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'Beverly Hills 90210' is back

With an eight season, can Fox’s melodramtic chestnut stay fresh?

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The sideburns are gone. The We Hate Brenda newsletters are recycled. And the ”Who’s cuter, Brandon or Dylan?” debate has been replaced by ”Whose hair is receding faster, Brandon’s or Steve’s?” All reasons Fox seemed so…desperate when it recently announced plans to renew Beverly Hills, 90210, one of TV’s longest-running dramas, for an eighth season next year.

After all, some of the college series’ regulars — Jason Priestley (27), Jennie Garth (24), Tori Spelling (23), Ian Ziering (32), Tiffani-Amber Thiessen (22), Kathleen Robertson (23), and Brian Austin Green (23) — are old enough to have parented Party of Five‘s little orphan Owen. And the ratings certainly aren’t what they used to be: They’re down 19 percent since last year, and the show currently places second to CBS’ The Nanny in Wednesday’s 8 p.m. time slot.

Even so, renewing 90210 was a no-brainer; Fox knows there’s still gold in them thar Hills. It hasn’t launched a successful live-action smash since 1993’s The X-Files, and while 90210 is no longer a ratings bonanza, it continues to deliver the advertiser-friendly 18-34 demographic, allowing Fox to retain its claim as the ”youth network.” Creatively, the show has experienced a refreshing second wind, thanks to some new movie-of-the-week-style plotlines that play right to the strengths of 90210‘s small-screen cast.

News of the show’s return was greeted with champagne, and not just by terminally adolescent fans. ”With ER and Friends cast members off doing feature films, you need recognizable TV stars, and these guys are always able to target their demographic,” says Lindy DeKoven, NBC’s executive VP in charge of miniseries and motion pictures for TV, who oversaw Spelling’s Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? and Thiessen’s Sweet Dreams, both of which aired on the Peacock network. ”They have really brought in a nice audience for us.”

Of course, the cast — whose appearances once incited mall stampedes — would probably rather be targeting big-screen audiences. But even before Friends‘ Matt LeBlanc was greenlighted in Ed, Luke Perry and Shannen Doherty had proved hot TV stars could bomb big time in movies. Remaining cast members, who make an estimated $50,000 an episode, should be wary of venturing outside Aaron Spelling-dom. One top 90210 exec insists that’s not why the cast is committed to continuing with the series. ”Everyone is anxious to see what happens next,” says the 90210 insider. ”We’ve done some good things and we’ve done some bad things, but there is still a lot to be resolved.”

But don’t count on the eighth and all-grown-up 90210 season to feature the kind of debauchery seen on its spin-off, Melrose Place. Next season’s Hillites may more closely resemble another twenty-something juggernaut — one set on the East Coast. ”We’ll be seeing some graduate school, some working, some people hanging out doing nothing — like real life,” says the exec. ”Unlike Melrose, we’re about a group of friends.”

Of course, it won’t be all lattes and pet monkeys. Expect some heavy damsels-in-distress plotlines and other melodramatic standbys. “Our people are all movie-of-the-week actors,” admits the exec. “We try to give them stuff people want to see them in.”

Whether the new energy will sustain the show remains to be seen. (“In television years, [it’s] like a middle-aged person,” says David Marans, media analyst at the J. Walter Thompson ad agency. “They’re good for another year, but they’re vulnerable if the right competition comes around.”) Hardcore fans probably won’t be quick to abandon characters they’ve seen through countless hairdos, love knots, and sartorial traumas. “I am addicted,” says an unapologetic fan in a posting on America Online’s 90210 site. “It’s not so much that I like it anymore. I just can’t stop watching it!” That takes care of season eight; do we hear nine?

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