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Television Review

'90210': New generation, same old story

'90210' Shenae Grimes, as a Beverly Hills transplant, and Dustin Milligan star in the teen drama "90210." (Michael Desmond/ The CW)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 4, 2008
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Really, the original "Beverly Hills 90210" was pretty bad. Maybe some of us have romanticized the Fox series since it left the air in 2000, and blocked out the fact that it was an earnest, obvious teen soap. Maybe time has dulled our memories of its sappy after-school-special lessons. Maybe the Peach Pit kids have gained an appealing camp cachet, boosted by memories of Shannen Doherty's bratty, crooked face, Tori Spelling's acting non-style, and Luke Perry's sideburns.

But the show was bad. And "90210," the CW remake that premiered Tuesday night, is bad, too. The two-hour episode seemed to take forever to set up some remarkably bland and unpromising plotlines - stories that might have seemed routine even back in 1990, when the original series premiered. A spoiled rich girl cheats on her English paper, a glassy-eyed teen has a drug problem, lacrosse jocks pull pranks - we've seen them all before on other teen soaps, and with more finesse, too. Don't get me started on the extraordinary "Friday Night Lights."

"90210" revolves around the Wilson family from Kansas, who move to Beverly Hills like the Walshes so many years before them. They're a tiresomely goody-goody group from the get-go. Rob Estes strains to be easygoing as Harry Wilson, the "Father Knows Best" who's hip enough to make gay jokes, while Lori Loughlin barely registers as Debbie, the ever- responsible wife and mother. Later in the episode, Loughlin gets to deliver the show's most excruciating line while talking to Harry's one-time girlfriend: "We could swap stories about Harry's penis!"

The "90210" writers have dressed up the stock material and characters in aughts attitude, to make the show relevant to post-millennial teens who've already seen "The O.C.," "The Hills," and "Gossip Girl." There is a catty gossip website run by alt girl Erin Silver - that would be Kelly Taylor's half-sister, known simply as Silver (Jessica Stroup). There are pop-referential lines about movies such as "Superbad" and various celebrities, including this take on West Beverly Hills High School: "It's like the Oscars and everybody is Scarlett Johansson." There's a Seth Cohen-like geek named Navid (Michael Steger), to add a dash of "O.C." irony for good measure.

And, of course, there are risqué sexual flourishes, most notably one involving oral sex that probably would have been considered outrageous on a network teen series 10 years ago. The scene is a desperate cry for controversy/attention.

The writers have also tried to spice up the Wilson family with a twist. Instead of twin children with alliterative first names like Brandon and Brenda, they deliver the irritatingly naive Annie Wilson (Shenae Grimes) and her adopted African-American brother Dixon (Tristan Wilds). It's not a bad alternative to the original setup - maybe the change even shows a hint of a spark of inspiration? But neither character has any depth or distinction. It's particularly disappointing to see Wilds playing such a flat character, after his complex work on "The Wire" as the cold-hearted yet innocent Michael. Grimes has a Disney Channel-ish perkiness that wears quite thin.

Even the potential teen villain, Naomi (AnnaLynne McCord), is just another "Mean Girl" or "Heather." And if a soap can't come up with a juicy troublemaker (see Blair on "Gossip Girl"), it's in trouble. Yes, Jessica Walter is on hand as Annie and Dixon's catty grandmother, an alcoholic actress who remembers the time that Ricardo Montalban cracked an egg on her backside. And Walter is intermittently entertaining, although she played a similar eccentric with far more kooky ease and less exertion in "Arrested Development."

As promised in the scads of advance "90210" publicity, the producers have thrown in characters and references from the original series to goose the audience. Jennie Garth is back, with Kelly employed as the high school guidance counselor; Shannen Doherty showed up briefly in the premiere to baby-sit for Kelly's 4-year-old boy, whose father's identity is still a mystery; Nat (Joe E. Tata) is still running the Peach Pit; and there was a quickie appearance by a character named Hannah Zuckerman-Vasquez, Andrea's daughter. But the old names and faces stay in the background, as the focus stays on the Wilsons and their wholesome tedium.

Who knows - maybe the show will find an audience and survive after early curiosity-factor ratings. Maybe, despite its lack of charm, "90210" will go on to be remembered fondly by a new generation of viewers. Bad TV has a way of sticking around.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

90210

Starring: Shenae Grimes, Shannen Doherty, Jennie Garth, Tristan Wilds, Adam Gregory, Rob Estes, Lori Loughlin, Jessica Walter, AnnaLynne McCord, Dustin Milligan, Michael Steger, Jessica Stroup

On: The CW, Channel 56

Time: Tuesday night, 8-10

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