BH90210 is a reunion of Beverly Hills 90210 in which most of the original stars of Beverly Hills 90210 play themselves as they try to mount… a reunion of Beverly Hills 90210. It would probably not make a list of the five weirdest TV revivals of all time, in part because most of those slots would go to Brady Bunch spin-offs (*). Nor is it even the first meta reunion of this type: One of the best Curb Your Enthusiasm seasons was similarly framed as Larry getting the Seinfeld cast back together for a sequel special.
(*) At different times over the last 40 years, we’ve gotten a variety show (The Brady Bunch Hour); a sitcom about Jan and Marcia and their new husbands sharing a house (The Brady Brides); a dramedy where Bobby was paralyzed and Marcia was an alcoholic, yet there was an occasional laugh track (The Bradys); and, coming up next month, an HGTV show where the actors who played the Brady kids will renovate the house that was used as the exterior of their TV home (A Very Brady Renovation). They contain multitudes, those Bradys.
Still, BH90210 is pretty damn strange. It’s not exactly the Curb rip-off it was sold as, which is a good thing; as an actor, Jennie Garth is as equipped for that as Larry David would be to do a story where he wore the same dress to the spring formal as somebody else. But at times it tries to play in the Curb space, while at others it wants to be a sincere reckoning with the aging process and the fleeting nature of celebrity. And at many others, it is pure soap-operatics that just involve Jason Priestley using his own name rather than Brandon Walsh’s.
There’s a scene in the second episode where the fictionalized version of Tori Spelling, who has opted to follow in her father Aaron’s footsteps and produce the revival-within-the-revival, promises all of her former co-stars whatever they want in order to do it. So Priestley gets to direct the new pilot, Ian Ziering gets product placement for one of his lifestyle brands, and so on. The incompatible stew of ingredients that’s gone into this pot often feels like the real Spelling and Garth, who have shepherded BH90210, had to make similar promises to their old friends and enemies (*) in order to lure them back.
(*) Shannen Doherty, who had a very public falling-out with the series and her co-stars, appears briefly in the first two episodes, never sharing the same physical location with the others. Glaring in her erasure is Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, who replaced Doherty when the West Beverly kids went to college. No, she’s not an original part of the ensemble, but she was important enough to the show — and has kept a high enough professional profile in the years since — that it sticks out that she’s never so much as mentioned.
So one minute, there will be slapstick as a drunken Tori tries to steal back the dress she wore in a famous episode. The next, the gang will be wistfully toasting the late Luke Perry, who died while BH90210 was in the early stages of development. And then a few minutes later, there will be a scene where we find out that someone’s spouse is having an affair and is now being blackmailed about it. The whole thing will give you whiplash faster than you can say “Color Me Badd.”
Had he lived, Perry likely wouldn’t have appeared here much, if at all, simply because he had a day job on Riverdale. His loss is still deeply felt, not just because Dylan McKay was the show’s most enduring character, but because he was one of the few members of the ensemble with the range to tackle all the things BH90210 is trying to do. (When you’ve guest-starred on both The Simpsons and Oz, little must faze you.)
Of the three shows BH90210 is simultaneously attempting to be, the soap opera is unsurprisingly the most successful. “Life imitates art,” Tori tells Jennie while discussing her feelings for once and future co-star Brian Austin Green, and BH90210 seems determined to blur the line between fact and fiction. The actors aren’t exactly playing themselves(*), which leaves room for affairs, intra-cast sexual tension, even a stalker.
(*) Their spouses are played by recognizable actors like Vanessa Lachey, La La Anthony, and Ivan Sergei (who was the villain in Spelling’s infamous TV-movie Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? and here plays her husband) even though several of them in real life have spouses who either, like Brian Austin Green’s wife Megan Fox, are extremely famous in their own right, or, like Spelling’s husband Dean McDermott, have starred in multiple reality shows with a 90210-er.
It’s the kind of material the actors spent most of their twenties playing (or, in the case of Gabrielle Carteris and Ziering, most of their thirties). All are more comfortable with the melodrama than when the new series is trying for laughs. (Spelling, Priestley, and some of the others had pre-90210 stints on sitcoms, but they weren’t good sitcoms.) And the knowledge of their real history together makes the thing more interesting than a straightforward sequel to the original series would probably be. We occasionally get fantasy glimpses of what Brandon and the others are up to in 2019, but does anyone actually want to see that play out at great length? (As Green puts it when imagining what David Silver would be doing now, “You know what’s supersexy? A middle-aged, white rapper.”)
Besides, there already was a more traditional 90210 revival a while back on the CW, a next-generation sequel that Garth and a few others made appearances on in its early seasons(*). Eventually, that show’s creative team realized their target audience didn’t care about these grownups any more than the original show’s fanbase enjoyed subplots about Jim and Cindy Walsh.
(*) There’s also, for that matter, already been a satire about what it was like working on the original series: the WB’s little-watched Grosse Pointe, which has the distinction of coming from 90210‘s own creator, Darren Star. (And which was significantly funnier than BH90210.)
Every show in TV’s recent boom of reboots and revivals is trying to cash in on nostalgia for and awareness of a familiar brand name. Few are going about it as relentlessly, or at such a skewed angle, as BH90210. It’s meant solely for die-hard fans of the old show, while not really being a continuation of it. Even at its best, it tops out at mediocre. (Most of the plots would have felt tired even in the sputtering Noah and Gina era at the end of the original run.) But Generation X has been pandered to more shamelessly and less effectively than this.
And after a while, the sheer oddity of it all becomes a bit of a hook unto itself. Late in the second episode, a memorable figure from the old show returns, playing themselves but also as the network executive overseeing the revival. It’s so ridiculous and yet perfect that it bought at least another episode of viewing from me. I couldn’t always defend my viewing of the original show back in the day, other than that the characters were roughly my age and all my friends watched. If I stick with BH90210, it’ll be less nostalgia than fascination with how they’re going to keep juggling all these shows-within-the-show that have no more business working alongside each other than Donna had getting to attend graduation after being drunk at prom.
BH90210 debuts August 7th on Fox. I’ve seen the first two episodes.