Edutainment: Life Lessons from Beverly Hills 90210

Growing up, 7:30 p.m. was a sacred time in my household. Racing to the prime viewing spot, my sisters would have rather gone headfirst through the box than miss the opening sequence of Beverly Hills: 90210. Then there’d be absolute silence for the next hour, because God forbid somebody talked over a vital piece of dialogue from Brenda or Kelly or Steve. Long before TiVo and YouTube, there’d be no way of ever knowing what you missed (unless your mom was nice enough to tape the show for you).

I turned two years old in 1990, but grew up with a decidedly more mature taste in television due to older siblings who were just hitting their teens. We watched a bunch of shows, but 90210 sticks vividly in my mind as the zeitgeist series of the decade (even though I was probably too young to be watching it).

Picking up where John Hughes left off, producer Aaron Spelling recalibrated teen angst for the small screen when the 90210 gang entered our collective consciousness on October 4, 1990. Rewatching the pilot episode, when Midwest twins Brenda (Shannen Doherty) and Brandon (Jason Priestley) first land in the eponymous zip code, is like peering into a mirror of early 90s awesomeness.

Part of 90210’s appeal was its sincere yet mature take on adolescent life. Sure, certain aspects were a little hard to swallow – like the students who brought a new meaning to the term “senior” (I’m looking your way, Andrea Zuckerman). You could argue that the WASPish cast didn’t represent the diversity you’d expect at a high school in California. Credibility aside, 90210 developed into a pretty decent drama over time, attracting a loyal viewership through its honest depiction of everything from sexuality to gun control. Who can forget pivotal PSA-worthy moments like Brandon getting drugged at a rave? Or when Donna was barred from graduating for getting wasted at prom, leading Brandon to stage a school walk-out on her behalf (“Donna Martin Graduates”).

It was also the show that launched a thousand fashion crazes, from flower hats, midriffs, Hillary Clinton pantsuits to high-waisted jeans, oversized shirts (tucked into your jeans) and of course, those Dylan McKay sideburns. I recall 90210 trading cards, books, fan clubs…I even owned a Brenda doll.

In 2008, a “cooler, sexier, more provocative” spinoff was launched on the CW Network, with a similar format revolving around two Kansas teens dealing with the perils of fitting in at West Beverly High. While it didn’t bomb the way many predicated, essentially the update didn’t match the cult appeal of the original. 90210 was the forerunner to a new era in teen-orientated television (Dawson’s Creek, Party of Five, Buffy, The OC)  and cultivated the genre as we know it now. So why bother creating a spin-off, when it seems like a pale imitation of the original?

Before the advent of reality TV, shows like 90210 that dealt candidly the big-ticket issues were it. Nowadays we have a plethora of programming in the palms of our hands, and let’s face it, does anyone tune into Gossip Girl for advice on how to cope with a rocky parent-teen relationship? Hell no! Times may have changed, but the issues faced by teens (peer pressure, turbulent friendships, drug use, losing your virginity) have stayed more or less the same.

What ‘life lessons’ did you learn from 90210 in the 90s? Share your thoughts!

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