The Peach Pit is now serving tall skinny lattes. On Beverly Hills, 90210, the suspiciously unlined mother of all teen soaps, which ran from 1990 to 2000, even the richest kids were happy with an after-school Coke at the retro diner. Not so on just plain 90210, an extreme makeover of the '90s show debuting Sept. 2 on the CW network with new characters and in teen years a geologic era's worth of social and cultural updates.
Yes, 18 years after the original pilot aired, change has come to the iconic California zip code, in the form of grownups with character arcs, lead cast members of color you can't get in a tanning booth, recreational YouTubing and espresso drinks. "Fans of the original show will be taken aback at first," says Jennie Garth, returning as Kelly Taylor, now a guidance counselor at West Beverly High and a single mom. Those who remember Kelly's date rape, diet-pill addiction, amnesia, miscarriage, cult membership and house-fire episodes will be glad to know her biggest problem now is finding love. Despite a series finale kiss with Dylan McKay that seemed to bring romantic closure to the first show's two most beleaguered characters, "she's still looking for her happily ever after," Taylor says.
On the surface, the new 90210 doesn't sound all that different from the old. Replacing the Walshes of Minnesota are the Wilsons of Kansas, who move to Beverly Hills to care for an alcoholic grandmother, Tabitha (Jessica Walter, best known for playing another boozy matriarch, Arrested Development's Lucille Bluth). Like Brenda and Brandon parking their Chevy Chevette in the high school lot next to BMWs and Porsches in the 1990 pilot, new siblings Annie (Shenae Grimes of Degrassi: The Next Generation) and Dixon (Tristan Wilds of The Wire) arrive as all-American kids trying to fit in among some of the wealthiest, most entitled teens in the 50 states. Along with Kelly, the Peach Pit and its jovial counterman Nat (Joe E. Tata), Shannen Doherty is also back as Brenda, in a guest spot directing the school play. Tori Spelling, who at one point was in discussions to reprise the role of Donna Martin, is no longer scheduled to appear, due to a combination of timing and salary concerns.
That's what's staying the same, but here's what's changed: As TV parents go, Beverly Hills, 90210's Jim and Cindy Walsh existed just one rung above the "mwa mwa"-speaking adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons. The Walsh parents had no inner life, no conflict, no secrets. They were as boring as most teen-agers think their own parents really are. But the moms and dads of the CW's 90210 will be nearly as fleshed out and central to the show as their offspring, say writer-producers Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah. (We have to take Sachs and Judah at their word, since the CW isn't providing the press an advance peek at the show.) With Ma and Pa Wilson, played by Lori Loughlin and Rob Estes, the creators are taking a page from the engaging and glossy grownups of another successful SoCal teen soap, The O.C.
"We're watching this marriage," says Sachs, who with Judah wrote for Freaks and Geeks and What About Brian. "When you make this move from Kansas to Beverly Hills, how does it affect your relationship, your careers?" 90210, Sachs says, will mirror a culture in which many parents consider themselves friends with their teens. "A lot of parents now want to be the cool parents, as opposed to just the disciplinarian," he says. "And sometimes that backfires. In some ways we're giant teenagers ourselves." Estes' character is also the school principal, and there's a crushworthy teacher at West Bev, played by Ryan Eggold, who becomes a love interest for Kelly.
It's not just generational diversity that separates the new 90210 from the old. In the original, the only nonwhite cast members were extras black students inexplicably wearing business suits to school and a couple of young Saudi sheiks roaming the quad. In 90210 2.0, Dixon, who is adopted, is African American. Another regular character, Navid Shirazi, is an Iranian-American student played by darkly handsome (though not Iranian) Michael Steger. So far the new show has thankfully avoided a Gabrielle Carteris that is, an actor over age 30 trying to pass as a high schooler.
Another inevitable update is technological. In 1990, West Beverly students ever so rarely talked into brick-sized black boxes which archaeologists now identify as early cell phones. In 2008, new character Erin Silver (Jessica Stroup) half-sister of Kelly Taylor and David Silver, and classmate of Annie and Dixon is a YouTube sensation with a popular video diary.
The CW, home to teen shows like Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill, is looking to 90210 to broaden its base. The creators have tried to retain enough of the successful old formula relatable, good-looking Midwesterners making their way among dysfunctional, great-looking Southern Californians and add enough of the new to win over multiple generations. "We wanted the show to be accessible for viewers who are fans of the original show or for a parent to sit down and watch the show with their kids," says CW president Dawn Ostroff.
The old show worked well enough for the new star, Grimes. "My mom kinda brought me up on the original," she says. "It was mother-daughter bonding night." Of course, when Beverly Hills, 90210 debuted, Grimes was only 1. Apparently, bonding via syndication is also an option.