I was born after “Beverly Hills, 90210” hit television screens, but before Luke Perry made his brief mid-series exit. Experiencing the show now, in the wake of Perry’s sudden passing, and nearly three decades since the premiere, is an interesting experience. It feels like a parody.
West Beverly High is an astonishingly on-brand world of soapy dialogue, slinky guitar transitions, and precocious acting. Beautiful beaches and beautiful people. Beautiful cars, too. Characters say things like, “I hate jocks!” and surf away their mornings. Plot lines are fueled by a familiar but artful commingling of moralization and cliff-hanging.
It reminds me of the heavy-handed tapes middle school teachers played to impart wisdom about the pitfalls of binge drinking or bullying or promiscuity. They felt outdated even in the early aughts, and made for the kind of snickering that could be brought about only by an adult’s clumsy stab at relating to teens.
That’s how “90210” strikes me today. Yet I think the show might come across as parody to a twentysomething because it mastered a format that became the template. There’s something very quaint about its earnestness, a quality other shows built on, but perhaps never improved upon. Perry’s performance as Dylan McKay, from what I’ve seen, is a case in point.
Effortless isn’t just how you might describe his looks, it’s also an apt descriptor for his interpretation of McKay. Dylan isn’t a stud straining to seem human, and Perry isn’t a warm body with a handsome face slotted half-heartedly into the show to satisfy a hot guy quota. His complexities, even in the ridiculous world of teen soaps, come across movingly. That’s a feat. It’s likely what made performances like this one possible.
By the time I was a teenager, we had “The OC,” which ultimately paved the way for “Laguna Beach,” and “The Hills,” and it’s fair to wonder whether our appetites had changed for some reason or another. You could probably argue that “Laguna Beach” was just about as believable as “90210,” and with much less interesting characters. It was produced to draw out similarly soapy storylines, and the clothes and cars and beaches seem just as aspirational — larger than life, and purposefully so.
The intense earnestness, however, was gone, even in the overproduced version of reality MTV created for us. Evolution or devolution? (The iconic black tear drop that fell from Lauren Conrad’s left eye was slowed down in editing.)
“Melee at the Broward mall: 20 injured during surge for heartthrob Luke Perry,” is how the Sun-Sentinel headlined a 1991 article reporting on the stampede of teen girls that rushed the stage when Perry appeared at an autograph signing. Melee. A ballroom at a nearby Sheraton had to be repurposed as “holding area” for all the injured girls awaiting treatment. A 14-year-old broke her leg. (I don’t recall mobs rushing any “Laguna Beach” stars.)
It’s a remarkable story. The mere sight of Perry was enough to spark a literal mob of teenagers in a suburban shopping mall. Like “90210” itself, the report reads almost as parody. It’s so unbelievable, the whole thing could probably have been a plot line on the show.
Seventeen-year-old Madeleine Pinzon, who watched faithfully every week, provided an instructive quote about Perry to the paper. “He’s just a nice guy who’s fine looking and who’s not afraid to show his feelings.” she said. “If all the guys in the world were like him, everything would be perfect.”
Everything would be perfect. Maybe relatability isn’t the goal of a teen soap. Maybe it’s the surrealism, the conquering of extraordinary circumstances by people with extraordinary looks and extraordinary personalities. That’s what makes you rush Luke Perry in a mall.