'90210' premieres

"90210" cast: (Front row l-r) Ryan Eggold as Ryan, Jessica Stroup as Silver, Michael Steger as Navid; (Middle Row l-r) Jessica Walter as Tabitha, Tristan Wilds as Dixon, AnnaLynne McCord as Naomi; (Back row l-r) Rob Estes as Harry, Lori Loughlin as Debbie, Shenae Grimes as Annie, Dustin Milligan as Ethan. (Art Streiber/ The CW)

"90210" has had a few nips and tucks in its transformation from a 1990s teen classic beloved by the people who now write for and run entertainment magazines, hence all the cover stories, but The CW's updated version premiered tonight revealing a series with more humor but largely rooted in the same themes: Family, friends, teen melodrama, relationships, etc.

It's not a great show but it's not a terrible teen drama, not by a long shot. And that's a bit of a surprise given The CW's unwillingness to send it out for critics to review in advance of air (Perhaps as a dare to critics, the first dialogue heard is new Beverly Hills kid Dixon declaring, "This sucks!"). The new "90210" turns out to be a solid sequel with plenty of shout-outs to fans of the old "90210":

Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth): Kelly has a son and keeps in touch with his father by phone. Later in the episode Kelly mentions talking to Brandon (Jason Priestley) by phone. Hmmmm.

Brenda Walsh (Shannen Doherty): Brenda reconnects with Kelly at the new Peach Pit. In a parallel of Doherty and Garth's real-life relationship, Brenda and Kelly discuss how they haven't seen each other much in recent years and they ought to reconnect and let the past (e.g. fighting over Dylan McKay, played by Luke Perry) stay in the past.

Erin Silver (Jessica Stroup): A series regular, Erin is the half-sister of Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth), born of Kelly's mom and the father of original series regular, David Silver (Brian Austin Green, not in the new "90210").

Hannah Zuckerman-Vazquez (Hallee Hirsh): The daughter of the original's Andrea Zuckerman and Jesse Cazquez is now an anchor on West Beverly Hills High School's closed circuit news show. But I'm not sure it works out time-wise that she'd be in high school by now.

Linda Gray: The "Dallas" star who played Sue Ellen Ewing popped up in the "90210" pilot as Mrs. Brewer, grandmother of jock Ethan (Dustin Milligan). As if the presence of Rob Estes, who had a role late in "Melrose Place," didn't violate the physics of the Spelling universe, then the presence of Gray surely does. She played the mother of Amanda (Heather Locklear) on "Melrose Place" and then got spun off into the short-lived "Models Inc."

Nat (Joe E. Tata), proprietor of The Peach Pit: Nat runs the new Peach Pit but it's no longer a diner. Now it's a coffee house and Nat can't get used to how the cappucino machine works, muttering, "I'm never gonna learn to work this machine. Whatever happened to regular coffee?" Brenda tells him, "Brandon is good. He told me to tell you that every time he thinks of you, he craves a mega-burger."

Easily the best thing about the new "90210" is Tabitha, the alcoholic grandmother played with grande dame relish by Jessica Walter ("Arrested Development"). Tabitha's alcoholism is one of the reasons the Wilson family moves to the famed zip code. Dad Harry (Rob Estes) takes the job as principal at WBHHS while photographer mom Debbie (Lori Loughlin) keeps tabs on Tabitha, who clearly dislikes Debbie but loves her grandchildren, aspiring actress Annie (Shenae Grimes, well cast for her resemblance to Loughlin) and adopted jock Dixon (Tristan Wilds).

While the kids may be watching for the soapy stories -- the lead in the school musical is a drug addict! Annie gets grounded! -- others will be watching for more of Tabitha's bon mots.

"Never worry about being fair," she tells Dixon after he's in a fight with another guy on the lacrosse team. "Just grab onto those jewels and twist like they're a garbage bag."

Or this one: "I need to finish writing my memoirs before my friend Virginia does," says grandma, a former actress. "We've slept with all the same people."

At WBHHS, the Wilson kids encounter all the types, including the mean girl Naiomi (AnnaLyne McCord), who is dating jock Ethan (Dustin Milligan) as the show begins. Naomi's mom (Christina Moore, "Pasadena") has a history with Harry and it turns out they have a kid together that she put up for adoption. Harry only learned that after taking the teaching job and learning that Naomi cheated on an English paper. Drama!

New technology is all over "90210," from Silver's vicious blog ("That's what a blog is supposed to do, cause problems," she says) to text messages to YouTube videos. The producers definitely get the tech-savvy aspects of teen life right. And it's also nice to see some of the emphasis that's been put on families. The original "90210" once had that but gave up the family franchise once Brenda fled to London and Ma and Pa Walsh moved to Hong Kong. Having parents present on this "90210" grounds it and keeps the "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous" aspect from overwhelming the plot.

There are some ridiculous aspects of "90210": Kelly Taylor seems to pop up out of nowhere at Harry's side. Is she a person or an apparition? And the school musical is "Spring Awakening," which remains a Broadway hit so it's probably not realistic for it to be performed on the high school level just yet (then again, we got to hear a snippet of the show's awesome score, so it was worth it, realistic or not).

And then there's the more graphic nature of the show: The first hour included a scene of Ethan receiving oral sex while sitting in his SUV parked in front of BHHS. It was more implied than shown, of course, but still it was more graphic than the old "90210." Oral sex in the parking lot is the new necking in a stairwell!

"90210" isn't likely to win any awards -- other than the Teen Choice Awards, of course -- but it has more compelling characters than one might expect. The performances aren't terrible. The dialogue is more clever (see Tabitha's lines above) than painful ("I'm breaking up with us," Ethan told Naiomi). And the theme song remains the same. Welcome back to Beverly Hills.

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Posted Sep 02 2008, 08:12 PM by Rob Owen
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