September 14, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Beverly Hills, 90210” beats ”Dawson’s Creek” in the ratings

There’s nothing more sorry than a show that’s overstayed its welcome. The limp writing (churned out by the series’ 12th staff of scribes who have no sense of character history), the actors who just phone in their performances, the lame substitute characters who fill space emptied by those who have drifted away over the years. We saw it with ”Roseanne,” a groundbreaking show that will forever be marred by an indulgent and bizarro final season; it happened with ”Mad About You,” which became insufferable in its last years; and of course the classic example is ”Melrose Place,” which peaked with a joyously juicy third season and then rapidly devolved into an unfunny parody of a parody.

Many would say the time has come for ”Beverly Hills, 90210,” Fox’s indestructible teen-now-twentysomething drama that just entered its 10th season last week. Being an off-and-on fan I decided to check out the premiere and see if the West Beverly bunch still deserve their hour of airtime each week. And if you read that headline up above, you know my answer is ”yes.” Not only does the show still pull in a sizable young audience (9.7 million viewers last season — 4.3 million more than its time-slot competitor ”Dawson’s Creek”), it’s also still an entertaining soap — for those of us who enjoy that type of thing.

Sure, the cast are certainly no longer teenagers — critics often like to make ”Don’t these kids need AARP cards by now?” jokes about the gang — but it really doesn’t matter, since anyone who’s watched the show in the past five years knows they’ve long since stopped playing teenagers. They’ve got jobs and semi-adult relationships (except for Dylan, who hops from one troublemaking brunette to another), and the den parents — Jim and Cindy Walsh — are long, long gone. (Although poor, useless Nat still hangs around the Peach Pit.)

What’s more important, though, is that over the nine seasons ”90210” has been on, the five remaining core characters have undergone changes while still staying true to who they were back in 1990. Kelly’s a standoffish princess who’s fiercely protective of her friends; Steve’s a childish lout with a heart (and now with a baby — what a ripe idea!); David’s the nice guy who always loses out; Donna’s the needy goof; and Dylan’s the independently wealthy, alcoholic bad-boy brooder.

Usually characters get corrupted over time for storytelling convenience (unless there is no character development, like on ”Law & Order”), but thanks to attentive writing, the ”90210” gang’s friendship has a history and emotional heft that far too few ’90s dramas have achieved. What fan didn’t tear up over the premiere’s final scene — the entire gang gathered on the beach in a unified effort to cheer up a depressive Kelly?

Then there’s the fact that ”90210” has been a Wednesdays-at-8 constant for most of this decade, a welcome stability in an era of quick cancellations, mid-season flops and summer burn-offs. It’s like our very own ”Truman Show” — we’ve seen Tori Spelling go through the growing pains of ever-transmogrifying hairstyles and cup sizes, we’ve marveled as Ian Ziering’s hairline headed north, and we’ve coped as once-important players have drifted out of the group’s lives, just as they do in reality.

While ”90210” will never be as vital — in ratings or in drama — as it once was, and it’s made occasional blunders in the post-high school years, I’ll still be happy to watch season No. 10 — and probably even if there’s an 11th. When it just doesn’t work any more, Aaron Spelling already has the solution worked out: A high school-based spin-off, with a whole new cast! If that happens, my Wednesday nights will be set for another decade.

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