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Beverly Hills, 90210 Season 5

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Three weeks ago on Beverly Hills, 90210, while Kelly stood in the kitchen of the Walsh house going on and on about how she’s not so pretty anymore because she’s got some invisible scars from that frat house fire and Brandon stood there going on and on about some invisible student-council-related something or other, Cindy Walsh bustled in fulfilling her motherly duties (i.e., schlepping a bag of groceries), and she went on and on about the new issue of Seventeen she had just seen with the nice picture of Kelly on the cover, and how they simply must send a copy to Brenda. And I swear, for a moment I thought, Brenda? Who’s Brenda?

That life has gone on satisfactorily in the zip code even after the departure of the enjoyably moody, intense Brenda Walsh (Shannen Doherty) is one of the great strengths of 90210, which completes its fifth season this week. In fact, the attractive-kids-with-Porsches serial is in fine shape, audience-wise, with ratings still higher than those of its sexier Spelling Television cousin, Melrose Place. And much of that credit goes to the introduction of Valerie (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen), the incessantly bad minx and Walsh family friend with the wide, good girl’s face, who moved into Brenda’s bedroom, rifled through everything personal the pouty twin had left behind, and systematically began to chew up and spit out the young men in the 90210 calling circle.

To which I say, Go, girl. Because if Valerie is a refreshing spritz of Obsession perfume, the men of 90210 are beginning to smell like fusty Mennen Skin Bracer. Brandon (Jason Priestley) has aged 30 years in the past two and now makes his dad look hep. (He’s Valerie’s next victim; maybe she can get him to change that squaresville haircut.) Steve (Ian Ziering) doesn’t have squat to do now that Valerie owns the Peach Pit After Dark. Dylan (Luke Perry) is stuck in a scowl of dissolution — and an interminable story arc about regression therapy (we’ve had a tour of his coma-induced unconscious; must we rummage through his psychic attic again?). Joined by Ray (Jamie Walters), who will not stop playing that damn guitar, and Jesse (Mark Espinoza) the ethnic placeholder (who says adios after this season), these boys are experiencing some disconcerting creakiness.

Trading the teenybopperish appeal of earlier seasons for more adult story lines (e.g., the search for David’s mentally unbalanced mother) points up the biggest challenge facing 90210 as it enters its sixth season: So pegged is it to flaming youth at a certain moment in social development and at a certain moment in time, that the show is beginning to lose its appealing, tinny shine. Tramping through college, the elder actors — Perry and Priestley, Ziering and Gabrielle Carteris — who have always been amusingly old for the parts they play, have begun to look ridiculously old. (Poor Carteris, in her early 30s and a mother in real life, has had more in common with the senior Walshes than with the sophomores this year. Her affair with a medical resident was the stuff of a John Updike novel about frustrated suburban housewives who drink and wear toreador pants.)

And even the younger cast members — Brian Austin Green, Jennie Garth, Kathleen Robertson, Tori Spelling — have begun to look a little less than fresh in their mallwear. As Donna, Spelling has faced a particular challenge: How do you remain a virgin after you’ve snared the rock musician and done up your platinum hair a la the very unvirginal Drew Barrymore?

I know that life on the West Coast is going to be different next fall: Carteris and Mom and Dad Walsh, i.e., James Eckhouse and Carol Potter, are also leaving (maybe Mom should begin drinking and fooling around with a handyman?), and Perry will be cutting back his role. I just hope 90210 comes back with some new energy — and some new folks for Valerie to torture. I used to think Kelly was the key to the post-Brenda era (and don’t get me wrong, I still love the girl and hope there’ll be a lot more going on between her and her new lesbian friends). But on my campus, Valerie is the vixen to watch. This fountain of juicy youth may just have the magical ability to keep Beverly Hills, 90210 bubbling for at least one more year, before the kids get involved in story lines about mortgages. B