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Flashback: "Beverly Hills, 90210": "Pilot"

By admin Published: August 12, 2008

JP

With the venerable Fox show getting a makeover in the coming season on The CW -- and with ongoing tales about the return of stars from the original series -- it seemed like a good time to revisit the original, one episode at a time. ...

I'll be watching episodes in order, starting with the two-part pilot. All viewing will be from the DVD releases, so I may not be saying much about music because of substitutions on video. (There's a scene in the pilot, for instance, where a spoken reference to music does not appear to fit the track being played.) You can also follow along via CBS.com, which has episodes in its TV Classics area; Hulu also links to those.

So let's see how I can make this work.

"Pilot," Original airdate Oct. 4, 1990.

Synopsis: Minnesota twins Brenda and Brandon Walsh (Shannen Doherty, Jason Priestley) have moved to California and are juniors at West Beverly High School in Beverly Hills. Brandon is 30 seconds older than Brenda. Both were "achievers" in Minneapolis; Brandon worked for the school newspaper and was a cross-country star, while Brenda was in drama club, and both had good grade points. Brandon is a bit of a geek, with a monster-face alarm declaring "wake up." Brenda, meanwhile, is promptly pegged as the more socially conscious, obsessing over what she will wear to school; she asks to skip school to go shopping. She later explains to Brandon that this is her chance to start over, to "be somebody."

But they are not prepared for the upper-crust at West Beverly, represented at first by expensive cars. (When we see the faculty arrive a bit later, their cars are noticeably shabbier.) There are also indications that West Beverly has some racial diversity; two African-Americans in designer suits are seen walking across the campus, as are two young men in Arab garb. But the students we get to know in the pilot include Steve Sanders (Ian Ziering), the sports-car-driving ex-boyfriend of Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth), a pretty blonde who has just gotten a nose job and is more interested in nightclubbing than school. (Kelly's posse includes Donna Martin, played with no distinction by Tori Spelling.) Also, David Silver, a non-cool freshman who loves the idea of West Beverly, even though he and best friend Scott (Douglas Emerson) are out of the social elite. Also on the outside is Andrea Zuckerman (Gabrielle Carteris), who is smart -- editor of the school paper, the only one in Spanish class who actually knows Spanish -- but poor. The last big revelation in the pilot is that she is using a fake address to get to attend West Beverly. (Dylan McKay, Luke Perry's character, is not in the pilot.)

Brenda and Kelly meet and bond when Kelly keeps a fat girl from sitting with her in chemistry class -- by claiming the seat is saved for then-stranger Brenda. Brandon and Andrea, who has an almost immediate but unspoken crush on Brandon, meet through the newspaper. And Steve and David interact after Steve, drunk at a party, is driven home by David; even though David damages Steve's car, they reach detente. There are also notes about the Steve/Kelly past; she dumped him, but he insists that he dumped her and that she was "bad in bed."

The major plots in the pilot involve Brandon and Brenda facing Beverly Hills temptation. For Brandon, that takes the form of lonely rich girl Marianne Moore (Leslie Bega), while Brenda is drawn to handsome lawyer Jason Croft (Maxwell Caulfield).

Marianne is sexually aggressive with the virgin Brandon; he urges her to slow down, and she is grateful for someone who likes her for herself, not for sex. But when other students wonder if Brandon is getting after it with Marianne, he does not deny it, and the false story flies through the school -- even getting them declared "wild things" on the school's radio station.

Brenda, meanwhile, has met Jason after slipping into a club with fake ID; Kelly, who planned the club outing, is turned away at the door. Brenda pretends to be a college student. They keep dating, and Brenda's schoolwork suffers. But -- at Kelly's urging -- Brenda decides she has to confess, not least because she thinks she is in love with Jason, and she is ready to let him be her first sexual relationship. But when she does tell him that she is a 16-year-old high school junior, Jason is infuriated and takes Brenda home, shattering her dream of intimacy. After a teary (but hardly confessional) moment with her mom, Brenda gets back to work on her chemistry assignments.

Marianne, meanwhile, confronts Brandon over what people are saying about their relationship. Ashamed, he goes on the radio to declare that nothing happened between them. But when he asks Marianne to go out again, she declares that she is going to try to spend the evening alone -- and when he asks if they can go out later, she gives him a gentle "I'll call you." When trying to explain himself to Andrea, Brandon follows her home, learning her address secret but promising to keep it.

And so life begins at West Beverly.

Thoughts: I remember disliking this when it first aired, but it doesn't seem quite as bad now. Doherty and Priestley are pleasant enough. The much-joked-about age difference between actors and real high-school students, especially in the show's later years, is not so glaring here. Green and Spelling were 17 when the show premiered, Garth was 18, Doherty 19, Priestley 21. On the other hand, Zierign was 26 and Carteris was 29.

And, in the context of current TV and films, the "90210" pilot now looks a bit quaint, and surprisingly gentle. There are social standards -- the fat-girl scene, for one, and a hot party comes with the declaration of "no freshmen" -- but Brandon and Brenda slide into the system remarkably easily. And while the overall argument is that the Walsh kids are not Beverly Hills scale -- their shared car, for one thing, is shabby -- they can conveniently become well-heeled, especially when you look at Brenda's extensive wardrobe for her dates with Jason. The show also indicates that the Walsh parents (Carol Potter, James Eckhouse) are hands-on -- several discussions of curfew, including Mom asking Kelly about it, to Kelly's surprise -- in contrast to Kelly's laissez-faire mom and Steve's unseen, famous-actress mother; but curfew-breaking seems remarkably easy, and Pa Walsh is very little seen. As I said, there are nods to diversity -- including significant air time for the school's vice principal, who is African-American, and a black deejay on the school radio station -- but the core cast is still white.

Notes:

-- Look for Oscar-nominated actor Djimon Hounsou, billed only as Djimon, as the club doorman who lets Brenda but not Kelly in.

-- Leslie Bega was a veteran of high-school series, having co-starred on "Head of the Class."

-- The reference to Brenda being in the drama club in Minnesota establishes a theatrical element in Brenda's life that will be revived in the new, CW "90210," where Brenda comes back to direct a school production.

-- Maxwell Caulfield also did the old-guy/young-woman thing as singer Rex Manning in "Empire Records." Creepier there, though. In real life, he is married to actress Juliet Mills, who is 18 years his senior.

-- "Marianne Moore" is also the name of a renowned poet.

Next up: "The Green Room," which introduces Dylan McKay.

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