Darren Star grew up in Potomac, Md., the son of an orthodontist, but he said he'd never seen a Rolls Royce until he arrived in Los Angeles to attend college.

Hard to believe, perhaps, for a lad from one of Washington's cushiest suburbs, but true, he says.

And if he didn't really suffer culture shock, at least he was observant. Came in handy, as it turned out: What Darren Star noticed about life in the nation's toniest Zipcode became a Fox Broadcasting sitcom, "Beverly Hills, 90210."

Fox gave the hour-long series the difficult time slot of 9 p.m. Thursdays, up against the nation's top TV draw, NBC's "Cheers." But all was not lost. The series is already an award-winner. Two weeks ago, Star was notified that a "Beverly Hills" episode involving an alcoholic mother has been given an Entertainment Industries Council Award as part of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

"Beverly Hills, 90210" features the Walshes, a family from Minnesota who moved into that warmer center of good living and found their values challenged.

"The values are different in some way here," said Star in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "Maybe Potomac has changed somewhat in the past 10 years, but certainly I've never seen such conspicuous consumption in my life."

Star, whose neighborhoods in Bethesda and Potomac were far from shabby, went to Wyngate Elementary (he wrote plays for his classmates to perform), Cabin John Junior High School (he ushered at a movie theater at White Flint to see films free) and Winston Churchill High School, where he appeared in school plays and musicals. During his senior year, he took film classes at American University.

His short career as an actor began when he accompanied his mother to rehearsals of a children's theater at Glen Echo Park. Starstruck, he tried out for the one child's role in the George Washington University Players' production of "Ah, Wilderness." He got it, to the chagrin of his parents, who had to chauffeur him to rehearsals.

In 1979, he went off to the University of Southern California, transferred to UCLA, and studied English and creative writing. Then he began writing screenplays, including "Doin' Time on Planet Earth," a little-publicized film that shows up occasionally on cable, he said.

Five years ago, he started the screenplay for Warner Bros.' "If Looks Could Kill," an action-adventure-comedy to be released in March.

"It's about a high school student who is mistaken for a top secret agent on a French class trip to Europe," he said. "Richard Greico plays a graduating senior. It's a really fun movie.

Greico, who made his name on Fox's "21 Jump Street" and "Booker," will be directed by William Dear ("Harry and the Hendersons").

"It's hard to get studios to make a movie," he continued. "Basically, you have to get a star. A lot of people became involved and dropped out and finally, Richard Greico was the right guy at the right time. You'll see a whole new side to him, not the stoic side. The movie is definitely a comedy."

But Star kept thinking about his plan to do "a real show about high school, a quality show like 'thirtysomething' is for its generation."

He got his chance, he said, when "Fox told me they wanted to do a show about Beverly Hills High. I created the family moving from Minnesota. What it does is it opens doors. Kids are universal and their problems are universal, and what we're trying to do is a truthful, accessible show about high school."

The series focus largely on teenage twins Brandon and Brenda Walsh (Shannen Doherty and Jason Priestly), with secondary stories about their parents, Cindy and Jim (Carol Potter and James Eckhouse).

Fox calls it "a one-hour dramatic-comedy focusing on the assimilation of a solid, value-oriented Midwestern family into an accelerated Beverly Hills lifestyle. The show explores the realities and myths of social classes in Beverly Hills while at the same time exposing the strains this lifestyle can put on family relationships.

"The twins find themselves amidst a new group of peers who have more money, the latest designer clothing and expensive cars, and find that the stakes have been raised considerably. The fast lane is faster, expectations are higher and the peer pressure is stronger. These Minnesota teenagers are forced to reexamine their own identities and values within a radically different environment."

How "radically different" the Southern California environment is from life in Minnesota is yet undetermined. Star said he hasn't heard what Minnesota viewers think about "Beverly Hills, 90210."

"We're not saying these people are 'The Beverly Hillbillies' at all," said Star. "For me, it's an angle that gets people interested in watching the show. When you get right down to it, it's a show about people. I think they're just your basic middle-class family with good values. I think families anywhere are trying to keep their values."

This week's repeat installment features Brenda's being caught for shoplifting and Brandon's confronting the management of the restaurant where he works about the treatment of employees.

Initially outsiders, the Walshes serve as mirrors to the richer, hipper denizens of Beverly Hills. One of those is executive producer Charles Rosin, an alumnus of Beverly Hills High School.

According to Rosin, "The show's objective is not to promote stereotypes, but rather to break them down and reveal that people are people, no matter what their socioeconomic status might be."

Although the facade of BHHS has turned up in many a movie, the building viewers see on the series is actually Torrance (Calif.) High School, said Star, and the school that Brandon and Brenda Walsh attend is fictional West Beverly Hills High School. Name changed to protect from lawsuits, he said.

Star acknowledged that he has been unusually fortunate to meet even a measure of success on his first TV endeavor.

"I'm glad Fox took a chance on the show -- I don't know if another one of the networks would have given a shot at it.

"It's very hard to get pilots produced, and series. Doing television was something I wanted to do, but not as a staff writer. The difference {between movies and television} is that with television, your stuff gets produced quickly. It's a great laboratory -- you get to see the stuff a week later."

He still writes many of the episodes and said he is scheduled to direct at least one, now that Fox has picked up the series for six more installments. Working with him is "a really great writing staff -- we're all really working hard at putting out a really quality show."

But there's this matter of scheduling.

"One thing we're not very happy about, we could use a better time slot. This one is death. And this would be a great eight o'clock show. After nine o'clock, kids have to start going to bed."

And he wishes Fox would promote "Beverly Hills, 90210" with as much enthusiasm as it does "The Simpsons," which airs earlier the same evening.

Still, for Star, life in the Beverly Hills fast-track is good. For three years, he has owned a house in West Hollywood; his sister Bonnie, 28, younger than he by one year, lives nearby, and his parents, Milton and Deborah, who grew up in Northwest, visit three or four times a year. His brother Marc, 20, is at Boston University.

Deborah Star said she is often struck by the resemblances between Jason Priestly and Shannen Doherty, the series' stars, and Darren and his sister.

"The similarities are in the relationship between the brother and sister," she said. "I sometimes think he's gotten some of the words right out of his sister's mouth. She {Shannen} even resembles Bonnie. And the boy has so many of Darren's personality traits. When I watch the show, I miss my kids like crazy."

In a bit of a switch -- like son, like mother -- Deborah Star took her first completed screenplay with her when she visited Darren earlier this month. She said it's a romantic-adventure-comedy she calls "Astonished Hearts."

Meanwhile, Darren Star admits that he's enjoying his career.

"It's a great business to be working in. It's a lot of work, a lot of frenzy of activity all at the same time, but it's a lot of fun."

And there are financial rewards.

A Rolls-Royce, perhaps?

"Oh," he said softly, with a chuckle, "I don't want to tell you."

But he did. Star is making do with a new Porsche. Great for the fast lane.