We Know Zip About '90210,' but That Won't Stop Our Speculating

The original Beverly Hills gang stayed on the air for 10 seasons of prime-time soap opera.
The original Beverly Hills gang stayed on the air for 10 seasons of prime-time soap opera. (F0x)
By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

CW network's "Beverly Hills 90210" spinoff, "90210," debuting tonight, is one of the most eagerly anticipated series of the season, but you will not see or hear reviews of the teen soap today. That's because CW suits decided a couple of weeks ago they would not allow TV critics to preview any episodes.

The critics were keenly disappointed. You can see their point. The original series, which ran on the Fox network from 1990 until 2000, was the stuff of TV legend -- and not just for having foisted Tori Spelling on an unsuspecting public in the meta-ironic role of town beauty.

"BH 90210," from the late prime-time soap opera impresario Aaron Spelling, a.k.a. Tori's dad, followed the exploits of 16-year-old twins Brenda (Shannen Doherty) and Brandon Walsh (Jason Priestley) of Minneapolis, who had just moved to town and enrolled at the posh West Beverly Hills High.

Its launch, on the then-new-and-struggling Fox, was inauspicious. In the first episode, Brenda pretended she was not jailbait in order to flirt with a hot lawyer and almost lost her virginity; Brandon almost lost his virginity, too. He made trenchant sociological observations about how, in Beverly Hills, "houses are bigger, the weather's warmer, but that doesn't mean they've cracked the meaning of life." Not to be outdone, Brenda observed that "everybody here looks like they just stepped out of a music video. . . . I don't even have the right hair." (Brenda suffered from a condition commonly known as "brunette.")

TV critics, and viewers, were underwhelmed: "It's apparently part of a new experiment in comatose television -- a show where things almost happen but never quite do. You keep checking your pulse to make sure you haven't died," wrote The Post's Tom Shales. "The 90-minute premiere of 'Beverly Hills, 90210' . . . [gives] you the feeling you've been watching for 90 days," added the Los Angeles Times' Howard Rosenberg.

But once Mr. Spelling really got rolling -- slumber party rape revelations, lesbian stalker episodes, etc. -- the show became a bona fide TV phenom. Series stars Doherty, Priestley and Luke Perry became household names; behind-the-camera antics were as closely followed as on-screen melodrama. The series hung on for a whopping 10 seasons, nearly 300 episodes.

Is it any wonder the suits behind the latest new-and-struggling broadcast network, CW, knowing as they do that TV critics are at heart a maudlin and sentimental bunch, feared reviews of their little spinoff would inevitably compare the old to the new and not to the advantage of the new, even though the spinoff's executive producers had promised the new version would be edgier and dirtier? Can we blame the network execs for deciding to confine the media to running squashily sentimental feature stories about the miracle that is the "90210" phenomenon? Of course we can't!

The practice of preventing advance reviews of a Hollywood project is a time-honored tradition in the movie business. It means the movie is very, very bad. This is not to say the movie won't be a commercial success. Film critics did not get to see "Babylon A.D." before it debuted this past holiday weekend, and the Vin Diesel flick went on to finish second at the box office, behind only the hugely popular "Tropic Thunder." (In truth, one critic did manage to see "B.A.D." in advance, and panned it as "pure violence and stupidity." But that critic was the flick's own director and, given the film's target young-male audience, it could be construed as a rave review.)

CW and "90210's" production house, CBS Paramount Network Television, e-mailed to critics a statement in mid-July letting them know they had "made the strategic marketing decision not to screen '90210' for any media in advance of its premiere."

"We're not hiding anything," the two parties said. Which, of course, convinced critics they were hiding something.

It was as if the network and production house wanted to knot the knickers of TV critics so they'd turn the e-mailed statement into a news story -- the kind of behind-the-scenes melodrama that would play well with the new show's target young-chick audience. That melodrama would nicely complement the unfolding story lines they had orchestrated in the press about alums from the original series who are returning in the spinoff -- specifically, the "Tori Spelling Out After Discovering Other 'Bev Hills' Alums Being Paid More" storyline and the "Will Jennie Garth and Shannen Doherty Trade Blows on the Set?" saga.

Critics swallowed it whole:

"How much does the new '90210' suck?" the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's miffed TV critic Gail Pennington wrote after receiving the statement. "I have no idea. Maybe it's 'Masterpiece Theatre'-level drama. By refusing to send screeners for the '90210' spinoff to critics the CW has aroused deep suspicions."

This caterwauling, in turn, launched a cacophony of breathless news reports: "The drama has already begun with '90210' which is giving TV critics the brushoff," said the Huffington Post.

For a show nobody's seen, you couldn't ask for better publicity.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company