It’s officially summer: that heinous point in the year when so much good television evaporates and we must crawl into the depths of Netflix and Hulu to survive until winter. It is this level of desperation that recently flung me in the unlikely direction of the first season of Beverly Hills 90210.
I originally decided to revisit Brandon, Brenda, and the gang because I imagined they would unintentionally make me laugh out loud a lot. And they did — any and all scenes involving surfing or dancing are a guaranteed laugh riot in this thing. Comedy gold also comes in the kinds of scenes that involve Brenda crashing a driver’s ed vehicle because she sees Henry Winkler (why him?!), and dialogue that leaps in all kinds of absurd directions on the regular (“Janet Jackson has laryngitis! Kenny is drunk and you have to come and get me!”)
I had not, however, anticipated falling into a binge-watch situation, but did because — surprise! — Beverly Hills 90210 is, for the most part, entirely un-ironically, a really great TV show. Obviously, we’re not talking Breaking Bad levels of excellence or anything, but if we can keep My So-Called Life on a pedestal, the first season of 90210 deserves a place on the podium as well (even if the rich kid characters are inherently less likable than Rickie Vasquez and Rayanne Graff).
90210 was undoubtedly what we looked to in the pre-Kardashian age to find out how rich kids in LA lived, and for millennials, this thing is a goldmine of information about How Teenagers Used to Live. Seeing all of these hot young things trying to organize their lives while tethered to landlines, phone booths, and library desks is moderately heartbreaking in 2017, especially in the episode where the Walsh family’s landline breaks and the telephone company tells them they are “lucky to have a number.”
The other remarkable thing to note is that, in 1990, photos were literally never taken unless you were (a) working on the school newspaper (those used to exist!), (b) on vacation, or (c) about to go to a dance. And forget about casually making videos — those puppies required borrowing 25 pounds of equipment. Don’t even get me started on the alarm clock situation, or the fact that both men and women felt okay about wearing vests over absolutely anything, on an almost-daily basis.
Despite all of the nonsense that dates the show, 90210 is still masterful at passing on life lessons. There are substance abuse problems (for both parents and teens) peppered throughout the series. Issues of privilege also weave throughout, thanks to Brenda trying to keep up with her super rich friends, and the fact that Andrea is from a poor part of town and committing school district fraud to go to a good high school.
Season 1 also tackles date rape, safe sex, AIDs, cancer scares, drunk driving, single parenting, adoption, virginity loss, and, in two separate episodes (“East Side Story” and “Every Dream Has Its Price Tag”), the issue of underpaid immigrants. Not bad for what could’ve just been, essentially, a super long advertisement for rampant capitalism.
On the downside, 90210 is consistently an overwhelmingly white prospect. People of color are generally reduced to corridor and crowd scenes and, once you notice, it is an aggravating thing to behold every episode. One of the only occasions that affords black characters the opportunity to speak is in “One On One,” an episode that concerns itself with the fact that West Beverly High recruits African American students from outside the school district to populate their basketball team.
The premise is problematic as hell on a plethora of levels, but the episode ultimately succeeds in highlighting still-relevant issues around race, education, and white privilege. Furthermore, because the audience is automatically inclined to sympathize with Brandon and Steve, and both characters reveal themselves to be racist in the episode, it ultimately forces viewers to examine their own prejudices — which, if you’re a teen watching a show this incredibly white, is probably pretty damn necessary.
Ultimately, even if you only come to Beverly Hills 90210 to see men wearing crop-tops, David Austin Green doing Vanilla Ice dancing, Jason Priestley having an affair with paisley shirts, and a bunch of 25-year-olds pretending to be high school students, it’s worth sticking around for everything else the show offers. Sure, Beverly Hills 90210 is ridiculous — but it’s also surprisingly underrated.