Fall TV preview: '90210' -- There's no shortage of drama on this redux

New Drama
Premiered September 2, 8-9PM, The CW

The sideburns are gone. The Peach Pit is shuttered. And those Walsh parents — who knows where they’ve taken their G-rated life lessons? But here in the hallowed halls of West Beverly High School, something is sounding eerily familiar. Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth), Beverly Hills princess with a heart of 24-karat gold, is all gushy about the new guy in her life. Apparently, he’s quite literary. ”This is probably really boring for you,” she says to a friend, while fixing her perfectly bouncy blond hair.

Boring? Not to any Beverly Hills, 90210 fan who watched Kelly through 10 years of Steve, Dylan, Brandon, unimportant guy, and Dylan again. So who is this new object of Kelly’s affection? None other than Sammy…her 4-year-old son. The director yells cut, and Ryan Eggold, who plays Kelly’s West Beverly colleague Ryan Matthews, chivalrously offers Garth a hand as she descends the stairs leading off set. ”You’re a mom now,” he jokes.

Kelly Taylor — supermom? Turn off those SOAPNet reruns because it is so not the ’90s anymore. Just one look around the Manhattan Beach set of The CW’s new update of 90210 reveals how much has changed: The West Beverly cafeteria now offers sushi, the Peach Pit and its lame reincarnation the Peach Pit After Dark have morphed into a music lounge called The Pit, and not one of the fresh-faced, skimpily clothed cuties is contemplating losing her virginity to a high school hallway DJ.

But this 90210 has some powerful lineage. Taking an iconic show of yesteryear and making it relevant to young viewers in 2008, while also paying homage to the past and the now thirtysomething fans who made it so popular the first time around, is not going to be easy. Especially when you lose your showrunner before filming even begins. Especially when major script revisions cause episodes to be filmed out of order. Especially when some of the famous former faces returning to the show used to engage in on-set screaming matches. Welcome to the new 90210, where drama is, once again, never in short supply.

At the center of the storm are not the Walshes, but rather the Wilsons, who move to Beverly Hills from Kansas City after dad Harry (Rob Estes) scores the job of principal of West Beverly — all the better to look after his gin-swilling former-actress mom, Tabitha (Arrested Development‘s Jessica Walter). Along for the ride are Harry’s photographer wife, Debbie (Summerland‘s Lori Loughlin), all-American daughter Annie (Degrassi: The Next Generation‘s Shenae Grimes, who won the role after Hilary Duff turned it down), and adopted son from the wrong side of the tracks Dixon (The Wire‘s Tristan Wilds). Within the zip, they meet a familiar cast of archetypes — rich bitch Naomi (Nip/Tuck‘s AnnaLynne McCord), heartthrob jock Ethan (Dustin Milligan), wild child Silver (Reaper‘s Jessica Stroup), and cub reporter Navid (Michael Steger).

Most of these characters were created by original showrunner Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars), who was hired to pen the pilot but left in April to concentrate on other projects at ABC. In came new exec producers Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah, best known for the critically acclaimed and commercially ignored teen shows Freaks and Geeks and Life as We Know It. The duo went to work tweaking Thomas’ script. Explains Judah, ”Rob’s script was more like The Breakfast Club. It was very different from what it is now.” Milligan agrees. ”Jeff and Gabe took the characters and really layered them,” he says. ”No one is just the jock or the bitch now. They may be that on the surface, but there’s more behind them.” Judah jokes that the duo are ”trying to do the one thing we can do.” And what might that be? ”You know, canceled shows.” Cut to CW president Dawn Ostroff losing her proverbial lunch: ”Canceled” is not a word she can afford to even joke about.

In fact, many believe the network’s very existence is hanging on whether 90210 succeeds. ”It’s definitely a tall order,” admits Ostroff of the show’s importance to the struggling CW. Perhaps that’s why everyone is keeping such close tabs on Sachs and Judah. Actors hint that studio/network interference is to blame for the frequent script rewrites. ”I was given a new script for [episode 3] yesterday,” says McCord. ”By the time I got home there was another one on my doorstep. I was like, what?” Loughlin shares her concern: ”It’s frustrating that we’re getting scripts at the last minute. There are so many people commenting on the scripts. Gabe and Jeff are writing, The CW is reading, then [the studio] CBS Productions. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen because everyone is scared.” The producing duo, who have a contract for 13 episodes, are familiar with this predicament. Says Sachs, ”Every network tells you, ‘We love what you do. But here’s how we want you to do this.”’ Adds Judah, ”If we don’t get to do what we want to do, we have other options.”

One of the things the producers and the network clearly have agreed upon is capitalizing on the original show’s audience by bringing back plenty of blasts from the past, beginning with Garth. ”Gabe and Jeff started telling me what was going to happen and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, no!’ I was shocked,” says Garth of some of the racier story lines. She agreed, but had a few conditions: Kelly would be a guidance counselor, not a school board member, and she wouldn’t jump into bed with a guy, as was originally planned in the pilot. ”I thought it would make her kind of sad,” says Garth, ”like she hadn’t gone anywhere in her life.”

But the biggest 90210 coup was snaring former bad girl Shannen Doherty. ”When I heard Shannen was going to be on the show I wanted to scream,” says Wilds, ”but I had to keep my manhood intact. So I just smiled really big.” Doherty — who left the show in 1994 after spats with cast and crew — agreed to reprise Brenda for four episodes, in which she’ll direct West Beverly’s musical production of Spring Awakening. Producers were also close to luring Tori Spelling back until she abruptly pulled out, reportedly because she’d learned Doherty and Garth would be earning more per episode. Well, if Donna Martin is gone, and David Silver (Brian Austin Green) is busy on Fox’s The Sarah Connor Chronicles, maybe Steve Sanders will step in? ”We keep hearing Ian Ziering wants to be on,” says Judah. ”But how much do you want to see him?” [Cue the crickets.] ”Exactly.” (A rep for Ziering says he has not contacted producers about appearing on the show.) Sachs sent word to Luke Perry that he’s free to bring Dylan on set anytime, and Garth says Jason Priestley has no plans to return. Could one of these former 90210 hunks end up being the father of Kelly’s son? ”We don’t know who the father is,” says Garth. ”I have a feeling whichever guy shows up on the show first, that’s who the father will be.”

But even if no more old-school 90210ers reappear, little pieces of Beverly Hills history may inadvertently find their way back. Sitting in her trailer, eyeing a pair of yellow-and-black stiletto go-go boots she’ll wear in a bowling alley scene later, McCord contemplates her future. ”It’s very scary to think of committing to any show for six years,” she says of the contract she and her costars signed. ”It’s not my MO, but your lawyer always tells you there’s a way out. ‘Just act like a brat. That way, they’ll write you out.”’ The more things change…

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