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'90210' presses ahead with development

The CW show was addressed for success, but its new teens haven't had a smooth move. After some cracking, it may have found its voice.

February 03, 2009|Denise Martin and Maria Elena Fernandez

It seemed like a surefire recipe: Take the No. 1 teen drama in TV history, update it, stoke the publicity fires with news of returning favorite characters from the original, and the CW would land a huge hit.

But "90210" is suffering a serious case of adolescent angst. Instead of becoming prime time's cocky homecoming king, the series developed more like the shy, insecure kid with no date to the dance.

Then, to make matters worse, there has been that mean girl "American Idol" to contend with. Sharing a Tuesday at 8 slot in January with the most popular show on television has meant that a sizable chunk of "90210" viewers fled.

Looking to woo them back, the CW will move the show to 9 p.m. -- out of "Idol's" destructive path -- after a six-week hiatus that begins Feb. 17. The network is still hoping to hit another "Gossip Girl"-type jackpot with a second series about teenage angst in a tony neighborhood, and that "90210's" success would lead to a trifecta next season with a remake of "Melrose Place," now in development. And "90210" is already a moneymaker for studio CBS Paramount, which has sold it to more than 170 markets abroad.

In the U.S., however, "90210" has traveled a bumpy road, even before it had to compete with "Idol." Getting out of "Gossip Girl's" shadow has been a struggle, especially when initial reviews for "90210" were lukewarm at best. As "Gossip Girl" continues to dominate blog headlines as well as score strong ratings in the network's core audience, newbie "90210" settled into just-acceptable ratings after debuting to the largest premiere audience in CW history. Moreover, the series has floundered creatively and has no irresistible Dylan-Brenda couple to root for.

"The show may have tried out more voices than most other first-year shows," said executive producer Rebecca Rand Kirshner Sinclair, who took over the show in September and is "90210's" third steward since its development. "The only solution, and my challenge, is to have time to fix and develop story lines organically."

Throughout the fall, the series made news only when "Beverly Hills, 90210" stars Jennie Garth or Shannen Doherty were due on set -- or when one of the actors in the new cast acted out. Those headlines have focused almost entirely on 19-year-old actress Shenae Grimes, who plays good girl Annie, the show's lead character. The New York Post's Page Six reported in September that Grimes was often rude on set and was once overheard saying, "This is my show -- everyone else is riding my coattails." Grimes also has become a target of gossip blogger Perez Hilton.

At a "90210" party last month, Grimes said she doesn't pay attention to the negative press because "you'd go nuts if you did." But some of her costars and producers said the intense coverage hurts the young cast, especially a recent US Weekly cover story about the potentially dangerous example Grimes and her thin costars, Jessica Stroup and AnnaLynne McCord, set for the show's younger viewers.

"I like that people are talking about the show, but not when it hurts the kids," executive producer Gabe Sachs said.

CW President Dawn Ostroff is also worried about the damage "Idol" could cause.

Over the last two weeks, Fox's pile driver talent show has snatched more than a third of "90210's" total audience, a problem Monday night denizen "Gossip Girl" never had to face.

"Obviously, we took a little bit of a hit," Ostroff said in an interview after "Idol" premiered. "We all knew we would. But our hope is that everyone settles down, samples a couple of other shows, and then comes back to '90210.' "

"Idol" typically steamrolls its winter competition -- except for CBS' older-skewing lineup -- but much is at stake for the CW with "90210." The network's attempt this fall to farm out Sunday night programming to an entertainment company quickly failed, and other rookie series, "Privileged" and "13," appear to be duds. That makes saving "90210" a top priority, but it won't be easy.

The nostalgia hook, for one, is proving difficult to maintain. Brenda announced she was ready to become a mom in her last appearance, but Doherty has not signed on for more episodes. Jennie Garth's Kelly, now a guidance counselor at West Beverly High, is only slated for one more, and Tori Spelling's Donna Martin will be back for a limited run.

In some respects, the old characters that attracted wistful viewers have proved to be a distraction.

"The show got so much attention for being a '90210' update that it's really taken some time to explain to the teens that this is their '90210' too," Ostroff said.

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