A Descent into Prime Time: 90210 and Gossip Girl

Marlena has always looked down her nose at prime time soaps (at least those post-Dynasty and Knots Landing.)  Years ago at SOW I even wrote a column called “Who Needs Beverly Hills 90210?” and to my surrpise,  thousand of young fans wrote in and said, “We do! We do!” So although the new 90210 and Gossip Girl are not theoretically fodder for my Thinking Fans, I thought you all might enjoy a thoughtful, funny and intelligent read by my TV critic friend Ed Martin, on the season kickoffs of each show.  Aw come on, TFs, slum it!

                                                                                    Marlena

                                                                                    XXXOOO

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90210

By Ed Martin 

I figure the reason why The CW chose not to provide advance review copies of the 90210 two-hour premiere is because, right at the start, one of the main characters was shown getting a hummer in the high school parking lot.

Can’t you imagine the headlines? “90210 Blows!” “90210 Sucks!”

Come to think of it, the comments that would have followed in dozens of reviews might have drawn even more young viewers to the show.

As it happens, the contemporary continuation of the hot 90s phenom that began as Class of Beverly Hills, then became Beverly Hills, 90210 and was eventually known simply as 90210 isn’t half bad. It’s going to take more than a discrete scene of oral sex to shock the young viewers to whom 90210 is targeted, especially when, elsewhere on The CW’s schedule, the worldly teens on the much improved Gossip Girl are saying and doing dirtier, sexier things. For example, on that show, pretty boy Nate Archibald (Chace Crawford) is now a man-whore, accepting money for sex from a ravenous cougar (played to irresistible perfection by Madchen Amick). Bitch princess Blair Waldorf, meanwhile, is more tart tongued than ever — so tart, in fact, that the dialogue given to actress Leighton Meester Gossip Girlmust have network censors in a state of perpetual

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Leighton Meester, Ed Westwick in Gossip Girl

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pucker. In the first two new episodes of the season, Blair referred to rotten Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick) as a “bass-hole” and cried “Oh my eff-ing God!” when she caught Nate and the cougar in the midst of a sweaty business transaction.

Regardless of one’s sensitivities, which can’t be very sensitive if one regularly consumes American media, The CW these days has much to celebrate. The 2008-09 season hasn’t even started yet and the network has already blasted out of the gate with two improbable wins. Gossip Girl and 90210 are both enjoying respectable ratings and more critical support than anyone might have imagined. On the creative level, Gossip is showing all kinds of improvement over its feeble first season, and 90210, I’m pleased to report, truly feels like an organic extension of the classic from which it was spun, rather than a slapdash rehash. I’ll admit that I am thrown by the fact that teenagers on both shows can brazenly breeze into bars and clubs and swill cocktails, and that they never seem to get drunk, even when downing the hard stuff. It is strange to see the entertainment, advertising and publishing communities excitedly support shows that position underage drinking as a glamorous adolescent fantasy. The alcohol thing might actually be upsetting if it felt remotely realistic. (On BBC America’s Skins – the very best television series about teenagers ever — the kids secretly drink at house parties, then throw up, pass out and wake up looking like crap — just like in real life.)

All of the early good will the media has bestowed on 90210 is due in large part to its skillfully executed, multi-generational story structure. The kids are alright, but the grownups are pretty cool, too. Rob Estes and Lori Loughlin are nothing if not watchable as Harry and Debbie Wilson, proud parents of daughter Annie (Shenae Grimes) and son Jessica WalterDixon (Tristan Wilds). Harry, who grew up in Beverly Hills, has

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Jessica Walter in 90210

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relocated his family from Kansas City back to L.A. to become the new principal at West Beverly High School. They’re all living with his mom, faded but fabulously wealthy B-actress Tabitha, played with high-camp hilarity by Arrested Development scene stealer Jessica Walter.

At school, Harry interacts not only with his kids and their new frenemies but with other adults who give 90210 a charge it might otherwise be missing: guidance counselor Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth), visiting drama teacher Brenda Walsh (Shannen Doherty) and English teacher Ryan Matthews (Ryan Eggold). Tellingly, Garth and Doherty grabbed most of the media attention from the hot young babes in the cast during the weeks leading up to the show’s premiere. (The fuss proved to be well deserved: Garth and Doherty didn’t miss a beat resuming the roles that made themJenny famous back in 1990. Their characters are now wise, mature young women.)

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Jennie Garth in 90210

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The appealing Eggold, meanwhile, has been at the center of the buzz since the 90210 debut. Clearly, viewers think he’s way hotter than the young hunks on the show.

Keeping the welcome nostalgia vibe at full tremble, there are other BH90210 vets on hand as well, including Joe E. Tata as Nate, who has transformed his Peach Pit into a coffee house, and Ann Gillespie as Kelly’s mom Jackie, still a mess. (Jackie’s other daughter and Kelly’s half-sister, Erin, attends West Beverly High and has issues of her own.) A character I presume to be the teenage daughter of Andrea Zuckerman-Vasquez is also on the canvas. In a nod to the fact that Gabrielle Carteris, the actress who portrayed Andrea, was much older than the rest of the BH90210 cast, Ryan in the series premiere joked that Hannah “looked 30.”90210

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Shannen Doherty (left), Shenae Grimes in 90210

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My only concern at this early stage is that Doherty is scheduled only for a handful of episodes and Garth’s status is described as “recurring.” Even after the new kids catch on I think it will be the beloved veterans who continue to make the show glow. Here’s hoping The CW can keep the old-timers coming. Then 90210 will remain truly distinctive and a show unlike any other.

Comments

  1. Patrick Erwin says:

    I will say that I’m not an every-episode fan of “Gossip Girl”, but it does soap very well. For it being youth focused it’s got some interesting teen characters.

    And Margaret Colin! Kelly Rutherford!

  2. Fabobug says:

    What about Linda Gray? How amazing is it that 90210 snagged Sue Ellen? That alone will keep me watching.

  3. Carl says:

    The best show about teenagers EVER was Degrassi: The Next Generation, seasons 2-6 or so (until they killed off J.T.). I used to look down at primetime soaps, too. I was never a fan of Dallas, Dynasty, Thirtysomething, 90210, etc.

    That all changed when The O.C. came on. It was an awesome drama, and would have been even better had its pacing been a bit slower and more soaplike. At any event, for me, the first season of The O.C. was the most compelling drama since the first five or so seasons of my worshipped Santa Barbara. Indeed, for the first time since SB, I would watch an episode of The O.C. live and then immediately rewatch the tape I made. I really thought they were very excellent.

    I’m a pretty big fan of Gossip Girl. It has its issues, but it’s pretty entertaining. (And Kelly Rutherford is hot, I must admit. I never expected that the icky acting I saw on Generations would transform into something good!) I also tried the new 90210, and I tenatively like it. My high school students here in Wichita and I shared a huge laugh about the main characters coming from Wichita, and the boy playing lacrosse…which is so not a sport here at all

  4. renee says:

    Marlena my love you do NOT love 90201?? My goodness girl. LOL Granted I’m not a gossip girl or OC or any of those ilkies, but I was a 90201′er and now I have the new version and I can share it with my godkids and we’re cracking up. I have the background to fill them in and it’s so much fun. Now the oral sex, that took me aback and that started a lonnggggg conversation I was NOT prepared to have, but the kids calmed me down and assured me I’d have to learn that some teens AND preteens engage in this, but oh aunt nay not us. eek ewwe forget it. I’d already heard how the godson was offered $20.00 by two natty girls for the pleasure of his company. That’s what life is in jr high now. sigh. But I love 90201 and now knowing Dylan is Sammy’s dad. Wow!!!

    Marlena says: Auntie Renee, this letter cracks me up! No, I didn’t like or watch the original 90210. As you illustrated so well here, it’s a generational thing.

  5. Matthew Cormier says:

    Well for one, the best show ever about teenagers always was and always will be “My So-Called Life”.

    As for 90210, it’s a decent show but as you said unless they provide us with more story for Kelly and Brenda than this show will fade out pretty quickly. The one thing that it is missing though for sure that the original had is a sense of humor, the original 90210 knew full well it was a campy show and had no issues with being a bit cheesy at times and the characters were able to make fun of themselves; but this new 90210 takes itself way too seriously.

    Marlena says: Matthew honey, Marlena thinks the best show ever for teenagers was The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (very early 60s.) When she was very small, her idea of a teen idol was Maynard G. Krebs ( the ‘beatnik’ played the late Bob Denver.)

  6. Matthew Cormier says:

    Well, i’ve never seen “The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis” but in terms of a show that portrays teenagers in a realistic manner, “My So-Called Life” is unmatched. I grew up when “My So-Called Life” was popular and it was so real that nearly every girl in my grade was obsessed with it and the fact that it produced only 13 episodes and is still a cult favorite is a testiment to it’s realism and it’s quality.

  7. Jenn says:

    I agree with Carl about the first season of “The O.C.”, I was obsessed. I also agree about the pacing, it moved way too fast, it felt like 2-3 seasons in one, and naturally, season 2 was a huge disappointment. Josh Schwartz, who created “The O.C.”, also developed “Gossip Girl”, which his fellow O.C.-er Stephanie Savage, which is why I think I am quickly becoming addicted to GG as well. It reminds me a bit of that first season of “The O.C.”, and fortunately, has been paced much slower.

    I also was a big fan of “My So-Called Life”, although the first half of the season/series was a lot weaker than the second half. Sometimes, though, it felt as though the show was going out of its way to be “real”, if that makes any sense. And the main character, Angela, was so bratty sometimes that it was hard to watch her. But I guess that lends to the “realness” of the series?

    90210, I never quite got the whole hype. It was entertaining the first four seasons or so, but it was never great. Over the top cheesy, and the acting wasn’t that great either. I quit watching soon after Shannon Doherty left the show, never really cared much about the rest of the characters to continue watching. Sometimes I tune in on SoapNet to those latter seasons, but still don’t find it to be all that fantastic.

  8. Matthew Cormier says:

    I find 90210 and especially Melrose Place to be fine examples of nighttime soaps; they really were shows that got you hooked and in for the long run. I feel that despite the cheese factor associated with them, the storylines were gripping and the characters likeable. Melrose especially had everything you can ask for: a super villian in Amanda (the Alexis Carrington or Abby Cunningham of Melrose if you will); the innocent victim in Jane (the Valene Ewing or Krystal Carrington); the super sexy outcast in Sydney; the level headed one in Jo. It had everything and you never knew where the story would take you.

    I have to admit I’m not so big on the new 90210 but the original under Aaron Spelling was must see television, imho.

  9. Kade says:

    Marlena…I’m insulted…”slum it”?!? For me “Gossip Girl” is the best American soap going! The teen soaps (for me) got me interested in the daytime soaps! If not for “Dawson’s Creek” I might not have watched “Guiding Light” and fallen in love with Danny/Michelle/Drew…Night-time soaps are just as good as the daytime ones…as for thinking fans can accept OLTL but not “Gossip Girl”? After reading how great OL was on this blog I tried to check it out and saw endless weeks of time travel…time travel…I was stunned that this is considered daytime’s crown jewel! I’ll take the relationships on GG anyday over that or the rapid fire shenanigans of Y&R (do people really go from bar-tending to CEO in under two years in real life? Do companies really change the man at the top from day to day? Don’t get me started on that little girl singing everyday…LOL!), I just think you’re looking down your nose a bit at something maybe you don’t fully understand! I’ve learned ALOT about the magic and art of daytime from your blog and your columns and have never come away feeling insulted until today! :)

    Marlena says: Kade, darling, I would never DREAM of insulting you or anyone else. You got it right, I don’t fully understand your fave primetime soaps. I’m a couple of years older than you, and my generation of soap viewers didn’t want to watch any other primetime soaps after the glorious days of Dynasty, Knots Landing and Dallas.

    The original 90210 — not for me, darling. During its run I was too busy teaching journalism at NYU in the evenings to watch that show. Then I got married to Moose and it’s been Yankee baseball chez nous all evenings here! Last year my students at Marymount talked a lot about Gossip Girl. Giggled about it, more accurately.

    As far as OLTL and Y&R — watch for future columns by me on them. I’m not so enchanted with either these days.

  10. Matthew Cormier says:

    Marlena,

    I think you nailed it when you said it is a generational thing. See, my generation is one that missed “Dynasty”, “Dallas” and “Knot’s Landing” because we were only little children when these shows were on. So for most of us “90210″ and “Melrose Place” and the soaps from the WB network like “Dawson’s Creek” were our first introduction into nighttime soaps. Thanks to Soapnet I’ve been able to see those older show and honestly other than “Knot’s Landing” I don’t see anything special about them; but “90210″ and “Melrose Place” to me were fantastic and had everything that a good daytime soap has and more: While “GH” had super villians in Damian Smith and Lucy Coe (at the time she was a villian), “Melrose Place” went even further and had Amanda Woodward blackmailing and lying her way to the top of the corporate world and had Kimberly Shaw going postal and blowing up buildings. While “Y&R” had Jack Abbott and Victor Newman fighting over control of their companies “Melrose” had Peter Burns and Michael Mancini fighting for control of the hospital as well as for the love of many ladies (Megan, Amanda, etc). While, “DOOL’ had Carrie and Sammi fighting “Melrose” one-upped them by having Jane and Sydney fighting in a pool over grandmother’s wedding dress and “90210″ had Brenda and Kelly fighting for Dylan McKay.

    To the older generation these shows seemed odd, frivilous and meritless, but to those of us raised on these shows they were the gold standard of nighttime soaps and had all the qualities that good daytime soaps had, but with a bigger, bolder approach. I actually think if today’s daytime soaps were half as willing to take risks as the 90′s primetime soaps did than they would be that much more compelling to watch.

    i totally respect your opinion but thought I would offer this alternate view on the nightime soaps.

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