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I'VE ALWAYS THOUGHT OF BEVERLY Hills, 90210 as the Happy Days of the 1990s. Glamor twins Brandon (Jason Priestley) and Brenda (Shannen Doherty) replaced wholesome Richie and Joanie; moody loner Dylan (Luke Perry) outcooled the Fonz; and caring parents Jim and Cindy Walsh took over from the Cunninghams, supplying midwestern family values to the spoiled California children of divorce, dysfunction and Dior. The kids from West Beverly High even had an anachronistic malt shop, the Peach Pit, with a kindly counterman, Nat (Joe E. Tata), who dispensed good advice and the occasional loan along with sodas.
But the 1990s have not all been happy days for Los Angeles, and 90210 stood out because it transcended its formula by tackling real adolescent problems: family tensions, drinking, drugs, eating disorders and suicide. Even if Kelly and Donna did shop in designer boutiques, they expressed a confusion, rebellion and idealism that spoke directly to young viewers.
As 90210 enters its sixth season, however, its characters have aged without having matured. Since their graduation to "California University" three seasons ago, we expected greater social awareness from these kids, but instead the gang seems to have closed both its eyes and books. As 90210's storylines become increasingly sex-oriented, California U. seems more a bed than a seat of learning, just a stop on the way to Melrose Place. These must be the only college students around who never argued about the O.J. trial or mourned Kurt Cobain. Most disappointingly, the main cast remains lily-white. Black characters are athletes, student radicals or needy scholarship cases seen in an episode or two and then never again.
Happy Days worked as a nostalgia show about the sheltered kids of the innocent '50s. In the '90s, though, even a high school freshman knows that there are no age groups—or zip codes—immune from reality. Beverly Hills, 90210 underestimates its audience and is missing an opportunity to speak for a generation.
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