''Beverly Hills 90210'' versus ''Dawson's Creek'' -- The changes that each of the teen dramas made to survive

One of the most closely watched races of the fall season has been the soap opera derby between aging warhorse Beverly Hills 90210 and young buck Dawson’s Creek. So far, 90210 has managed to hold off its challenger, but Creek‘s picking up speed. It’s not difficult to see why: While 90210 limps along on its last legs creatively, Creek has been infused with fresh blood even before it could become anemic.

With its focus limited to its four lead teens — Dawson (James Van Der Beek), Joey (Katie Holmes), Jen (Michelle Williams), and Pacey (Joshua Jackson) — Creek seemed underpopulated last season. It didn’t help that one of its recurring characters, Jen’s grampa, lay in a coma before expiring in last May’s finale. But this fall, the sophomore serial has smartly added three major characters: prissy heiress Andie McPhee (Meredith Monroe), her simmering sibling, Jack (Kerr Smith), and gleeful troublemaker Abby Morgan (Monica Keena).

Monroe’s Andie has proved a smart-mouthed match for self-described ”slacker jerk” Pacey, and her character is proving more complex than the trust-fund brat she first appeared to be. It turns out Andie and Jack have a mentally ill mother, a dead brother, and an absentee dad. Smith’s Jack has been wisely used as a wedge to break up Dawson and Joey before viewers grew bored with the happy couple. The only downside: After the split, Van Der Beek’s Dawson became even more mopey. Hey, Dawson, why the long face?

Keena’s Abby has happily put Williams’ Jen back in touch with her inner slut, persuading the onetime nympho to throw herself at Dawson. Jen then had a falling out with her fast friend over a strapping fisherman (or ”the dork from the dock,” as Abby aptly described him). Keena’s catty character has given Creek a nasty kick — I can’t wait to see whom she messes with next.

Having lost Jason Priestley, 90210 has added a few characters lately, as well as welcoming back Luke Perry’s Dylan McKay. Yet only Laura Leighton’s Sophie gave the series a lift, and she just left. A shameless fame seeker, Sophie created an enticing triangle with Steve (Ian Ziering) and David (Brian Austin Green). Playing a scheming redhead wasn’t a stretch for Leighton after Melrose Place, but that didn’t make Sophie any less enjoyable.

With Leighton and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen’s Valerie gone, the bitch baton has been passed to General Hospital vet Vanessa Marcil as Gina Kincaid, coldhearted ice-skater cousin of Tori Spelling’s Donna. Marcil seems too wholesome to play a vixen, but at least she’s more intriguing than 90210‘s other rookies. As Janet, Steve’s love interest, charisma-free Lindsay Price feels like the second coming of Gabrielle Carteris. And as attorney Matt, Daniel Cosgrove has the jut-jawed looks and plastic personality of a Ken doll.

As for Perry, it’s too soon to tell. After plugging Dylan’s Nov. 18 return for weeks, 90210 ripped off fans by holding the now-balding rebel until the last scene. If Perry can’t reverse the ratings slide, Fox may revive the series next season as 90210: The New Class, with a fresh crop of high schoolers. But it may be too late, as more viewers discover the real new class is on Dawson’s Creek.