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flashback friday: 9021-ohhhh!

we're the kids in america....

by: luke crisell

all photos by marvin scott jarrett

August 01 2014

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By the time that Jessica Stroup, who plays Silver on the new version of 90210, sashays past the sports cars, up the red carpet, though the front gates of the Boulevard3 nightclub in West Hollywood, and delivers her line— a play off the Mastercard ‘priceless’ slogan— to co-stars Shenae Grimes, Tristan Wilds, and Michael Steger for the sixth time, it’s almost 2a.m., and the 90-strong crew are getting restless. This is the seventh day of shooting the first episode: It centers around a 16th birthday party for the character Naomi Clark (played by AnnaLynne McCord), which will be filmed inside the club tomorrow, and feature a performance by Tilly and the Wall. Winding her way through a crowd of pretty extras, who have been carefully placed according to their attractiveness, Stroup goes to take a flute of “champagne” from a “waitress,” as she has done five times before, but someone has inexplicably, stuck it to the tray. She tugs at it. There’s momentary confusion. “Cut!” yells the director, Mark Piznarski (who, not insignificantly, has three episodes of the CW’s current standard bearer, Gossip Girl, under his belt), getting up from his seat behind the monitors and waving his arms over his head. People shuffle back to their places, cameras and lights are reset, and they try again. 

“When I first heard about the new show my reaction was…It’s about time!” says Tori Spelling, who played Kelly Taylor’s best friend Donna Martin in the original 90210; in the new series Donna runs a boutique in Beverly Hills. Kelly (Jennie Garth) returns too, as a guidance counselor; even Brenda (Shannen Doherty) is back— as director of the school play. “The fans have wanted an updated version and have wanted to see the original characters back on screen for years,” Spelling continues. “My dad would be proud. He always wanted to do a 90210, the next generation.” Tori’s father was, of course, Aaron Spelling, the executive producer and driving force behind the original 90210, a zip code which has left an indelible, pastel-hued mark on pop culture and, now, might just do so all over again. 

It all started in October 1990 when the four-year-old FOX network, still looking to wrest viewers from the big three networks, launched Beverly Hills, 90210 as part of an ongoing campaign to target a youth audience— a strategy they believed would help them crack an otherwise impenetrable television oligopoly. Unlike the established networks, FOX and its billionaire owner, Rupert Murdoch, were willing to take risks, as one Dr. Gregory Payne, chair of the Communication Studies at Emerson College, Boston, put it in 1990: “FOX is gutsy and trendy, and the kids love that.”

Specifically, they loved the blue-collar bathos of Married with Children and the markedly more edifying The Simpsons, which debuted just nine months before 90210. While teens would tune in to both shows— whether they related to Lisa Simpson’s overachieving or Kelly Bundy’s under-dressing—neither was custom-built for an aspirational teen audience. 90210 was, and in it, FOX had an unexpected ace up its sleeve. Here were teenagers being treated, for the first time, like adults. In the inaugural season alone, the show dealt with subjects which are now par for the teen-drama course— racial discrimination, plastic sugary, alcoholism, date rape, diet-pill addiction, AIDS, drunk driving and sex, all of which were woven into a milieu when teamed with the sparkling trappings of wealth: from fast cars to designer clothes to laptops the size of small desks. Rich, preternaturally good-looking, and prone to the sort of relationship drama usually reserved for adults, the teenagers who populated the halls of West Beverly High became the unrequited crushes of a generation. The prime-time soap had someone for everyone, even in the six main characters: all-American Brandon (Jason Priestly) and his scheming twin sister Brenda newly arrived from Minnesota; queen bee Kelly; James Dean wannabe Dylan (Luke Perry); nerd David (Brian Austin Greenee); and spoiled princess Donna (Tori Spelling). (In the 90210 universe, grown-ups Jim and Cindy Walsh stayed home, and stayed quiet; even Nat, owner of the Peach Pit, offered little more than common sense and unlimited non-alcoholic drinks.) 

In 1991 The New York Times described 90210 as “The most popular show on television among the youth of the ‘90s”; in 1992 69% of the female teenagers in American were watching it. By 1994 90210 was the most popular show among all viewers aged 18-34. By the time it came off air, in 2000 after 296 episodes, the show could be credited with nothing less than having created a new genre: modern teen television. It’s a category that has, of course, evolved almost beyond recognition from the time when Brenda lost her virginity to Dylan at the spring dance. We are led to assume that the majority of the characters in Gossip Girl, for example, have not only had sex, but done so in ways that young David Silver could not even dream of. It’s into this genre, marked as it is with touchstones ranging from the relative wholesomeness of My So Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, and Dawson’s Greek to the fantastical jousting of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the sun-splashed angst of of The O.C., and the blatant hedonism if the aforementioned Gossip Girl, that the CW’s 90210 spin-off wades this month. Where, you have to wonder, can its producer go from here?

“The teen drama has not just changed how TV is, it has changed everything—the whole genre of drama period” says Tristan Wilds, who played Michael Lee on The Wire and is Dixon Mills, the adopted brother of Shenae Grimes’s character Annie Wilson, on the new 90210. “You can see touches of Gossip Girl in movies that are coming out now. You can see touches of Degrassi in movies and new TV shows,” he continues, earnestly. “It makes everyone step up their game and it’s just going to keep getting better, hopefully.” 

“We’re just going to do the best show that we can,” says executive producer Jeff Judah, who worked with the other executive producer, Gabe Sachs, on the brilliant but short lived Life As We Know It and, also with Sachs, and under Judd Apatow, on Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. “Yes, the kids have money but we still want to show that they have the real, actual problems of any teenager. It’s just that instead of going on a date to the movies, they maybe go on a jet. Emotionally, though, the concerns are still the same: ‘I want to be likes,’ ‘I want to have friends,’ ‘I’m insecure.’” 

“It’s a whole new world and that’s what these kids are a part of,” says Sahcs, as we take refuge from the bustle of the set in a gazebo outside the club during a break between scenes. “In Freaks and Geeks we always talked about how when we were in high school asking a girl out was hard. You had to actually approach them. Now people have their numbers and they’re texting, so you don’t have to approach them. It’s fascinating. Things are faster; kids are more sexually aware.” All of which is truem but not, perhaps suggestive of plots as outrageous as, say Serena making a sex tape with a drug addict while high on cocaine before leaving him to die.  Some of the actors, however, do hint that the new 90210 will cause some little kerfuffles of its own. “American audiences have a attention span of, like, three seconds,” says AnnaLynne McCord as we chat in her trailer one morning, her feet tucked up under her. “You have to catch their eye when you flip channels, so it’s very provocative very racy, very sexy.”

But while our appetite for extravagant scandals in teen drama has been whetted by such shows as Josh Schwartz’s The O.C. and Gossip Girl in recent years, in some of the best teen shows, things wouldn’t so much explode, as smolder slowly. 

“I was really excited when I heard Gabe and Jeff had signed on as executive producers,” says Dustin Milligan who as, Ethan Ward, the captain of the lacrosse team, fills the jock role previously inhabited by Ian Ziering’s Steve Sanders. “You knew they were going to be layering these characters and making them real. Not just writing salacious heightened teen-sex mega dramas.” Michael Steger, who plays overachieving editor of the WBHH television network, Blaze, and all-around gossip-mongerer Navid Shirazi, agrees. “They draw on real experiences and I feel like it’s authentic,” he says. “It’s racy in the sense that it pushes the envelope, but it’s still true to life.” 

“What I hope that our show is going to do is what some of the shows in the past haven’t, and really delve into the reality of the issues,” says Shenae Grimes, who’s character, Annie Wilson, moves with her family from Kansas to California when her father takes over the post of principal at West Beverly High. “On a lot of shows nowadays it’s like, ‘Alright you’ve got an eating disorder for a day and then mommy finds out and then you go for a family dinner and it’s all OK.’ That’s not the way the world works. You don’t get bullied in high school and then all of a sudden it’s patched up the next day. With our show, we’re going to find that the characters all have their own very definitive characteristics but that there are many, many layers to peel away throughout the season…” she giggles, adding “seasons! Hopefully. You’ll see a lot more depth to them and their issues and where these things stem from and what the real consequences are…” she pauses, and pushes some hair behind an ear, “while obviously keeping it fun and fashion-forward and glamorous! That’s what the original show did. It put the issues on the table that nobody on TV would ever touch. Hopefully, we’re going to do that again but not in such a cookie-cutter, moral-of-the-story way.” 

Grimes doesn’t mean to decry the original 90210 –without it she’d still be ‘that girl from the Degrassi remake’ – but she does touch upon a rather salient point. As executive producers of the new 90210, Sachs and Judah have a few crucial decisions to make as to where exactly their new show –which is, as almost every single one of the people interviewed for this article reminded me, not a remake but a spin-off– should be situated in respect to the old one. They don’t want to tread too heavily upon such hallowed ground but they do have, it’s fair to say, a considerable debt to pay their predecessor: The new show was picked up by The CW without so much as a frame being shot after Sachs and Judah rewrote Rob “Veronica Mars” Thomas’s original script. That never happens. Ever. 

“The power of this brand is ridiculous,” says Sachs. “And we’ve never experienced it so we’re in awe of it. When we got to New York [for the upfronts, in May], we had not shot a frame of film but these kids were mobbed. I mean it’s real, and it’s because of the brand. I remember when Jeff and I were working on some show and we were like ‘We’ll pay for a billboard,’ as if that would make a difference. I sat in the marketing campaign for this and they must have all been laughing at me because my mouth just dropped open. I was like ‘Wow.’ I mean this is serious, big business.” I ask Sachs why he chose to remake something rather than do something new. Something that could, even, be as good as Freaks and Geeks. “We’ve got a lot of shows in us that we want to do,” he says. “But to be handed something like this is a once in a lifetime thing. You’re being given something that already has all the stuff that you kill yourself to get, which is publicity, publicity, publicity. We asked a lot of people and they were like, ‘You’re crazy if you don’t do it.’”

They’re being smart about it, including contemporary references to life in Hollywood (Mark ‘The Cobrasnake’ Hunter and Cory Kennedy appear in the party scene of the first episode), and have enlisted previous collaborators KCRW presenter Nic Harcourt as music supervisor, and Debra McGuire as costume designer. “The interesting thing about The O.C. is that they lifted a lot of music from Morning Becomes Eclectic [his radio show],” says Harcourt. “So now I get the chance to put the music that I’m discovering on a TV show I’m working on.” He has some interesting bands in mind for live performances on the show down the line. “We’re talking about the Ting Tings, we’re talking about Little Jackie, we’re talking about The Virgins,” he says. I ask McGuire how being a costume designer has changed recently, as outfits on shows with young viewers are dissected online even before episodes have finished airing. “It’s changed tremendously, but I’m not affected by it,” she says. “I’m not a person that looks to the outside world to decide how these girls should look.” Does she think Gossip Girl has set a bar on fashion when it comes to teen shows? “I’m not really paying attention to it at all,” she says. “It’s an East Coast look and I’m not really interested in that for my girls. We’re West Coast, we’ve got a whole different vibe.” 

But while the fact that they’re making a new version of 90210 is, predictably, attracting a ridiculous amount of publicity, not all of it has been good. Indeed, that quotient of the blogosphere that concerns itself with such matters is all a-chatter with vituperative remarks about the show’s worth, demanding to know how anyone would dare remake something so sacrosanct. Judging from the amount of angry steam pouring from ears, you’d think that HBO had announced plans to remake The Sopranos, in claymation. Such irascibility is curious because, let’s be honest, the old show isn’t actually very good. It is, in fact, a morally heavy-handed look at a few egomaniacal kids with a penchant for chinos and animal-prints, which putters along on the strength of its main character’s perfect facial proportions, a few palm trees, the odd surfboard, and very little else. So just why is the 90210 brand so powerful? How has that name managed to entire two immensely talented producers and a coterie of good young actors along for a ride that is attracting more interest than any TV show in recent memory? After a few days on set, both of which only wrap in the early morning, it’s clear that while the wheels of the publicity machine are turning happily all around them, those who are actually working on the show are feeling some pressure. 

“People are so married to what the show was but this is not the same show continued; it’s a spin-off,” says Sachs. “There’s this huge mega hit and people are just going to go ‘There’s no way it’s going to live up to that.’ And we just said ‘Let’s take the challenge and let’s do it.’”

“When you say 90210, everybody knows it,” says Judah. “We’re taking over a show where people had such attachments to the characters and have such an opinion on where they should be at this point. It just reinforces how much ownership the fans feel for the show, which is different to creating something from scratch and trying to get them to fall in love with the show. They’re already in love with it, and they have expectations. I think that it’s the same as Star Wars being a seminal movie for a lot of 30-somethings, and so the new Star Wars could never hold up. But the truth is, they fell in love with it when they were nine. It’s an emotional thing. So when we talk to the old fans of the show, a lot of it is ‘Every night me and my friends got together in our dorm room,’ or, ‘Me and my best friend from high school watched it at each other’s houses.’ It’s beyond a love for the series and the actors and the writing. It’s that people connect it with a time in their lives – their own coming of age to these characters coming of age. They feel like they grew up with them.” Both executive producers have consulted with the original cast, some of the original writers, and plenty of high-school kids. “The people who played those roles know them better than we do,” says Judah. “So we want to respect that.”

Some of those people who grew up with the original 90210, of course, are now in the new one. “Oh. My. God. I love Dylan McKay,” says Grimes. “If I ever meet Luke Perry I may collapse. I don’t know what I’ll do.” It is almost midnight and we’re sitting on a couch in a deserted corner of the club they’ll be shooting in tomorrow. Outside, in the courtyard where they’ve been filming for 10 hours, we can hear the director shouting to a lighting technician and the assistant director yelling at the assembled extras to ‘bop a bit to the music.’ “I know there isn’t any,” he shouts. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t boogie a bit.”

“The big thing with this show is that it’s our own, and completely different,” continues Grimes. “I think that for nostalgia’s sake, the old fans like me are going to be happy with what we’re bringing back, but we’re going to show people that it really is our own thing and we’re doing something new and different. It’s really going to go there a lot more and I think people are going to like it a lot.”

Jessica Stroup, whose character is a Youtube star (you will be able to watch her online series at the visciouscircle.com), is also a Luke Perry kind of girl. “Are you kidding me? He’s an amazing-looking man,” she says. “Sexy! I remember being at my cousin’s house and taking the cushions off the couches and just watching Luke Perry on TV and falling in love. The rebel, the rebel…”

“This is kick-ass! It’s 90210! It’s cool,” continues Stroup, who is well aware of the significance of the 90210 name. I ask her how it feels to be part of something that is so much more than a TV show. 

“Do I feel like a product, basically?” she says. 

No, I didn’t mean…

“No, I totally am,” she says. “I mean, it is a legacy. I remember the first time I met Jennie Garth I was like ‘How do you really feel? This was your life for 10 years. Is this crazy? Is this totally crazy? And now you’re like right back in it. I can’t imagine what that must be like.’” It’s one a.m. and, finally, getting cool; she pulls her blue hoodie, which she’s wearing over a sparkly, slightly bohemian party dress, a little closer around her shoulders. “I feel like this show is doing something unprecedented for TV in general,” she continues. “It’s just build up, build up, build up. People are just waiting.”

AnnaLynne McCord, who played Eden Lord on Nip/Tuck, was only interested in the hype when she was deciding whether or not to be a part of the show. “I was looking online and everyone was talking crazy about the new 90210,” she says. “The name itself is such a brand so I was really excited to get the publicity for the Blind Project [one of two organizations that McCord works with that help victims of sex trafficking].” McCord’s character, the super-rich Naomi Clark, will be the bitch on the show. “I really want to make the transition from the bad girl to the bad-ass girl,” she says. “I like kick-ass movies, I like guns. My birthday is next week, and I’m getting the 380 Ruger and a .38 revolver.” McCord, for whom Angelina Jolie is “the epitome of who I want to be,” is also into martial arts. “Brazilian ju jitzu,” she specifies. “It’s more ground fighting than Japanese ju jitzu. More grappling.” Now she’s onboard for the new show, though, McCord says she doesn’t look up what people are saying about it, or her, online. “There’s going to be stuff about me,” she says. “I don’t want to read that shit. Ignorance is bliss.”

“It’s like ‘Wow, someone’s actually  sat there and taken the time to talk this much shit about me?” says Grimes of the online speculation. “It’s disheartening after a while. And it’s all bullshit and doesn’t really matter at all. I remember about half an hour after I got the call telling me I had the part my girlfriend went online just to see. And it was already everywhere. Split screens between me and Hilary [Duff, who was rumored to be taking the part of Annie for a while], I was like ‘Dude, what?!”

“Everyone’s all ‘How’d you prep for Annie?’ and I’m like ‘Dude, I’m living the prep right now,” continues Grimes, who moved from her hometown of Toronto to L.A. for the role. “Toronto –it’s a city, but it’s in Canada man. We do not have the life that we have out here in Hollywood, that’s for sure. I was waiting in line forever and suddenly everyone wants a piece of you. It really does happen overnight, especially with something this big.”

“We’re definitely in the eye of the storm here,” says Judah. “But I just hope we do good work. We’re very happy with what we’re doing right now. There’s a percentage of people on the Internet who detract everything – that’s just what they do. I say give it a chance.”

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