They are the dog days of "Beverly Hills, 90210," the last gasps of a teen soap grown up and grown old: Episode No. 299, titled "The Penultimate." In this scene, for the umpteenth time, Dylan McCay (Luke Perry) and Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth) will (almost) profess their love for each other. Dylan will ask, "How's Matt?," meaning Kelly's boyfriend, and Kelly will say, "He's pretty devastated," because Matt's something-or-other died, and Dylan will say, "The other night. You wanted to know things. But you had to talk to Matt first. I was wondering if you'd done that," and Kelly will say, "Not yet. No," and Dylan will say, "Well, tell him I'm sorry for his loss, will you?," and Kelly will say, "Of course." And then Dylan will go to the door, as if to leave (where is he always going?). He will say, "I talked to David about Donna," and Kelly will ask, "How's he doing?" and Dylan will reply, "He can't figure out how two people so obviously meant for each other can't get together," and then, before he exits, Dylan will add: "And frankly, neither can I."
Outside the sound stage, waiting to be called back on set, Perry horses around on a vintage Schwinn he's bought for his son. Garth, in a robe, smokes. Like "90210's" other veteran stars, she has made a lot of money by sticking around, but today, no one confuses the show for television that matters.
"We always had such emotional, reality-based dialogue, and that has really been absent, I think, in the last couple of years," says Tori Spelling, who has played the virtuous Donna Martin since the show's inception, when she was 16. Ten years later, the show's cancellation strikes Spelling as a not-very-surprising plot twist. "I'd say in the last two or three years I've really been bored. And it bums me out because I take real big pride in what I do and our show . . . and it's just these talky, talky scenes with nothing going on."
Teen Audience Dropped From 20% to Under 4%
The audience has long since caught onto Spelling's ennui. Twenty percent of the nation's teens watched "90210" during its second season, but by the end of season nine that figure had dropped to under 4%, and the adults who continued to show up, if only to appreciate the show's camp qualities, its earnest approach to nighttime soap, hardly comprised a viewing majority.
This sort of attrition is unavoidable, though to its credit "90210" told its story in real time--meaning the characters graduated high school, entered college, then left college for "the real world." All that's left now is the two-hour finale, airing tonight at 8 on Fox, and a vague sense of what the show--and the hysteria it prompted--once meant.
In the tradition of eulogies, you could be grandiose: "Beverly Hills, 90210" solidified a then-fledgling Fox network, resuscitated Aaron Spelling's career, and sent the industry chasing after teens and twentysomething viewers like never before. "90210" didn't invent the wheel (when the show arrived, for instance, a popular Canadian series, "Degrassi High," was going off the air). But "90210's" success was "the beginning of the younger-skewing drama," says Jamie Kellner, who was Fox's network president when the series launched and today is CEO of the WB, a network programmed for a modern-day "90210" audience, with "Dawson's Creek," "Popular" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
Those shows are more explicit sexually, populated by a generation who speak with the morose sophistication of adults.
"They're in high school and they have their breasts sticking out halfway. We never did that. We never did that," Aaron Spelling says through his pipe, interviewed recently in his spectacularly large Miracle Mile office. "They're wild about sex but they have the vocabulary of someone who's 50. That kinda throws me a little bit."
The ubermensch of prime-time soap, Spelling says he cherishes "90210"--and not "Dynasty" or "Fantasy Island" or "Charlie's Angels"--the most. Still in the game in the year 2000, at age 77, Spelling has two shows on the WB, "Charmed" and "7th Heaven," and a new show, "Titans," premiering on NBC in the fall. It is set, appropriately, in Beverly Hills.
When ABC canceled "Dynasty" in 1989, Spelling was supposedly through; his long reign at ABC was over, and all he had was a leftover deal at Fox, a 13-episode commitment for a "Charlie's Angels" remake, titled "Angels '88." It was to feature a then-unknown Tea Leoni, but complications, including a strike by the industry's television and screenwriters, shelved the pilot, and Spelling's deal was eventually rolled into something else--a property still kicking around the executives' offices called "Beverly Hills High."