Advice to the makers of Guess? jeans, the hawkers of Clearasil acne balms, the scholars of A.C. Nielsen ratings — to anyone, in short, who urgently needs to know what teenagers are watching on TV these days: Forget about the dweeby diaries. Skip the fusty focus groups. Just follow the shrieking fans.
Note that Fox’s Beverly Hills, 90210, now in its second season, makes young women scream and young men whoop. Study the mail sacks that arrive at Fox daily, bulging with letters of thousands of teen viewers who urgently need to know what’s going to happen next to their favorite 90210 characters — characters called Brenda and Dylan, Brandon and Andrea, Kelly and Steve, and David and Donna.
Observe the contagious hysteria brought on by thousands of consumers squished together in shopping malls for hours awaiting the appearance of their favorite 90210 actors — actors called Luke Perry and Jennie Garth, Shannen Doherty and Ian Ziering.
Listen to the household silence that reverberates for an hour each Thursday night — no phones ring, no Guns N’ Roses bloom — as millions of sets fix on Fox.
Measure the decibel levels and get with the program: The shriekingest show on the air today is a soapy drama about the lives of eight students at Southern California’s fictional West Beverly Hills High, class of Right Now.
The plots of Beverly Hills, 90210 revolve around the lives of teenage twins Brandon and Brenda Walsh (Jason Priestly and Shannen Doherty) — recent transplants, along with their down-to-earth parents, from the heartland of Minneapolis. In past weeks, boosted by a savvy programming decision to run all-new episodes in July and August while other shows lounged in repeats, 90210 has become Fox’s most popular series, bigger this summer than The Simpsons and Married…With Children. First in the hearts of teen viewers on any network, any month (with a solid 58 percent of the adolescent audience), the show gives NBC ratings buster Cheers a run for its money in the 9 p.m. time slot. When teen viewers go back to school this week, so do the students at West Beverly; the new semester starts Thursday, Sept. 12.
That Priestley is teen-angel hunky and Doherty is pouty-pretty doesn’t hurt; these twins are zit-free dreamboats. But 90210 zings heartstrings for deeper reasons, too. To fans, the show is well, like life. Only cuter. Neater. Cooler. The kids at West Beverly mess up and move on in ways that never made the storyboards in Head of the Class. They drive nice cars and wear great jeans (a 90210 clothing line is on the drawing board; so are authorized and unauthorized books about the cast, and a quarterly magazine). But they also know about sex and parents and AIDS. They know about drunken driving and alcoholic parents. Many are children of divorce, They know about drug abuse and date rape. They struggle with the questions of sex: how far, how fast, how scary, how safe? Life is photogenic in this affluent zip code, but that doesn’t make things any easier. To the 90210 audience, this is a great relief.
To veteran producer Aaron Spelling, whose company makes Beverly Hills, 90210, this is also a great gig: In July, Spelling took a Fox order to 30 episodes — seven more than the usual invoice. “The core audience was always aware of it,” says executive producer Charles Rosin. “It’s just that in calendar year ’91, the network really promoted the show.” Which is more than it did when the series debuted last fall.
Muffled by its original name, Class of Beverly Hills, and hidden in a flurry of other teen-oriented programs including Fox’s Parker Lewis Can’t Lose and NBC’s Hull High and Ferris Bueller (the latter two canceled), the series was barely hyped, mildly received. Many saw it as just one more shallow show from the same Spelling glitz factory that gave us Dynasty and The Love Boat — a trendy soap starring a bunch of little-knowns (including Spelling’s 18-year old daughter, Tori).
But teens were watching, and talking about it in school the next day. Besides, the show was getting better: The characters were becoming less stereotypical. The story lines (many by Steve Wasserman and Jessica Klein, who have also written for CBS’ Northern Exposure) got tougher. The acting became more self-assured.
After the third episode, the producers knew the show was working, “But no one knew about it,” recalls Rosin, who was most recently Northern Exposure‘s supervising producer. “So we developed a scenario to promote it.”
The strategy paid off big, especially after Fox featured the series in July to launch the network’s new “52-week” program plan, which intersperses reruns with a continuing stream of new stories.
“I knew the fans were there,” swears creator and co-producer Darren Star. “Teenagers really respond to what they like. And they like to see something that says, ‘I’m not alone.’ Look, on our show, the dysfunctional family is the norm.” Star inevitably calls his baby “teensomething.” And he inevitably says he was probably most like Brandon in high school, but wished he was probably more like broody, sensitive Dylan McKay, played by Luke Perry. Dylan is Brenda’ s sometime boyfriend. Brenda and Dylan had sex once, at the end of this year’s school session. Brenda thought she might be pregnant but wasn’t. She decided she wasn’t ready for sex. She decided she wasn’t for Dylan. They’re now in romance limbo, pining and unsure. While network types wrestle with just how much controversial sex is enough — but not too much — in the season to come (now that more advertiser eyes are watching), eight trillion teenagers understand Brenda and Dylan. Totally.
“Once Dylan’s had a woman, she stays had.” That’s Luke Perry talking about the Brenda-Dylan thing. Perry, a onetime soap actor (Loving, Another World), is in his makeshift dressing room in the anonymous Van Nuys warehouse that serves as the 90210 stage set (suburban Torrance High School substitutes as West Beverly for exterior shots). Perry‘s probably pushing 30, although, like almost everyone else in the cast, he’s coy about his age — the better, they each avow, to preserve teenish illusions. He’s bare-chested. He’s bouncing a basketball. And he’s being cool — charmingly, full-of-it cool. “We’re the show that almost was on the network that isn’t yet, and here we are, kickin’ a little ass, if I do say so myself,” he says in his smoky Dylan voice. Bounce. Bounce.
Two days earlier on August 10, Perry had made headlines when an estimated 10,000 shrieking fans at a Plantation, Fla,. mall stampeded at the sight of him. Twenty-one people were injured, and the actor was hustled away by police — a promo stunt he says he won’t be repeating.
Was he upset?
“Feel my pulse,” he dares, holding out a cool, bare wrist. “Pretty normal, huh?”
Yes, but what’s normal in an industry where little-known young actors become wealthy heartthrobs overnight? Many in the cast smoke, with nervous, grown-up gestures. Some have just bought houses. Big, grown-up houses. All are feeling pretty excited, pretty jazzed, pretty dazed. They goof around a lot, and cut up the crew. The guys in the cast slap and hug and talk about going skeet shooting together. They claim to have no girlfriends, that they’re free agents. (The message: Female fans, there’s hope!) The 90210 girls give and receive back rubs. They’ve got boyfriends. (Hint: Guys, back off!)
They claim there’s no tension, these fragile egos with soft faces, no competition — nothing but comradely exhaustion.
“But I think we’re all ready for a break!” That’s Shannen Doherty sighing with and edgy giggle. Doherty, a screen veteran (one of the Heathers in the 1989 movie of the same name and a graduate of NBC’s Our House), is defensive, cautious, upset by recent reports that she is difficult on the set. “That’s stupid stuff!” she says. There’s a sleep-deprived pallor beneath her Brenda makeup. She giggles again.
During one break, while director Charles Braverman and his crew of 90210-like techies hug and slap each other and set lights, 18-year-old Brian Austin Green blasts his boom box with his friends — teen colleagues in a rap-rock band he has just formed. “David Silver,” he says of the character he plays, “is the annoying guy nobody wants around, but they can’t get rid of him.” Jennie Garth, who plays Kelly, the “fast” girl, plops down with Gabrielle Carteris, who plays Andrea Zuckerman, the brain. “I think Andrea’s really going through a budding time now,” says Carteris.
Tori Spelling hunkers in her dressing room with her teddy bear, Stanley. “My character Donna Martin, is kind of ditzy,” she says in a tiny voice. “Into money. She puts people down who aren’t popular. I think she’s more sensitive than that, though. I think she’s really funny.” Ian (that’s EYE-An, like it says on his license plate) Ziering, who plays Steve, wanders out to hug and slap his buddy Luke. “Steve Sanders thinks he can get away with a flashing smile and buying his way out of trouble.” Ziering flashes his own smile; he’s an actor in heaven. “I feel the writers are so capable — and I’m not blowing sunshine up anybody’s tush!”
And then there’s Jason Priestley. “Jay-Man, Jay-Bob, Jay-Bird!” raps Luke Perry. “Let me show you my Jason pose!” Perry stands in a hustler’s slouch, thumbs hooked into his waistband, Priestley hugs and “Hey, mans” with the best of them. He’s hot. He’s cool.
“Brandon’s going to get into a little bit of trouble this season, which I’m looking forward to,” Priestly hints. He drags on a cig.
“Well, I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” he smiles. “Top secret around here, I’m telling ya.” A makeup girl comes over for a hug, or maybe it’s a kiss.
“This is not a high-pressure show to work on,” director Braverman says, dryly. Of course; he’s in the middle of receiving a back rub. High school was never like this. No, wait maybe it was: a lot of excitement, a lot of requirements, and tons of pressure to be popular.
“All shows have their peak,” sums up Tori Spelling, who probably heard a thing or two about the subject while growing up. “Right now, we’re on our peak. I don’t want to think about the future. I just want to enjoy it. After we did the pilot, everybody was, like ‘What show are you going on? 902-what?’ Nobody heard of us. And now our goal is to beat Cheers one day, beat them in the share points. Or something.”
The students and fans of Beverly Hills, 90210 are cheering: Go, team, go.