Teen trailblazer calls it quits after 10 years

Wednesday, May 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The granddaddy of teen TV dramas has finally reached retirement age.

Make that teen/twenties/pushin' 30 dramas. During its 10 seasons on Fox, Beverly Hills, 90210 took its coming-of-age characters through high school, college and the early stages of 401(k) plans. Now it's check-out time before any gray areas start showing.

Wednesday's two-hour finale, concluding with the wedding of Donna Martin (Tori Spelling) and David Silver (Brian Austin Green), puts 90210 out to pasture before it's entirely over the hill. From zip code to code blue, and probably not a moment too soon.

"I have to be honest with you. I think we'd done practically everything we could do," executive producer Aaron Spelling says in a telephone interview.
90210, which premiered on Oct. 4, 1990, pimplified the prime-time soap opera genre popularized by Dallas and Mr. Spelling's Dynasty. Their characters dripped wealth and lived in luxurious ranch houses and mansions. The kids on 90210 hung out at the Peach Pit diner.

Dallas and Dynasty were ratings blockbusters aimed at mass audiences. 90210 addressed itself to a burgeoning Blockbuster generation. It gave the still fledgling Fox network its first hit drama series. And it sold rival networks and Madison Avenue on the idea that shows with relatively small but predominantly young audiences could still make handsome profits. Targeting "impressionable" youth went from bold strategy to standard operating procedure during 90210's run.

"I was surprised that [then-Fox network head] Barry Diller called me to do a high school show," says Mr. Spelling, a Dallas native who at the time was 67 and far removed from his days as a member of the Southern Methodist University cheerleading squad. "I said, 'What the hell do I know about high school kids?' And he said, 'You've got two teenagers, you idiot.' "

Mr. Spelling cast his daughter, Tori, as one of 90210's lead characters, and later gave his son, Randy, a chance to play the recurring role of Ryan Sanders. The show soon became a teen mag mainstay while rival networks scurried to copy it.

The first "youthquake" mostly flopped, with two of Mr. Spelling's own shows - The Heights and The Round Table - among the casualties. Networks kept trying, though. And by the end of the '90s, The WB triggered another teen gold rush with "buzz" shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek and Felicity.

This season, WB scheduled Dawson's Creek opposite 90210, which it viewed as a virtual Methuselah.

"Fox thought they were gonna really kill us," Mr. Spelling says. "So we did everything we could to keep our show young. But Dawson's Creek never beat us once in the ratings, even when we did a clip show."

True. But 90210's viewership has continued to evaporate. In the mid-1990s the show was drawing an average of 12 million viewers an episode. Last season its audience slipped to 9.7 million. The dropoff has continued this season, with just 7.9 million viewers hanging tough. Wednesday's final episode might have a hard time improving on those numbers. Competition includes Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, a Judds reunion concert and the second part of the CBS miniseries Jesus.

"Wait a minute! We have to compete against Regis and Jesus the same night? There's something wrong here," Mr. Spelling says.

The final episode will mark hours 299 and 300 of 90210, easily a record run for the prolific Mr. Spelling. His runner-up series, The Love Boat, sailed for 252 hours, while No. 3 Dynasty backstabbed for 217 hours. Mr. Spelling's numerous other series include Charlie's Angels, Fantasy Island, Hart to Hart, Melrose Place, The Mod Squad, Hotel, Family, Vega$, 7th Heaven and Charmed - the last two currently airing on WB.

Although 90210 is leaving Fox, Mr. Spelling will retain the Beverly Hills locale and a Wednesday 7 p.m. slot with his new NBC fall series Titans. Announced by NBC this week, the serial drama stars Casper Van Dien from Starship Troopers as a fighter pilot who returns home to find "his filthy rich family torn apart." The pilot's divorced parents, who now reside in competing Beverly Hills mansions, are played by TV vets Victoria Principal and Perry King.

Mr. Spelling's basic formula is to broadly entertain the masses while occasionally flirting with social relevance. 90210 transmitted more "messages" than most of his shows, though. Ask him and he'll tell you:

"We did six shows about racism; five on condom use; two on gay-lesbian issues; four on child abuse; 18 on the dangers of drugs and alcohol; two on rape; four on AIDS; three on drunk driving; four on school violence; three on gambling; two on anti-Semitism; two on animal rights; two on Alzheimer's disease; three on sexual harassment and two on manic depression.

"That's a lot of issues for a show that's just supposed to be fun," he adds. "The motto was, 'Don't preach. Teach.' But I'm not gonna kid you. We did a lot of shows on that other stuff, too."

Cast member Luke Perry, who played James Dean-ish Dylan McKay for seven of 90210's 10 seasons, nicely distilled "that other stuff" on last Wednesday's behind-the-scenes look at the show.

"We swapped spit a lot," he said. "We jumped around on each other a good bit. Hygiene is a real issue. A lot of deodorant gets used on our set, a lot of mouthwash. We probably have one of the bigger mouthwash budgets in Hollywood."

One of his bunkmates was Jennie Garth's character, Kelly Taylor, who became the show's resident trauma queen. She variously became addicted to cocaine, had an "AIDS scare" and a miscarriage, was shot, suffered amnesia, was raped and then killed her rapist. Her battered psyche now must navigate a final frontier. Should she consummate an engagement to Matt Durning (Daniel Cosgrove) or yield to her "true feelings" for Dylan, to whom she lost her virginity way back in Season 3?

Ms. Garth and Mr. Perry, who returned to 90210 in 1998, are two of five charter cast members to work full-time on the show in both its first and 10th seasons. The others are Ms. Spelling, Mr. Green and Ian Ziering (Steve Sanders).

Three other pivotal cast members - Jason Priestly (Brandon Walsh), Gabrielle Carteris (Andrea Zuckerman) and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen (Valerie Malone) - will be making guest appearances on the finale. The only major no-show is Shannen Doherty (Brenda Walsh), who left 90210 in 1994 after a number of bad scenes, most of them off-camera. But Mr. Spelling returned her to his good graces in Charmed, and says she was too busy directing the final episode of that show to do a curtain call on 90210.

"It really wasn't her fault," he says. "She just didn't have the time."

Mr. Spelling is paternal toward the entire cast, having watched most of 90210's young actors grow up while hanging out at his palatial home. His daughter, Tori, figuratively lost her virginity on the show, but not until Season 7 to the guy she'll finally marry Wednesday night. It all makes Mr. Spelling kinda weepy.

"I went to the wrap party and I have never seen more tears," he says. "We all got bombed, and everybody was crying. These kids would come to my house a lot. They'd shoot pool, play video games. God, I remember every Saturday Luke Perry used to come over."

Mr. Spelling's going-away present from the cast was a double-framed silver picture of the 90210-ers in Seasons 1 and 10. They also put together a videotape in which Ms. Garth says of Mr. Spelling, "He was my father and my god."

Fans of the show also can get a piece of the action by participating in an ongoing 90210 auction on AsSeenIn.com, which is partly owned by Mr. Spelling's company. Items up for bid include Dylan's motorcycle; a Peach Pit jukebox; Kelly's wedding dress from her waylaid marriage to Brandon and a dresser from the bungalow where recent best actress Oscar-winner Hilary Swank (Boys Don't Cry) lived during her brief stint two seasons ago as single mother Carly Reynolds.

Mr. Spelling's getting misty again.

Ms. Swank was "sweet and dear - and a good actress," he says.

"And man, did I sweat out her winning an Oscar. I called her the next day and congratulated her on her answering machine. And do you know what? Thirty minutes later I got a call, and we were on the phone for 10 minutes.

"That's the kind of lady she is. Those are the kinds of memories you keep."