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Ahead of Their Class : Fox Rings Bell Early for 30 New Episodes of Popular 'Beverly Hills, 90210'

July 07, 1991|SUSAN KING | Times Staff Writer

It seems that every decade, a movie or a TV series speaks to teen-agers. James Dean's "Rebel Without a Cause" personified the Angst of the '50s teen. The 1960s teen-ager tuned in and turned on to such TV series as "Mr. Novak," "The Mod Squad" and "Room 222." And teens laughed away their problems in the '70s with "Welcome Back, Kotter." The '80s teen went to "The Head of the Class."

And now Fox's "Beverly Hills, 90210" has struck a chord with '90s youth. The series began with a whimper last fall. The ratings were dismal and reviews were less than spectacular. The Times' Howard Rosenberg described the series as: "A zip code for stereotypes and stock characters . . . (that is) nothing if not predictable."

Yet "90210" ended the season with a bang. The ratings have steadily increased even though it airs opposite NBC's "Cheers," one of the country's favorite programs. In its time slot, "90210" is the No. 1 series with teen-agers and kids and No. 2 with adults, 18-34, according to the A.C. Nielsen Co.

The series' young stars--Shannen Doherty, Jason Priestley and Luke Perry--have become the new teen dreams of the airwaves, plastered on the covers of teen fanzines and receiving hundreds of fan letters per week. A "90210" clothing line is in development.

Not only has Fox renewed the series for a second season, the network has ordered an unprecedented 30 episodes, instead of the customary full-season order of 22. And in another first, Fox is getting a two-month jump start on the fall season, debuting the new episodes of "90210" beginning Thursday at 9 p.m.

Darren Star, creator and supervising producer of "Beverly Hills," isn't bothered by Fox's unorthodox summer programming strategy: "It's really smart because the show gained a tremendous amount of momentum in the spring and they are capitalizing on that."

"I think the show has heat and momentum," said Peter Chernin, Fox Entertainment Group president. "We felt we could keep that momentum going. We also felt creatively what makes the show work is that people have a real connection with the characters . . . they don't view these characters going away for four months. It made sense to continue the series (during the summer)."

For those without teen-agers, a brief synopsis: "90210" focuses on the Walsh family--a solid, traditional Midwestern clan with teen-age twins, Brandon (Priestley) and Brenda (Doherty), who find their lives and values are turned upside-down when they move to Beverly Hills.

"90210" was just one of several high school-oriented series that premiered last fall. NBC's heavily hyped "Hull High" and "Ferris Bueller" quickly failed. Only Fox's quirky "Parker Lewis Can't Lose!" and "90210" received passing notices.

"We were the dark horse," Star said. "But our show was still different. No one has done a really good show about high school recently that spoke to kids the way 'thirtysomething' spoke to its audience, that took them to their own level, that took them very seriously and had their voice."

Aaron Spelling, whose Torand Productions Inc. produces the show, was interested in the series exploring "the joys and traumas of being a teen-ager." Spelling's teen-age daughter, Tori, is a regular on the series.

Star describes "90210" as a "dramedy," but the humor is outweighed by the heady subjects it tackles, including breast cancer, AIDS, date rape, alcohol and drug abuse and teen motherhood.

Star said he never set out to turn "90210" into an issue-of-the-week series. "I was worried when Fox started talking about issues," he said. "When we do issues they have got to be really organic to the show."

"The episode we did on drunk driving struck a lot of chords with people," Priestley said. "All of us have had friends and family members die as a result of drunk driving. I think the episode we did on AIDS hit home with a lot of people. We are not doing things that are farcical and beyond the realm of possibility."

"But we don't pound you over the head," Doherty said. "We like to make people laugh while they think."

"Everybody hates issues shows," said Spelling, who also created and produced "The Mod Squad" more than 20 years ago. "We have been lucky to do (two) story lines, so one is lighter."

While developing the series, Star never visited Beverly Hills High School or talked with any of the students. He felt no need.

(Even the exteriors aren't filmed at Beverly Hills High; Torrance High School stands in for the series.)

"I wanted to make this school universal," he said. "If the characters were universal, the thought that they were wealthy wouldn't matter. Also, with Brandon and Brenda, I tried to create two Everyman characters people could put themselves into--people who had a moral center. I had come from the Washington, D.C., area to go to school at UCLA, and so I had some of the same kind of culture shock."

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