How, of course, The Wall Street Journal writes front-page articles about the length of Luke Perry’s sideburns, which extend alongside the actor’s handsome ears like glued-on Slim Jims. But when it debuted in the fall of 1990, Beverly Hills, 90210 was not the hairy, sexy, pop- culture phenomenon it is today.

It was — remember? — a timid little thing, the rinky-dink tale of the Walshes, a Minnesota family recently transplanted to California’s capital of posh. The series’ first episode was tedious — the predictable, Midwest-goes-El-Lay culture shock experienced by dishy twin sibs Brenda (Shannen Doherty) and Brandon (Jason Priestley).

But 90210 proved to be a show whose writers were exceptionally eager to jigger the story lines to suit its viewers’ requests: You say you want Brenda and Brandon to be less innocent, more vampy? You got it. You say Brenda’s friend Kelly (Jennie Garth) is too much of a witchy twit? Fine; we’ll make her nicer, smarter. You want Brenda to have sex with Brandon’s adorably broody pal Dylan (Perry)? All right — done! Oh, wait — you say that was going too far, too soon? Okay, forget that episode — they’ll never do it again. Or at least they’ll never talk about it in front of you.

90210 is the TV series that most deeply understands a superficial fact: When you’re a teenager, everything that happens to you is cataclysmic, and everything that happens to anyone older than you is, like, boring. This principle was illustrated perfectly in a recent episode involving Andrea (Gabrielle Carteris), 90210‘s resident egghead (translation: She’s as beautiful as everyone else, but she wears horn-rims).

In order to be in the (fictional) West Beverly Hills high school district, Andrea was using the address of her Beverly Hills grandmother, played by Lainie Kazan. Now, school officials were about to find out that Andrea didn’t actually live there, and boot her. Andrea was freaked, but Grandma said, ”Relax, things could be worse — when I was your age I escaped the Nazis: I was trying to avoid the gas chamber, not trying to sneak into some school district.”

This cut no ice with Andrea, who said tearfully, ”You may think it’s insignificant, but this school is my life!” Here was the archetypal 90210 exchange, in which teen problems are equated with the Holocaust, and the teen comes off as genuinely sympathetic.

In recent months, though, 90210‘s status as a pop event is getting in the way of good storytelling; increasingly, the show squanders its charm on heavy-handed social moralizing. A January episode in which Brandon’s cocky-dimwit pal Steve (Ian Ziering) was tempted to use steroids reduced Brandon to stiff scolding: ”Steroids are very dangerous; haven’t you read the horror stories?” In show after show, tragedies and challenges from the real world — AIDS, alcoholism, date rape — loom in front of our heroes only to be vanquished at the end of the hour; the problems are often trivialized by being so easily solved.

It’s impossible to watch a show every week without bringing to it everything you know about its stars; that’s usually part of the fun. But lately these stars have been pretty annoying. Doherty’s imperious I’m-Shannen-Doherty-and-you’re-not act on recent editions of both the Dennis Miller and Arsenio Hall shows, for instance, was a real drag.

So are Luke Perry’s numerous interviews about how much he hates doing interviews. As an idol, Perry gives good throb: His slitted eyes convey tough- guy sensitivity; his chalky voice, a little on the high side, suggests earnestness, not irony. But then he goes and gives Details magazine the old wheeze about how he ”ain’t no idol” and just wants to ”concentrate on my work.” Of the show’s superstar triumverate, only Priestley has shown much in the way of graceful self-deprecation. The promo ads for his Feb. 15 stint as host of Saturday Night Live — ”Hello, I’m Jason Priestley; if you don’t know me, you’re not a 13-year-old girl” — were terrific.

As the show’s stars become more media pervasive, it’s easy to lose sight of a simple fact: 90201 still works best when its be-Gapped gods and goddesses prove their fallibility — when they’re scared zitless about their social status and the credit limits on their charge cards, when bratty Brenda sneers of Brandon, ”He’s completely anal about his car.” When this happens, producer Aaron Spelling and creator Darren Star achieve cool escapism — Dynasty for the detention-prone, a Fantasy Island with car phones.

The trick is to combine escapism with the moral and social guidance that the series’ creators sense the fans want. They’ve pulled off this combination most successfully with the ongoing subject of Dylan’s alcoholism. In a February show, love-bunnies Dylan and Brenda celebrated the Sideburned Guy’s 90th day of sobriety by attending an AA meeting — Brenda’s first. Afterward, she said happily, ”That was kind of intense and fun at the same time” — it was a sweet, funny moment.

Earlier this season, the producers did one earnest, awkward, dull show in which it was asserted, over and over, that condoms are good, but abstinence is better. But nevertheless, condom-less, the show is reproducing: Its first spin-off, a post-high school drama called Melrose Place, is scheduled to debut on Fox later this year. Fox recently ordered up a whopping 60 hours of new 90210 episodes, so there’s no way it will go off the air before its protagonists graduate from West Beverly — we’re in for about two more years of soulful squinting, sexy squeals, and saintly sermonizing. During that time, disenchanted old fans will tune out and new ones, in search of the missing link between the New Kids on the Block and Bret Easton Ellis, will tune in. They’ll find the show a lot more enjoyable if Brenda, Brendan, Dylan, and the rest of the gang would lay off the lessons and concentrate more on making out and goofing off. B-

Beverly Hills, 90210
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