Ryan Eggold, Jennie Garth, ...
Credit: Jordin Althaus

90210 is the Sarah Palin of TV shows — it’s new, it’s pretty, few people have seen it in advance (no review copies of 90210 were made available to TV critics), and its main purpose is to remind you of a trusty old product while adding some new vigor and soap opera to the cultural discourse.

But on the basis of its two-hour premiere last night, even writing the phrase ”cultural discourse” seems silly. This reworking of producer Aaron Spelling‘s heartthrob factory Beverly Hills, 90210 is — well, it’s like the first few episodes of that ancient 1990-2000 series: corny but trying to be hip, crammed with subplots until the producers figure out which ones the audience responds to, and cast with mostly young faces that its network (The CW) prays will become teen idols.

90210 is the tale of the Wilson family, a Kansas clan that’s moved to Beverly Hills and is headed up by dad Harry (Rob Estes, who must now wish he was still starring in Silk Stalkings) and mom Debbie (Lori Loughlin, who had to utter the most embarrassing line of dialogue of the night: ”We could swap stories about Harry’s penis!”). There’s also their daughter Annie (Shenae Grimes, whom we have fond memories of in Degrassi: The Next Generation, but until last night didn’t notice that she does most of her acting by squinching up her eyes to convey anger, joy, lust — anything and nothing) and her adopted brother, Dixon (Tristan Wilds — of all the actors who’ve moved on from HBO’s series The Wire, he’s landed the most high-profile and least rewarding post-great-work role).

The family moves into the grand pile of Beverly Hills rocks owned by Annie’s grandmother, Tabitha, a booze-swilling former star played by Jessica Walter with a slashing panache that no one else on screen approaches. Indeed, the only time I laughed with pleasure last night — as opposed to hooting derision or abashed guffaws — was when Tabitha/Walter delivered the best line of the episode for anyone who loves L.A.: ”I’m gonna call Dan Tana’s for some takeout!”

At school, Annie comes upon Ethan (Dustin Milligan), a supposedly cute guy she met a few years before, getting a blow job out in the parking lot — yes, 90210 tries very hard to be shocking-risqué in the manner of the far more authentically decadent Gossip Girl. Annie makes an instant enemy of Naomi (AnnaLynne McCord), a catty thing who, like everyone else, ”has her reasons” for behaving badly. The first hour was based, the credits said, on a teleplay by original Beverly Hills, 90210 writer Darren Star, with a script co-written by, among others, Veronica Mars‘ Rob Thomas, who has since departed with what must be a big happy grin of relief on his face. Left holding the condoms are producers Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah, who’ve done good work in the past (Freaks and Geeks; Life as We Know It) and presumably will try to rescue this debacle in the coming weeks.

NEXT: The Jennie-Shannen summit

In the meantime, we had to watch lots of teens get their hearts broken via super-mean blogs, text messages, and grotesque facial expressions. We got to see Jennie Garth, from the original crispy version of 90210, play Kelly Taylor as a West Beverly High School guidance counselor, flirt with a supposed-to-be-cute teacher (Ryan Eggold), and utter the exclamation ”Yowzah!” — which I think may have been the first time that word has been uttered sincerely in front of a camera since Al Jolson in the 1920s. Not that I wasn’t glad for anyone’s display of a vocabulary that didn’t include the use of the word ”bitch” in every other sentence.

Of course, what many people tuned in for was the reunion of Garth with her on- and off-camera rival, Shannen Doherty, reprising — or as another actor pronounced it last night, re-prize-ing — her role as Brenda Walsh. When, in the second hour, Garth’s Kelly and Doherty’s Brenda sat across from each other at a table to exchange a few tense lines, it was the teen-soap version of De Niro and Pacino meeting for the first time in Heat: all that buildup, all that tension!

Well, look at it this way: The producers have already used up the ”one student plagiarizes other kid’s paper” plot; they are well into resolving the ”one minor character will be obliterated by drugs” cliché. We’ve already sat through the most stultifying romantic exchange that was supposed to be profound but was just meaningless: ”Are you breaking up with me?” ”I’m breaking up with us!” Huh?

The show has nowhere to go but up, and maybe it will. Airing last night opposite reruns of House and NCIS and cable coverage of the Republican convention, with a through-the-roof curiosity factor going for it, 90210‘s debut can be expected to score high ratings. But what will happen when it’s opposite new episodes of those Fox and CBS shows, plus a new season of NBC’s Biggest Loser? Will 90210 be the bigger loser?

Mind you, this is solely a grade for last night’s super-size pilot episode. EW will be coming back to the show after it’s been up and running for a few weeks — after its soapy subplots hit their stride or hit the skids — to reevaluate these crazy kids and these goofy grown-ups. C

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