FROM: The Vice Principal
TO: The Faculty, High School U.S.A.
I'm sure I don't need to remind you what happened when we didn't prepare for Bart Simpson last fall. The school was flooded with rude, antieducational T-shirts. Some cows were had. Well, as a new school year gets under way, I believe we face another daunting challenge: Brace yourselves for Beverly Hills, 90210.
That's the Fox drama about unworldly twin teens Brandon and Brenda Walsh (played by Jason Priestley and Shannen Doherty), recent transferees from Minneapolis to the Hills of Beverly. There they struggle to assimilate into the fast-lane lifestyle of West Beverly Hills High School, where the kids come equipped with BMWs, call waiting and designer surfboards. In the process, the teens examine their emerging identities and the problems that adolescents everywhere face.
The show languished in the Nielsen ratings against Thursday powerhouse Cheers last year. But Fox had no replacement, so it stayed. While we were on summer vacation, new 90210 episodes began airing, and the show landed in the Top 20, becoming the most popular show among teenagers.
To some extent, I take responsibility for having ignored 90210. I made the mistake of reading newspaper critics instead of my daughter's diary, and so I believed, as Howard Rosenberg sniffed in the Los Angeles Times, that the show was merely a "ZIP code for stereotypes and stock characters." Little did I know that this show would mesmerize teens by doing emotionally realistic shows that involved adolescent rebellion, alcoholic; parents, a breast-cancer scare and plenty of worrisome teen sex. "Most shows for adolescents," says 90210 creator Darren Star, "seem like they are written by 50-year-olds who think teenagers behave like 7-year-olds."
It also doesn't hurt that the show's male stars, Priestley and Luke Perry (who plays brooding loner Dylan McKay), are "to die for," as my daughter puts it. These two have each been receiving about 1,500 fan letters a week. So be vigilant: Surely some of these will be written by our students...during class!
And I'm afraid that 90210 is only going to get bigger with our kids, if producer Aaron Spelling is to be believed. "I thought The Mod Squad and Charlie's Angels got a lot of publicity in their heyday," says Spelling, whose company produced those shows, "but it doesn't compare to this. It's crazy. We have merchandising coming out of our ears"—a complete line of T-shirts, beach towels, notebooks, etc. "And now these actors can't walk down the street!"
Or even streak through malls. You probably saw those alarming news reports about a frenzied mob of 10,000 fans that stampeded Perry when he appeared at a south Florida mall last month. "It's a little scary," says Perry.
Scarier is the amount of time students will waste this fall discussing Luke. And Jason. And who is sexier. I provide some information on the two.
Jason Priestley, 22, plays Brandon Walsh, a model of thoughtful level-headedness. In real life, however, the brown-haired, blue-eyed star, who started acting in commercials at age 4 and played an orphan on that very nice NBC sitcom Sister Kate, is no Oliver Twist. He likes dirt bikes, bungee jumping and is a chain-smoker (just about the whole cast puffs it up—but not on-camera). Vancouver-born Priestley likes to hang out in Las Vegas. As for his real romantic life, he was reportedly dating actress Robin (Doogie Howser, M.D.) Lively last spring, but it seems likely that now he is too busy for such dalliance;. He must be on the set 14 hours a day, five days a week. To avoid ever-present fans, Priestley says, "I look different from my character when I'm just walking around. I don't shave, I don't dress like Brandon."
On the show, 26-year-old Luke Perry (Brenda Walsh's boyfriend, Dylan) sports a leather jacket, dagger sideburns and a squint that spells t-r-o-u-b-l-e. Although he grew up and graduated from high school in Fredericktown, Ohio, he seems to have attended James Dean wise-guy classes. Perry, who played country-boy Ned Bates on the ABC soap Loving, entertains the 90210 cast by strutting around bare-chested making jokes. Does he have a girlfriend? "No. You know how I can get in touch with Linda Hamilton?" What kind of music does he listen to? "Tom Jones is awesome." Are he and Priestley ever mistaken for each other? "He's mistaken for me on his good days." And 90210, he says, is "the best show on television, except for Jeopardy!"
We should act quickly, faculty, when we see any signs that Beverly Hills, 90210 is disrupting normal student activity.
How abnormal might things get? Consider: "It's almost like there are cults," says Brian Austin Green, 18, the North Hollywood High grad who plays the cutely dweeby David Silver. "Girls go to school the day after the show, and they actually become these characters. They say, 'Okay, today I want to be Dylan, you can be Brenda, you can be Brandon.' " Needless to say, students caught pretending to be TV characters should be brought directly to my office for detention.
But you know, it might not be a bad thing if our students could show some of the good sense that the 90210ers display in coping with the pressures of fame and fortune. Jennie Garth, 19, who plays the very sexy, very blond, very snotty Kelly Taylor, is particularly admirable. The youngest of seven children, she grew up on a farm near Champaign, Ill., until her schoolteacher parents moved to Phoenix when she was 13. "Living in a small town and coming from a very tight and close family instilled a lot of standards that I need to live up to," says Garth, who just bought a home in Sherman Oaks. She also recently supplied her parents with the down payment for their new home, setting a splendid example for today's youth.
According to a tabloid that someone left in the faculty lounge, Memphis-raised Shannen Doherty, 20, a veteran of such wonderful shows as Little House: A New Beginning, is the only cast member to be accused of behaving like "a spoiled brat" on the set. But she maintains she is no such thing. "I think everybody gets in a bad mood," Shannen says. "You do not work 16-hour days and not start feeling it. But I have never thrown a tantrum. I've gotten upset on the set, but it's never been just to be a bitch. You have to stand up for yourself in this business. That was something I was told when I was 12 years old and working with Michael Landon."
As with about half the cast members, Doherty is in a relationship—in her case, a real-estate developer with whom she's exchanged commitment rings. "You really have to date a while before you decide if this is the person you want to marry," she says with Brenda-like candor.
Almost sounds like the relationship could be a future 90210 plot. "The problems of young people have accelerated," says Aaron Spelling, "and so have their feelings and thoughts." The show, he says, has kept pace: Even with their Clearasil-perfect complexions and plump allowances, the students at Beverly Hills have encountered their share of problems. "We had the guts to make Luke Perry be a member of AA," says Spelling. "We had Jason, our star, drinking and driving. That's reality."
And, apparently, the adulatory fan mail often includes a sad dose of that reality. "I got a letter the other day from a girl who mentioned the show we did on parental drug abuse," says Perry in a rare moment of seriousness. "She wrote about catching her father freebasing in the basement. I get letters like that all the time, from people all over the country."
Gabrielle Carteris (at age 30, she's 90210's oldest cast-kid), who plays Andrea Zuckerman, the bright student who comes from the wrong side of Rodeo Drive, remembers an encouraging close encounter in a grocery store. "One girl came up to me after we'd done the breast-cancer show," says Carteris. "She said, 'I went home with all my friends and we checked our breasts for lumps.' "
In conclusion: Maybe I didn't need to write this memo. Maybe things won't be that bad, even if every locker in every corridor has a picture of Jason, Luke, Shannen or Jennie in it. Perhaps our dear little school is more like West Beverly Hills High—at least the TV version—than I thought.
That's what Ian Ziering, 27, thinks too. "The reality on the show pretty much mirrors the way life is all over, in terms of teenagers," says New Jersey—bred Ziering, who once did Fruit of the Loom underwear ads and now plays 90210's curly-headed jock, Steve Sanders. "There's a mystique about Beverly Hills. But that's not what keeps people tuning in. The show could have been Montana E-I-E-I-O."
By the way, should any student pronounce his name "eee-an," correct him or her, please. It's "eye-an."
MICHAEL ALEXANDER in Los Angeles
- Michael Alexander.