A new term at Beverly Hills High

They're back. A second generation of rich, spoilt teenagers has taken up residence at zip code 90210, says Gerard Gilbert
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The Independent Culture

We're in a teenage boy's bedroom. The alarm clock goes off, rock music starts to blare from the radio, and the tousled teen turns slowly from under his duvet to reveal (millions of by now thirtysomething hearts flutter in unison) Jason Priestley as Brandon Walsh. "First day at school," Priestley/Brandon's voice sleepily narrates. "Strange city... new house... no friends... I'm psyched." In the next-door bedroom, Shannen Doherty as Brandon's sister Brenda is wheedling to her mother: "I'm going shopping today and school tomorrow... first impressions are incredibly important. Everybody here looks like they stepped out of a music video... I don't even have the right hair."

And there, in a pilot-episode nutshell from October 1990, was the premise for Beverly Hills 90210, the glamorous teen soap that, for 10 years, followed the spoiled rich brats and bitches who attended West Beverly Hills High, driving themselves to class in Porsches and Ferraris, forming cliques and falling in and out of love. The show became a heartthrob factory, starting with Priestley and Luke Perry as the lip-curling rebel-without-a-cause Dylan McKay. The girls were hot too, of course, but were more famous for the off-screen drama that was largely Doherty.

Beverly Hills 90210 was something shiny and new, especially in the UK, still engaged with the gritty realism of Grange Hill. It spawned a genre that included Dawson's Creek, The OC, The Hills and Gossip Girl. That last show, set among the socialite teenagers of New York's Upper East Side, was the first original drama from the fledgling network The CW, aimed at 18- to 34-year-old women. And it is The CW (a subdivision of CBS and Warner Brothers Television) that has now resurrected Beverly Hills 90210, with the fashionably truncated title 90210. Successfully premiered in America, 90210 arrives on our screens in January, with E4 having fought off Five, ITV2 and Living for the privilege.

"It's pretty much like the original," says co-producer Jeff Judah (Darren Star, later of Sex and the City, who created Beverly Hills 90210 is uninvolved; its executive producer, Aaron Spelling, died in 2006). In spite of the strong suggestion of oral sex in the first four minutes, which would have been totally unacceptable in a teen drama in 1990, it's déjà vu time in sunny California. "We even begin with the family coming from Kansas to Beverly Hills," says Judah.

The difference now is that Harry Wilson (Rob Estes) is taking up the post as new principal at West Beverly Hills High, where his daughter Annie (played with eye-scrunching tweeness by Shenae Grimes) and adopted son Dixon (Tristan Wilds, aka the tragically street-smart teen Michael Lee in The Wire) are to become pupils. Annie and Dixon are the Brenda and Brandon de nos jours, in other words, and the rest of the cast of characters – rebels, bitches, jocks, geeks – are also entirely familiar, as is the opening sequence, this time set to Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" (available to buy online, like all the music, from the CW website).

"One difference from the original show is that we have really strong adult storylines," says Judah. "Gabe [Sachs, his co-producer] and I are both parents and we didn't want to write just about the kids. We've seen this generation of baby-boom parents, who think they're parenting by giving their kids money and excess and clothing and no rules.

"Also, if you grew up in the Seventies or Eighties or Nineties and you're a parent, then you've done pretty much everything – from experimenting with pot, or excessive drinking or premarital sex – that our kids are doing. It's a lot harder to lie to us – we know what they're doing."

All of which should broaden the appeal of the new show. "People, especially women in their thirties, are really connected to it," says Judah, who's tapped into older viewers with some astute (stunt?) casting, luring back Beverly Hills 90210 veterans Jennie Garth and Doherty as guest stars. Garth's character, Kelly Taylor, seems to have morphed from aspiring model into a school guidance counsellor, while Doherty's Brenda, having left Beverly Hills 90210 at the end of the fourth series to travel to London and study at Rada, has returned (as a successful theatre actor) to direct the school musical. Tori Spelling was reportedly eager to reprise her role as Donna Martin, but allegedly dropped out over salary issues. It was Spelling's recent autobiography, sTori Telling, that documented supposed friction on the set, especially between the now reconciled Garth and Doherty.

"I think when you're 18, your personalities conflict and then you meet up 10 or 15 years later and you're fine," says a mellowed Doherty, who denies ever punching Garth. There might have been some scratching, however. "The vast majority of Tori's book is incredibly exaggerated," she says. Garth had qualms about returning to her role. "I thought Beverly Hills 90210 was very neatly in its coffin and it was done," she says. "When they told me they were doing it, I thought, 'No!' Like something sort of sacred was being disrupted. It took me a while to settle into the idea." Doherty had reservations, too: "I was kind of like, 'Why would I play Brenda Walsh again?' There was an 'I Hate Brenda' newsletter. Why would I possibly get myself back into that?"

The new version does show progress on one score, albeit in a somewhat tokenistic manner, breaking up the all-white cast with a black leading actor – Tristan Wilds. But why does his character have to have been adopted by a white family? Are there still no rich black families living in Beverly Hills? Maybe not. Either way, it's a pretty long way from Michael Lee, the hardened Baltimore teen at the centre of season four of HBO's acclaimed police drama, to 90210's Dixon Wilson.

"Michael and Dixon aren't as dissimilar as they first appear," says Wilds. "I always think of Dixon as Michael with a better chance. They kind of grew up in the same bad environment, but Dixon was adopted, so he's gotten his second chance."

Same zip code, different era, then. And other things have changed since Beverly Hills 90210. "Thanks to Paris Hilton and reality TV, not much of what happens at the fictional West Beverly Hills High School seems all that shocking," says the TV critic Laura Fries of the Hollywood industry newspaper Daily Variety. "Even the biggest fan of the original would be hard-pressed to call it realistic, but that earlier incarnation did deal with many topical issues of the day. This version doesn't cover issues as much as exploit them. With shows like The Hills and Gossip Girl exploring the upscale teenage lifestyle, this 90210 doesn't really offer any fresh zip."

And 90210 has had to work to compete with other newcomers, like ABC's Juno-like The Secret Life of an American Teenager, which follows a pregnant 15-year-old. "The Secret Life... outperforms both 90210 and Gossip Girl," says Fries, who agrees that there will always be a place for good old-fashioned escapist fantasy.

For others, the zip code only ever stood for one thing: cheesiness. "For a decade I adored 90210 for being a preposterous, cheesy show," says Amy Amatangelo of the Boston Herald. "I love the new 90210 for all the reasons I loved the old one. Many of the actors are too old to be playing high-school students. AnnaLynne McCord, who plays poor rich girl Naomi, looks more like a desperate housewife than someone just turned 16.

"The new show has the same comfortable, predictable simplicity. Don't be fooled by that oral satisfaction scene in the opener. Despite the racy hype, the series is an innocent throwback to another time."

'90210' will be screened on E4 in the new year

Class of 2008: the new intake

Annie Wilson

The new Brenda Walsh, Annie has had her life pretty much up-ended by moving to Beverly Hills. Boyfriend-less and no longer centre stage, she has the tough task of being the "new kid". Couple that with the fact that her old flame is her only contact and goes out with the most popular girl in school, and Annie becomes a classic female soap character who starts out by being a misfit. Oh, and predictably she's understatedly pretty.

Dixon Wilson

Annie's brother, he mirrors the Jason Priestley/Brandon Walsh character to Annie's Shannen Doherty. Dixon's struggles are many, stemming from being an adopted African-American in an all-white family. This continues at school when – in trying out for the lacrosse team – his skill evokes acute jealousy among his team-mates, further marginalising him.

Harry & Debbie Wilson

The new parental presence in '90210', they are good Samaritans, having made the move to California to look after Harry's increasingly unwell mother. The full range of soap tropes is again in evidence: Harry is the principal of West Beverly Hills High, but he faces the horror of discovering that he has a child by his high-school girlfriend. Debbie doesn't always get on with her mother-in-law and has a profitable job. Some of this stuff almost writes itself.

Ethan Ward

The cherubic yet supposedly jock-like idol of the lacrosse team. Talented and the apple of all the girls' eyes, he takes the arm of the school princess – yet, as he once kissed Annie, a predictable ménage à trois is forming.

Naomi Clark

Think Regina George ('Mean Girls') and Taylor Vaughan ('She's All That'). Naomi is the rich It girl with prom queen pretensions. All she cares about is her status and ensuring that no other girl could possibly catch her beau Ethan's eye. She's suspicious of Annie; potential friend, potential foe.