BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.
Reviving "Beverly Hills, 90210": Genius move or last-ditch measure by a low-rated, desperate network?
Viewers will have to decide for themselves when the new "90210" has its two-hour premiere Tuesday on The CW (Pittsburgh's WPCW, Channel 19). Network executives refused to make any episodes of the series available in advance for review, which is widely seen as a sign that the show will be a disappointing knock-off.
Not that critical appraisal -- positive or negative -- is likely to have much effect on the ratings. Lukewarm reviews -- "A ZIP code for stereotypes and stock characters," groused the Los Angeles Times -- certainly didn't damage the original "90210," which aired on Fox from 1990-2000. (A 24-hour marathon of episodes from the Fox series begins at midnight and airs all day tomorrow on SOAPnet.)
In what The CW calls "an edgy, contemporary spinoff," the new "90210" follows the Wilson family as it moves from Kansas to Beverly Hills (in the original, the Walshes moved from Minnesota to the prestigious ZIP code). Dad Harry (Rob Estes of "Melrose Place," a spinoff of the original "90210") accepts the job of principal at West Beverly Hills High School. Wife Debbie (Lori Loughlin, "Summerland") is charged with keeping tabs on Harry's alcoholic mother, Tabitha (Jessica Walter, "Arrested Development").
Of course, it's really all about the teenage Wilson kids, theater buff Annie (Shenae Grimes, "Degrassi: The Next Generation") and her adopted athlete brother, Dixon (Tristan Wilds, "The Wire"), who encounter culture shock among their rich classmates:
Naomi (AnnaLynne McCord, "Nip/Tuck"), a mean rich girl.
Ethan (Dustin Milligan, "Runaway"), a popular jock who may be a rival for Dixon.
Navid (Michael Steger, "The Winner"), an aspiring journalist and anchor of the school's daily newscast.
Silver (Jessica Stroup, "Prom Night"), a rebellious teen who makes YouTube-type videos. She's likely related to the original show's David Silver.
BHHS faculty members include teacher Ryan Matthews (Ryan Eggold, "Dirt") and guidance counselor Kelly Taylor, a character from the original series once again played by Jennie Garth.
She's not the only returnee. Shannen Doherty is slated to appear in a handful of episodes, breathing new life into Brenda Walsh, last seen heading to London to study theater on the old series. In the new "90210," Brenda is a successful theater director who returns to helm a high school musical.
Tori Spelling's Donna Martin was expected to play a role in the new show, but she bowed out earlier this month, supposedly because she learned she was being paid substantially less than Garth and Doherty.
But the glue who may hold this all together is Joe E. Tata, who returns as Nat, proprietor of The Peach Pit, a soda shop hangout on the original that's now a hip coffeehouse with a music performance space upstairs.
While the original series had the imprimatur of the late Aaron Spelling and a pre-"Sex and the City" Darren Starr, the new "90210" is in the hands of writers Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah, who previously worked on the teen dramas "life as we know it" and "Freaks & Geeks" as well as the sitcom "Just Shoot Me."
"We're trying to ground it [in reality]," Judah said in July. "It's grounded with real character stories and emotional stories and whether these kids drive Maseratis or whatever mansions they live in, we want people in Iowa watching, going, 'That's how I feel when my dad gets mad at me. That's how I feel when someone doesn't like me.' We're trying to tell truthful, emotional stories, but also keep it pretty funny, too."
Sachs said "Freaks"-style quirky comedy will add another layer to the new "90210." He understands why that notion may raise eyebrows.
"Trust me, your concerns about Sachs and Judah doing '90210' are the same concerns everyone has had, including Jeff and I," Sachs said. "We were the first ones to go, 'Can we pull this off?' "
Sachs said he and Judah are still a part of the "Freaks & Geeks" world created by Judd Apatow that has been popularized in the mainstream with such hit films as "Superbad" and "Pineapple Express."
"He still asks us to give notes on rough cuts and at table reads and on scripts. That family will never be apart," Sachs said. "Our writing is not gonna change. This is who we write, this is how we create stories."
One change old "90210" fans should expect in the new show: More prominent adult storylines and a strong point of view on parenting.
"We're both fathers. We like this central family that moves into Beverly Hills and it's [a question of] how do they hold onto their moral center?" Judah said. "We think this generation of parenting is different than the ones we grew up with. We, as parents, did almost everything that our kids are doing. Our parents didn't do that. It's a lot harder to lie to us. We know what they're doing, and they can't get away with stuff that they think they are because we did it 20 years ago."
For fans, the legacy of the "90210" brand is on the line, but for The CW, this new series may represent its last best hope for survival. Sachs acknowledged he and Judah feel that pressure.
"The network and the studio, they're very concerned about every little part of this," he said, acknowledging that there are a lot of cooks in the "90210" kitchen. "It's such a big business now. We're not in a world where they go, 'Hey, creative guys, here's a bunch of money, go shoot something.' There's so much relying on the success of this show."