The golden age of Aaron Spelling TV…wait! Every era was a golden age for Aaron Spelling TV, and if you were a teenager in the 1990s, you remember this “golden age” best!
By Jason Hink
Beverly Hills, 90210 premiered about a month after I started my freshman year of high school, and for the next 10 years I looked on as the rich kids of Beverly Hills lived in fancier homes than mine, drove cooler cars than me, threw parties I could only dream of, and got whatever they damn well pleased. But it was touted for its realistic depictions of teen life and the social issues surrounding those puberty-filled years, so what was there to be jealous of?
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Premiering in fall of 1990 on the still-infant FOX broadcast network (itself launched in ’87), Beverly Hills, 90210 this first season focuses on the Walsh family, implants from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who move to sunny, hoity-toity Beverly Hills after family patriarch Jim Walsh (James Eckhouse, Fatal Attraction, Cocktail) lands a new job in Southern Cali Fon-Eye-Aye. Along for the ride are his wife, stay-at-home mom Cindy (Carol Potter, Today’s F.B.I., Sunset Beach) and their teenage twins, Brandon (Jason Priestly, Sister Kate, Private Eyes) and Brenda (Shannen Doherty, Heathers, Charmed), sophomores at fictional West Beverly High. And boy are they in for a shock! We regular folk in the viewing audience were to live vicariously through the Walsh family – a “normal,” small-town, Midwest clan navigating the plastic superficiality of the richest zip code in America.
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It’s been about a decade since I last watched some scattered Beverly Hills, 90210 episodes, and part of the fun of re-living this first season is seeing just how earnest the show was in its earliest iteration, before it settled in to the more melodramatic, young-adult soap we remember. Created by then 29-year-old wunderkind Darren Star, who would later create 90210 spinoff Melrose Place and the prestigious HBO series Sex and the City, 90210 marked his first foray into television, a side gig he sort of slagged off at first as he was getting steady work writing and rewriting feature films (his lone prior credit on IMDB is for the low budget Cannon film, Doin’ Time on Planet Earth, though he’s mentioned in interviews other films he’d worked on leading up to this first TV gig).
The Walsh kids, Brandon and Brenda, embody this earnestness. There’s an innocence and uncertainty to them about how their lives are about to change in this foreign world. Likewise, there was uncertainty about the show’s ultimate direction early on. There hadn’t been any television (in prime time) that tackled the teen condition in America, especially as it related to serious, social issues teenagers faced at the beginning of the 20th century’s final decade. Even early on, it was clear that 90210 sought to fill this void, no doubt recognized by superproducer Spelling, keen to spotting hot trends he could exploit for the small screen (and thank god for that!). As his longtime ABC drama Dynasty ended, so too had the rich-industrialist-family nighttime soap fad run it course, but Spelling quickly saw how he could adapt it for a younger, hipper audience, on a smaller, newer network known for airing youthful-skewing fare such as Married, With Children and 21 Jump Street.
So as the Walsh kids played perpetual “catch-up” on-screen with the naughtier, more “mature” teens of Beverly Hills, the show’s producers and the FOX network weren’t quite sure how to target the program: Should it focus on the kids and their exploits navigating high school? Should it focus on the parents, teachers and other adults living their lives in Beverly Hills? Should it be a mixture of both? The series tries all these concepts early on, especially in the pilot episode, Class of Beverly Hills, a 2-hour premiere that gives equal weight to the Walsh clan and Brandon and Brenda’s high school friends, as well as stories about West Beverly High’s principal and a budding romance with one of the teachers. For at first, the game plan was to produce a typical drama that hit all the demographics (FOX was afraid a narrower teen focus wouldn’t attract a large enough audience, according to Star), but after the pilot aired, many of those adult characters (such as the principal and teacher) were never seen or heard from again. It became clear that Beverly Hills, 90210, just like the FOX network’s early identity itself, would target the hippest and coolest among us – teenagers and young adults.
Beverly Hills, 90210 managed to cull together a colorful collection of hormone-raging teens to contrast the goody-two-shoe’d (at least early on) Brandon and Brenda. From the beginning, we meet Kelly Taylor (played by Jennie Garth, a fresh-faced actress from Arizona “who nailed her audition,” Star said), a stereotypically rich, superficial blonde who trots around the West Beverly campus with her posse of no-name friends, one of which was literally “Girl #2,” played by 17-year-old Tori Spelling, producer Aaron’s daughter, who reportedly auditioned on her own under another name hoping to score a gig without dad’s help. After playing nothing more than set dressing in the pilot, Daddy Spelling told Star she was going to be in the show, and she became Donna Martin (Star has said she was probably the most professional actor on the show and a delight to work with. She’d wind up staying for the entire 10-season run).
Steve Sanders (played by Ian Ziering, who auditioned as a last-ditch attempt at an acting career, according to Star, who said Ziering planned to move back to New Jersey to work at his family’s aquarium store if it didn’t work out) is the brash, cocky rich kid who drives a hot Corvette. He’s also Kelly Taylor’s ex-boyfriend, a detail that planted seeds for future entanglements among the core group throughout the first season…and for years to come. He and Brandon would become great friends.
Andrea Zuckerman (Gabrielle Carteris, Raising Cain, Meet Wally Sparks) was the idealistic head of the school’s journalism department, a kid who lives out-of-district in a poor neighborhood, but attends West Beverly in hopes of landing a better college situation. She also happens to have a crush on Brandon.
Perhaps most interesting is brooding surfer Dylan McKay, a character who wasn’t introduced until after the pilot, in the series’ second episode, The Green Room. Played by soon-to-be teen heartthrob and intentional James Dean lookalike Luke Perry (Another World, Riverdale), his character was added when the producers felt there needed to be a dark, edgy, mysterious character…something missing from the pilot. Dylan, living in his criminal father’s shadow, would in time become a large part of the Walsh family as he and Brenda gradually fall in love over the course of the season.
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Rounding out the regular cast are David Silver (Brian Austin Green, Knots Landing, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) and Scott Scanlon (Douglas Emerson, TV’s Herbie, the Love Bug; he more or less quit Hollywood following his character’s dramatic departure from 90210 in season 2). The two freshmen provided mostly comic relief. And Nat (Joe E. Tata) was the owner of the local 50s-inspired hangout, The Peach Pit, where Brandon scored his first job.
Generally, these supporting characters are side shows in this first season as the episodes play out largely in non-serialized fashion, focusing on domestic stories featuring the Walsh family in often overly cutesy tales of teenage trifle mixed with more serious issue-oriented outings in the latter third of the season. There were also countless guest stars portraying the fellow students at West Beverly, complete with episodes centered on their own plights, only to have them disappear and never be seen again (including a dramatic, psychopathic turn by a pre-Friends Matthew Perry).
Taboos explored included Steve’s drinking, a problem exacerbated by his mysterious upbringing, which is revealed late in the season; Kelly’s strained relationship with her alcoholic mom; Brenda and Dylan’s will they-or-won’t they (have sex, that is); and Brandon’s juggling of multiple girlfriends while fending off potential hook-up opportunities from Andrea and Kelly. But that’s not all: rumors, peer pressure, shoplifting, sex, affirmative action, dysfunctional families, cancer scares, learning disabilities, date rape, alcohol abuse, AIDS…all of these and more get their share of inspection on Beverly Hills, 90210.
In a way, it marked the beginning of the last great era for Aaron Spelling, kicking off what would become a staple of his 90s and 2000s output — the youth-based drama. Beginning with 90210 and continuing with the 20-something-targeted soap Melrose Place, new opportunities with the mid-90s launch of The WB network gave Spelling a new home for even more younger-skewing drama, such as Savannah, Charmed and the long-running 7th Heaven.
Beverly Hills, 90210 wasn’t alone in the teen/high school prime time TV market, which was one of the hot trends in 1990-91, and other networks sought to get a foothold as well: Ferris Bueller, a spinoff of the popular 1986 John Hughes film, sputtered on NBC and was canned after 13 episodes (it was replaced by Blossom, which would enjoy a 5-season run); Hull High, a high school-based musical, also on NBC, lasted just nine episodes; and FOX aired Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, another teen comedy heavily influenced by the Bueller film, which saw modest success and ran for three seasons.
But it was 90210 that, despite a middling start, solidified its strengths and resonated with the public to find lasting success. The show ranked #88 in its first season (hardly a hit) but it found huge success overseas in Europe, and American audiences began taking notice during reruns, prompting the producers to plan an unusual second-season premiere for early July, 1991, showing what the Beverly Hills kids were doing during the summer months, just as U.S. kids enjoyed their own summer breaks in real life. The subsequent exposure (against other networks’ summer reruns) bumped the show’s viewership from 14.2 million that first season to 17.6 million in 1991-92, good enough to finish 48th in prime time, a whopping 40-place improvement over season 1!
Additionally, 90210 survived this opening season despite being counter-programmed against television’s #1 show on Thursdays at 9 p.m. – Cheers, the crown jewel of NBC’s earlier version of “Must See TV” Thursdays (coupled with newcomer Grand at 9:30, which finished 25th). Other direct competitors to 90210 were single-season newcomers Gabriel’s Fire on ABC, a failed James Earl Jones vehicle, and The Flash, based on the DC Comics character, on CBS. Viewers wanting an engaging evening of TV drama on Thursdays could easily plan to watch 90210 at 9 p.m. on FOX, then flip over to Knots Landing on CBS or L.A. Law on NBC at 10 to close out the night.
90210 would continue its gradual climb, culminating in its highest season ranking in 1993-94 (the show’s fourth season), where it finished 42nd overall, a mighty feat for a FOX show in those days. Mass hysteria for the show’s stars would ensue, along with the typical real-life drama, most prominently star Shannen Doherty’s acrimonious split after the show’s fourth season. The more adult Melrose Place would launch as a spinoff in 1992 and, long after Beverly Hills, 90210 left the airwaves in 2000, some of the cast returned for a continuation series in 2008, simply called 90210, which ran for five seasons on The WB, ending in 2013.
For me, it was fun being the same age as the characters (they were juniors and freshmen this year, and in season two the writers ret-conned their ages to keep them juniors and freshmen another year after the show’s surprising first-season success). And yeah…most the actors were well into their twenties portraying 15-to-17 year olds (much was said about Carteris and Ziering, who were both in their late twenties in 1990), but the spirit and brightness of the Reagan-era 1980s hadn’t completely faded by 1990-91, even as hints of 90s grunge occasionally surfaced before the aesthetic largely took over a year or two later. It all makes this first season of Beverly Hills, 90210 a unique time capsule.
What? You thought we were done discussing the first season of this monumental teen drama? Oh no, we’re just getting started! Are you ready for some potential decades-old SPOILERS? Good! Let’s take a look at each Beverly Hills, 90210 episode from the 1990-1991 season.
Class of Beverly Hills (October 4, 1990)
The 2-hour pilot episode introduces fish-out-of-water teens Brandon & Brenda Walsh as they begin junior year at West Beverly High after moving to L.A. from Minnesota. Brenda hooks up with Kelly’s clan & immediately falls for the glamorous trappings of her new Cali world while Brandon dates a notorious party girl (did he or didn’t he sleep with her!?). Steve has a drinking problem & used to date Kelly. Meanwhile, freshmen David & Scott provide comic relief.
It’s fun to note the differences between pilot & series, such as attempts at side stories for parental figures and teachers (the principal in this episode is never seen again). FOX was afraid that a show focusing just on the teens wouldn’t attract a large enough audience, according to creator Darren Star, but it turned out to be the opposite & these side stories & characters were immediately dropped. Also interesting is Tori Spelling’s character, Donna, who’s little more than a random tag-along of Kelly & Brenda’s here, along with a couple other no-name characters. According to Star, Donna wasn’t an actual “character” yet, but she’d soon become one when the series proper started.
Additionally, if James Eckhouse seems rather “distant” as the Walsh’s father, Jim, it’s because his scenes were literally inserted into the episode later…after he took over the role from another actor who had already shot the pilot scenes. Class of Beverly Hills, this episode’s title, was also a working title for the series (my 1990 fall preview issue of Entertainment Weekly refers to the show by this title, showing how late in the game the Beverly Hills, 90210 moniker came to be).
The Green Room (October 11, 1990)
Who’s this Luke Perry guy in the opening credits? Super-righteous Brandon meets & befriends mysterious, brooding (in a PG sorta way) Dylan McKay, a surfer & loner hiding some dark thoughts about his mysterious family. But hey, Brandon gets to hang out with a new chick (Heather McAdam) during surfing excursions to the beach, so it’s not all doom & gloom.
Jennie Garth continues to impress as snooty Kelly Taylor, showing her true colors when she ditches Brenda & Brandon at the beach. Meanwhile, Steve’s macho ‘tude may be a front – he just might be a soft-hearted fella. James Eckhouse, likely still not part of the cast when this episode was filmed, is listed in the opening credits but doesn’t appear in the episode. He’s only alluded to as being on a business trip.
Every Dream Has Its Price (Tag) (October 18, 1990)
Ohh the dangers of living amongst the rich… Brenda deals with klepto Tiffany (Noelle Parker), who steals clothing from high-end department stores in a ploy for attention from her rich, absentee parents (that’s not all – she once stole Kelly’s man, too!).
Brandon scores a job at a fancy restaurant, but when he learns the support staff is getting paid below minimum wage, he
blows the whistle & brings attention to the issue quits & meets Dylan’s friend, Nat (Joe E. Tata, in his first appearance), who promptly offers Brandon a job at The Peach Pit.
A nicely paced episode written by Amy Spies. Would’ve been nice to see Tiffany’s character return at least occasionally (Tori Spelling doesn’t appear; Tiffany effectively takes on her role of Brenda & Kelly’s third-wheel friend in this episode). Noelle Parker gives a nicely nuanced performance in the role of the wild, troubled teen who just needs some nudging in the right direction. Unfortunately, like many Beverly Hills, 90210 guests, the character serves only to highlight the issue-of-the-week, and is never seen again.
The First Time (October 25, 1990)
Written by series creator Darren Star, this outing sees the show continuing to get better, tackling serious topics facing teens, a trait that would distinguish the series from other teen-oriented shows of the time.
Sheryl (Paula Irvine), Brandon’s old girlfriend from Minneapolis, visits the Walsh clan in Beverly Hills & the two get it on for the first time to the sweet sounds of
that memorable 1990 hit 2004 post-grunge wannabe track “Save the Day” by Tim Cullen (Ughhh to CBS/Paramount for all the replacement music on the DVD version). But in true teenage love fashion, trouble brews as Sheryl gets swept up in the bright lights of Beverly Hills.
In the silly B-story, Brenda (once again) pines for an older man, this time scoring a babysitting job for her hottie algebra teacher (Tim Dunigan). Lots of fun in this outing: Brenda hangs out the window of Brandon’s car while neither wear seatbelts (only in 1990); Brandon slugs Dylan after he spots him dancing with Sheryl in the nightclub that, somehow, high school juniors can easily get into (only in 1990); Brenda has a dream sequence depicting her algebra teacher pining away for her (only in 1990); & Jim’s back & shoulder hair is on full display during some driveway basketball with son Brandon (only in 1990).
Just like the previous episode’s guest star, Brandon’s ex, Sheryl, is never heard from again.
One on One (November 1, 1990)
One episode removed from punching his friend & slapping a drink off the bar while illegally visiting a nightclub, noble & earnest Brandon Walsh appears in this outing attempting to expose minority students recruited to West Beverly High because of their basketball skills, despite living out of district. Is it a question of geography or racism? By the end of the episode, I still couldn’t tell…(the resolution implies that Brandon jumped to conclusions because the students are African-American, but aren’t they still illegally on the team as “out-of-district” basketball recruits?). Nonetheless, it’s another case of Beverly Hills, 90210 tackling uncomfortable issues.
Meanwhile, poor Brenda, relegated once again to the silly B-story, attempts to obtain her California drivers license. Not only does she fail (twice), she manages to lose Brandon’s car (lovingly referred to as “Mondale”) in the process. The Walsh family is front & center in these early episodes, with the rest of the cast serving as window dressing (Luke Perry doesn’t even appear), a situation that would evolve over time as the show gradually became a serialized, soapy drama.
Higher Education (November 15, 1990)
Brandon is the focus of this outing (shocker!), doing battle with hard-ass history teacher Mr. Morey (Jacob Danzel), who grades on an unfair curve. But weaselly Steve knows how to even the odds, even if it’s not above board. Alas, Andrea don’t cotton to no cheaters, & she has it out with Brandon. Brenda, in yet another silly subplot, spends the episode worrying about her hair. Should she dye it blonde? Should she keep it the same?
Most importantly, we glimpse an early spark between her & Dylan as a mild flirtation begins.
Perfect Mom (November 22, 1990)
Upping the emotional ante, Kelly Taylor’s home life is put under the microscope. Brenda thinks Kelly’s mother, Jackie (Ann Gillespie), is the coolest mom everrrr. But turns out, she’s an alcoholic who snorts cocaine on the side. Great direction by Bethany Rooney who ramps up the drama & tension as Jackie buckles under the weight of a facade we can only guess many parents of Beverly Hills teens must have went through as she hosts the annual West Beverly High Fashion Show & turns into a tweaking mess.
Nice to see Darren Star, who wrote this outing, flesh out a character that isn’t a Walsh. Andrea Zuckerman also gets ample screen time, reporting on (& participating in) the fashion show, forcing her out of her comfort zone. Comic relief is found with David Silver, who tries sneaking his video camera backstage at the fashion show all to get a glimpse of that gorgeous blonde, Kelly.
The 17 Year Itch (November 29, 1990)
Still trying to figure out this ensemble thing, the writers hone in on Jim & Cindy Walsh. Glen (Stan Iver), Jim’s old college friend & Cindy’s old flame, happens upon Cindy in Los Angeles at the same time Jim is screwing up the couple’s 17th wedding anniversary. A “mental affair” ensues & Carol shares a kiss with Glen before Jim sacs up & prioritizes his marriage again.
Brandon & Brenda watch from the sidelines & agonize over their family falling apart, which coincides with a study they’re doing involving the traits of twins.
It’s an emotional episode, but a little jarring; it’s an extremely out-of-character situation for the elder Walshes after having been pounded over the head with just how great they are with their “Midwestern values” & tight, family-friendly ways. In other words, nobody wants to see Cindy Walsh kissing another man!
The other characters provide nothing but filler in this episode, most prominently David’s quest to become the new school DJ. It’s the second straight episode without Luke Perry, & quite likely an early (filler) script that was burned off.
The Gentle Art of Listening (December 6, 1990)
Brenda wants to give back to her community, so she joins Andrea at a nightly hotline answering phones & providing support to troubled teens. When she inadvertently takes a call after hours, she finds herself an unqualified counselor to a teen (Lisa Dean Ryan) dealing with rape. (My question: Whatever happened to this help line after the episode?)
Meanwhile, Brandon tries to romance an older woman (Kim Gillingham) he meets through Nat at the Peach Pit. Luke Perry returns after two episodes off (according to reports, he was only hired for a 2-episode stint, but became a regular when producers liked what he brought to the show; they wanted a regular “bad boy,” & Perry fit the mold).
This episode marked the final look at the first year of the 1990s as the series went on a month-long winter break, returning in early January of ’91.
Isn’t it Romantic? (January 3, 1991)
The melodrama ramps up as the crew returns from holiday break. Brenda & Dylan hook up for the first time in what would become the seminal romance of Beverly Hills, 90210. Dad doesn’t like him, but mom’s okay with it. Good thing Brenda has Kelly to teach her the ways of the promiscuous: “Basic rule number one: never rely on the guy.”
Dylan’s personal life is further explored as we learn about his father, a white-collar criminal. Sex-ed at school is the theme this week as the show tackles the AIDS crisis head on, complete with a special guest speaker (Kathy Molter) at West Beverly who shares her story of how she contracted the virus (& this just after Steve tried to hook up with her).
B.Y.O.B. (January 10, 1991)
Parties, peer pressure, & more parties – so much fun to be had in this outing.
Steve spikes goody-two-shoes Brandon’s drink at Donna’s underage alcohol party resulting in Brandon’s continued drinking at his own party thrown by he & Brenda while parents Jim & Cindy are out of town. What could go wrong? Plenty. When the booze runs out, Brandon decides to drive drunk to the store, a decision he’d come to regret.
Meanwhile, in the silliest of side stories, Jim & Cindy find no privacy in Palm Springs at Jim’s company retreat as the Southern-stereotype couple next door keeps barging in on them. Only later do we learn that hokey Trudy & Bob (played by Bobbi Jo Lathan & Richard Paul) are a kinky couple lookin’ for a lil swingin’ action. (And this, kids, is why you drink in moderation.)
One Man and a Baby (January 24, 1991)
Teen pregnancy is the topic of the week as Brandon hooks up with 17-year-old Melissa (Kristin Dattilo), an overachiever attempting to get into Harvard…and also a mom to baby Joey. Brandon learns a bit about teen parenting as he spends an evening babysitting the tot.
Brenda & Kelly, meanwhile, call in to a radio program & win the grand prize: a skydiving adventure, complete with a hunky trainer (Paul Satterfield) to drool over.
90210 Producer Charles Rosin reportedly heard from viewers who wondered how Brandon was able to drive again a week after being arrested for DUII. This led to Rosin’s realization of how popular the freshman drama was becoming.
Slumber Party (January 31, 1991)
Brenda has the girls over for a…”women’s conference” (we can’t call it a slumber party – that’s not cool!). When Kelly’s stuck up, bitchy friend Amanda (Michele Abrams) joins the fun, the girls open up & share their deepest secrets, mostly having to do with sex, guys, & sex. (I enjoyed the scene where the girls sing & dance to what’s obviously a replacement track that matches neither their dancing nor their singing on the DVD version.)
While that’s happening, Brandon joins Steve for a night on the town. In what must be a series first, they somehow don’t manage to sneak their underage asses into the adult nightclub, but still hook up with two older women (Julie McCullough & Judie Aronson), who promptly play Steve like the fool he is & steal his sweet ‘Vette.
Also…only in 1991 could freshmen dorks David & Scott secretly take snapshots of the girls at their slumber party through the window, get caught, & have everyone laugh it off (though Kelly does call David a pervert before swiping his camera).
East Side Story (February 14, 1991)
The Walsh family allows maid Anna’s (Luisa Leschin, who can suddenly speak English now) niece, Karla (Karla Montana), to use their address so she can enroll at West Beverly High. Naturally, Brandon falls for the cutie, but why she’s there in the first place is a mystery.
Jim & Cindy host a party for a prestigious client, someone who can bump Jim up the career ladder. And at West Beverly, David attempts to contact MC Hammer in hopes that he’ll perform at prom, but he can’t get past Hammer’s secretary (turns out, he was dialing the wrong number the whole time; it was none other than Debbie Gibson who was hanging up on him).
A Fling in Palm Springs (February 21, 1991)
It’s the annual party weekend where the kids saddle up & road-trip to Palm Springs for some fun in the sun & partayyy. But of course, not all goes as planned as David offers up his rich grandparents’ home as a crash pad for the gang thinking his grandparents (Al Ruscio & Erica Yohn) would be out of town (they’re not).
Brenda gets lost in Palm Springs & can’t find Dylan, who’s run into an old (hot, attractive, female) friend, causing a rift between the two once they find each other. David flirts with a girl he meets named Tuesday (Shana Furlow), who doesn’t allow the romance to proceed past first base. And Brandon misses it all as he’s called in to work at The Peach Pit all weekend, though he manages to help a young boy (John Christian Graas) whose family has fallen on hard times.
Fame is Where You Find It (February 28, 1991)
Brandon stumbles his way onto the set of a popular television show shooting at a local park when he’s asked to do a small role. In true 90210 fashion, he mini-romances Lydia (Marcy Kaplan), the well-known star of Keep It Together. Brenda, who actually has acting aspirations, winds up filling in for Brandon at The Peach Pit in a disastrous display of waitressing. But the true thespian in her comes out when she takes on the persona of “Laverne,” a sassy, 50s-style waitress who charms the Peach Pit regulars & enriches Brenda’s tip jar.
At first the episode seems ridiculous, farcical & unlikely. But on the other hand, it is L.A.; crap like this probably happens there daily. In the end, Brandon & Lydia tell each other they’ll keep in touch, but we know better…she’s never seen or heard from again.
Stand (Up) and Deliver (March 7, 1991)
Silly outing has Brenda testing the waters of quitting high school early to join the “real world” after meeting some pretentious folk (Carrie Hamilton & Tom McTigue) who run a pretentious new club, The Fallout, one of those early 90s, grungy, yard-sale-coffee-house style establishments in a warehouse.
Running parallel to that thread is Brandon’s running for junior class president, complete with a campaign run (at odds) by competing aides Andrea & Kelly. The episode highlights the superficiality of politics, with Brandon the cool, popular candidate & his opponent, Michael (Scott Fults), the doofy-but-smart candidate. It’s never clear why Kelly & Donna are suddenly interested in school politics & both stories are wrapped up a little too neatly, but the episode does show the beginnings of a potential Kelly/Brandon attraction.
It’s Only a Test (March 28, 1991)
The ladies of 90210 (Brenda, Kelly & Donna) perform self breast exams on themselves after Kelly sees it in a women’s magazine she’s reading while they’re hanging out (this is how they did it before the internet, kids). Brenda’s thrown for a loop when she feels a lump, especially knowing her grandmother & aunt both died from cancer.
Meanwhile, another test is looming for everyone – the dreaded SAT, which Brandon, Steve & Andrea in particular are stressed about, with Andrea pulling her usual complaint about unfair privilege/advantage (Steve can afford an expensive study-guide kit that others can’t) only to hang out with Steve on a study date so she can benefit from his “privilege” too. Steve (of course) puts the moves on Andrea, literally jumping on her for a kiss that would’ve landed him in jail as of 2017. No worries, though; she liked it.
But the episode’s emotional arc of Brenda’s cancer scare propels this outing, which does a reasonable job pulling at viewer’s heartstrings as the Walsh family’s concern builds until Brenda’s doctor (Melinda Culea) calls with the results of her biopsy.
April is the Cruelest Month (April 11, 1991)
Matthew Perry (Friends, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) guest stars as aloof West Beverly tennis star Roger Azarian. Brandon angles to score an interview with him for the school paper only to find he has homicidal (& suicidal) thoughts after reading his screenplay, which hits a little too close to home after Brandon meets his overbearing father (Nicolas Coster). Fun to see Perry in a serious role 4 years before playing sarcastic Chandler Bing on NBC’s Friends. He’s quite good playing the brooding, boozing high schooler with a death wish. It would’ve been nice to see him stick around, but like other one-shot guests, we never see Azarian again.
Meanwhile, Kelly & Brenda alienate Donna when they talk about which colleges they might attend after receiving their glowing SAT scores. Kudos to the producers for tackling test anxiety & learning disorders, but I couldn’t help spitting up my soda when Donna, despairing over the situation (“I’m an idiot, Brenda!”), finally reveals her pathetic SAT scores, to which Brenda gasps: “Oh my god!!”
Poor Donna; with a reaction like Brenda’s, you’d have thought she’d died.
Spring Training (April 25, 1991)
I am dying. With the end of 90210‘s first season looming, there are a couple important episodes left to go that affect the overall arc & story… alas, this isn’t one of them. But let me tell ya – it’s a doozy, & I’m still dying from laughter as I write this.
When Jim hurts his back on the first day of practice, Brandon & Steve take over coaching his little league baseball team, complete with snot-nosed, smart-ass, stuck-up Beverly Hills players & their parents. Meanwhile, Brenda falls in love with a stray dog she names Wally, urging Jim & Cindy to let her keep it.
This episode had me dying in tears throughout. The producers attempt at subtle earnestness in tackling class warfare through youth baseball comes off completely “on-the-nose” to hilarious effect. To start with, there’s the snobby rich guy’s kid on the team Brandon is coaching, who doesn’t listen or mind, & is un-coachable. During the first day of practice, the little shit pokes fun at a quiet, chubby red-headed kid who has no skills. Steve immediately calls the chubby kid out for picking his nose & makes him run a lap. When Brandon tells Steve he thought he was a little harsh on the lil guy, Steve says the kid’s grossing him out, and “the last thing we need is a booger-picker playing second base!”
Meanwhile, Brenda has trouble getting her parents to let her keep Wally the mutt, who’s certainly no Benji. In the middle of arguing about it, Jim reminds her of Mr. Pepper, a dog apparently “left out to die in the freezing snow” back in Minnesota, to which Brenda hilariously exclaims: “I was 9 years old…how was I supposed to know about windchill factors??” Can you imagine a show today taking such a flip, lighthearted attitude toward the death of a pet?
Back on the diamond, we learn Nat also coaches a youth baseball team, but his team sucks (they can’t even afford their own uniforms), especially their second baseman, who can’t make a play to save his life. The little shits on Brandon’s team poke fun & ridicule him during a practice game that winds up so lopsided that Nat “stopped keeping score in the second inning.” But when it comes time for a rematch practice game (which has Steve salivating: “If we clobber these nerdballs, it would be great for team morale!”), Nat recruits Dylan as an assistant coach (“bad boy” Luke Perry looking hilariously skinny & nerdy in his over-tight, 80s-era baseball uniform, evoking the exact opposite of his cool, brooding character’s persona) & brings in a ringer — a girl who can knock the ball outta the park…& can pitch, too!
The game predictably comes down to the final pitch, and who’s at the plate for Nat’s team? The little “doofus” who can’t walk & chew gum at the same time. Brandon’s pitcher, now sympathetic & angry that his teammates & overbearing father want him to stick it to the poor kid, serves him up an easy-to-hit pitch. What happened next sent waves of laughter over me for the next several minutes: The batter triumphantly connects, sending a fly ball into the outfield…
It could have ended there, with the winning run scoring & the kid celebrating his big moment with an upset over Brandon’s team. But no! Instead, the scene cuts to the outfield where none other than the chubby, red-headed, nose-picking kid from earlier comes running full-speed toward the ball…so, maybe it’s a double-redemption story, with this kid making a diving catch? No. He literally trips & falls as the ball bounces off the ground & bonks him in the head.
So, yeah…the writers give redemption to one of the picked-on kids at the expense of the other picked-on kid. But wait! In the end, all is well…because Brenda’s lost-and-found mutt, Wally, is actually Rupert, the little red-headed kid’s dog (“Rupert! I thought you died.”). They reunite right there on the baseball field, washing away the sting of his clumsy final play.
Classic, early-90s TV drama, folks, & this episode is of absolutely no consequence to the overall series. It’s just filler. Golden, entertaining, cheese-ball filler…& a classic of the pre-PC era.
Spring Dance (May 2, 1991)
From the silliest to the most serious episode, it’s time for that most iconic of events – the rite of passage known as high school prom…or in 90210‘s case, the “Spring Dance.” But the kids of Beverly Hills aren’t screwing around! (Okay, they are screwing around. Finally!)
Dateless Steve tries to woo hottie Darla (Sharon Case) to the dance but she doesn’t dig Steve’s ‘Vette. “She cut me! She cut me deep!” he exclaims to Brandon. But that doesn’t stop him from doling out the advice: “The dance is only an excuse to get a room,” he informs Brandon upon sharing that the Spring Dance takes place at a fancy hotel.
Andrea wants to go with Brandon, but Brandon doesn’t know it. Kelly asks Brandon, who accepts, which pisses off Andrea, who decides to stay home. Steve in turn finds out ex-girlfriend Kelly & best-bud Brandon are going together after Kelly turns down Steve, so Steve reluctantly asks awkward Donna, whose outrageous bright red dress is only matched by the silliness of Brenda & Kelly’s discovery that they (gasp!) bought the same dress. But Brenda’s in a forgiving mood after skipping out mid-dance to the hotel room with Dylan to seal the deal & lose that virgini-thang.
Meanwhile, Steve confides in Brandon that it’s his birthday, a reminder of a rough family memory I won’t spoil here. When Andrea decides to show up near the end of the dance to see David win the dance-off & Kelly win “Spring Queen” honors, all is well as our group of friends share a happy denouement to end the dance (& the episode).
This outing is notable for many reasons. Outraged parents watched in horror with their teens as Brenda not only lost her virginity to Dylan…but enjoyed it (FOX received tons of angry letters). Semi-famous cult band The Rave-Ups are featured as the live act playing the Spring Dance (the band played a similar role in the 1984 John Hughes film Sixteen Candles).
The episode also set up a host of future entanglements between the main cast that would unfold over the course of the 90s, & it was these last first-season episodes that saw Beverly Hills, 90210 suddenly jump into the upper range of pop culture awareness. Written & directed by series creator Star, the episode is well acted, showing the cast had legitimate dramatic chops, & proving their show wasn’t just silly child’s play.
Home Again (May 9, 1991)
The season finale begins with a nice schoolyard throw-down, with Steve fighting some punk. He suffers a black eye necessitating his wearing an eye patch. “Look, it’s Captain Hook!” Kelly jokes, to which Steve answers, “Isn’t that what we used to call you before you got your nose job?”
But it’s not all fun & games. Jim gets a big promotion & the family is forced to follow him back to Minnesota. Before they go, the Walsh kids have to say their final goodbyes: Steve treats Brandon like crap (he doesn’t want Brandon to leave); Brenda has to break up with Dylan (no long distance relationship for this girl); and Andrea gives Brandon a going-away gift – herself! (She wants to umm, uhh, how do you say it politely…she wants the Big B, if you get my drift). But an emotional sendoff from the Beverly Hills gang tugs at the Walsh’s heartstrings, & Jim changes his mind. The family stays in Beverly Hills & all is right in the world again.
While slow-dancing at the party, a serious-faced Brenda tells Dylan she’s late. “What are you late for?” he annoyingly asks. “Dylan,” she repeats as the camera slowly pulls away for a final wide shot & fade-out, “I’m late.”