spell of the original ‘Beverly Hills, 90210,’ this series plays out more like The O.C. than anything else. There’s the same “out of place” aesthetic, the same makeshift and damaged family at its core, and Lacrosse instead of Water Polo as the popular male sport of choice. The problem is that it doesn’t do anything to stand out beyond these archetypes: it doesn’t have a Ryan Atwood who provides a more subtle dramatic centre, and it doesn’t have a Seth Cohen who brings an entirely alternate perspective on the affair.

Yes, it is unfair to judge the show too early: The O.C. took some time to develop its own voice, and 90210 might be able to do the same. The problem is that what we’re seeing has been conceived in the wrong environment, one designed to ape other shows as opposed to creating any sort of true identity. Rob Thomas’ initial setup, still fairly intact, has potential to create some interesting stories, but there’s nothing about it that hearkens back to Veronica Mars, a show that simply had more interesting portraits of its bad boys or its heroines.

Right now, as much as low expectations are no excuse, the big benefit is that none of the characters are hideously unlikeable. There is something very innocent about Shanae Grimes (late of Degrassi: The Next Generation), and that works here: there’s nothing overly deep about this young girl who seems simultaneously too adjusted and too panicky, but she strikes a balance that makes her fun to watch if not quite root for. I find her a bit earnest, but not in the way that keeps me from following her various emotions.

Her journey over the two parts of the premiere is solid: she has her sexual tension with Ethan, she has her dangerous friendship with Naomi, starting off on the wrong foot with Silver, and eventually a chance to experience the “good life” on a private jet with the richest kid in school. She’s your regular 15-year old, in other words, in a way that feels both oddly refreshing and perhaps short on long term potential: normal can only last so long.

Dixon, meanwhile, brings Tristan Wilds back to my television screen only a week after I finished The Wire Season Five. The young actor has a certain charisma about him, but it is clear that material makes a difference: he’s good at this stuff too, but the broody Michael giving way to Dixon, striving to fit in at all costs, is a tough sell whether it’s playing lacrosse or organizing a school prank.

Jessica Walter, as the family matriarch whose failing capabilities to drive herself around town without crashing into things have them moving from Kansas, has the opposite problem: her character is too similar to the last one she played, another alcoholic matriarch in Lucille Bluth (‘Arrested Development’). The characters are almost scarily similar, but without the same cruel streak she’s just an excuse to throw in some quippy dialogue that seems out of place for a woman her age to be saying – she can still pull it off very well, but it feels more like the director said “Be Lucille, but with less edge” than any sort of new character development.

As for the rest of our characters, I think it works: there’s just enough shades of gray with Ethan, Naomi and Adrianna that they can easily grow into villains, friends, or characters we care about in some fashion. We get Ethan getting serviced in his car before first bell, but we also get him honestly caring for Annie and stepping up to save Dixon on two separate occasions. Naomi is a spoiled brat who steals Annie’s term paper, but she also is incredibly defensive about people presuming she isn’t as smart as her sister and that she isn’t capable to do the work as opposed to being unwilling to do it. And Adrianna is threatened by Annie upstaging her in the Musical chorus (Maybe the most cliched scene of all), and is generally a bitch to her, but then we see her emotional breakdown after being pressured by her mother into going to the audition.

It’s classic teen soap plotting, or so I presume from my limited experience: I can’t speak to Jennie Garth and Shannon Doherty’s roles from a nostalgia perspective, but Ryan Eggold (Playing the young Lacrosse coach/English teacher) nicely fits into that type of dynamic while also providing a more mature foil for some of the high schoolers. And Rob Estes and Lori Laughlin are old hat at playing these types of roles, so while they’re no Cohens I think that they fit well into the universe and Estes in particular makes his dual Parent/Principal role work even if the whole love child angle feels tacked on and tired.

Regardless, if I do decide to stop watching the show (Which remains to be seen), it will really be an issue like with Ethan and Naomi: I’m more breaking up with us, me and the show, than I am with the show itself. There isn’t anything deplorable beyond repair here, and with a little finetuning I think the show can work; if it doesn’t put in its side of the effort though, I don’t know if the relationship could possibly continue.

Cultural Observations

  • One of my nagging issues with the show is the incredibly lazy plotting wherein every single commercial break is a dramatically-scored cliffhanger: “Why did Naomi pass in your paper?” “Look what I found in your pocket *DRAMATIC ZOOM*”, etc. It isn’t necessary, at all, and actually felt insulting: I don’t need a cliffhanger to be capable of waiting through an entire commercial break, people.
  • I came in a few minutes late (I’ve since watched the opening scene), but I felt like we jumped into the action really quickly: if this was a smarter show, I’d presume this was to mimic the family’s sudden launch into their new environment, but considering how much the show is banking on nostalgia I’m guessing it was just the easiest and most efficient way to introduce new characters in quick expositional dialogue as opposed to long and drawn out character studies.
  • I was Twittering the premiere as it went along, and pretty much all of them were some kind of statement about how strange it is to see Tristan Wilds not playing Michael, his character from The Wire. When he was running a prank, my mind runs to urine-filled balloons; when he explains how much he values his father/son relationship with his adopted dad, I questioned why he was so comfortable talking about male role models. It’s going to be a hard disconnect, no question.

1 Comment

Filed under 90210

One response to “Series Premiere: 90210 (2008)

  1. Hello Miles! Good assessment on “90210”. I completely agree with you about Jessica Walter (as evident by my Tweets as well) that I found her aping Lucille Bluth almost exactly. Although it brought levity and humor to some moments, all it did more was make me ache to see the Bluth family all over again. As a teen product of both “Beverly Hills, 90210” I had a strange attraction to the show. At first I forgot about the pull the first series had until the scene when Kelly came up to Silver and revealed they are sisters. Then it all came back to me. And be it either nostalgia or my fault for liking teen soaps no matter how bad they are, I knew I was sucked in. And it only got better when I saw the Peach Pit, or The Pit, and Nat! Once I saw Nat, it was all over. And then Brenda! OMG! Brenda Walsh is back on “90210”. Sigh, I’m reliving the 90s all over again. Sadly I know I’m not the target audience, and you are correct that this show is not some ground breaking teen soap but it does have a certain hilarity to it. Although not as charming or endearing as say “The O.C.” or “Gossip Girl,” I will tune in for a few more episodes. Strangely, I find myself more pulled to see what’s happening with Brenda, and who’s the father to Kelly’s 4 year old son.

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