Critic's Notebook: Luke Perry Defined Coolness for a Generation of TV Watchers

The '90210' star was indelibly hip and heart-throbby as Dylan McKay, but also gained gravitas in the later stages of his career.
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Luke Perry

Luke Perry wasn't the Fox Broadcasting Company's first heartthrob. Johnny Depp and Richard Grieco of 21 Jump Street beat him to the pages of Tiger Beat by a couple years. He was, however, Fox's defining heartthrob. Perry, who died at the age of 52 on Monday, was a template for a brooding, Gen-X hero that was everything that the upstart, play-by-its-own-rules Fox wanted to define itself as.

Fox may have been a network that Married With Children and The Simpsons built, but Perry's Dylan McKay taught the network to swagger. It's one thing to be iconoclastic, and certainly Fox didn't lack for edgy boundary-pushers in its early years, but that's not the same thing as being stone-cold cool. Dylan McKay was stone-cold cool.

He wasn't even aspirationally cool. On Beverly Hills, 90210, Brandon Walsh (played by Jason Priestley) was aspirationally cool, which is to say that he wasn't cool at all. Brandon was generally aspirational. You could imagine yourself being a fish-out-of-water like Brandon, making the same dumb mistakes as Brandon and maybe, if you were lucky, having your earnestness rewarded with acceptance and popularity and generally unearned flirtations like Brandon received.

Maybe Teenage Dan could grow Dylan's sideburns — they never seemed to connect quite right — and maybe I could affect the squint — already more "sun-in-my-eyes" than "world-weary" — but there was no way to reproduce how Dylan McKay and Luke Perry appeared on the show and suddenly made you realize that nobody who had been on this screen before, no matter what the show had tried to tell you about Brandon Walsh or Steve Sanders, was actually cool. Only this guy was. Dylan McKay was to his West Beverly High acquaintances — at least when he was introduced, Dylan McKay was too freaking cool to have anything as banal as "friends" — as Beverly Hills, 90210 was to whatever Fox's programming was before, as Fox wanted to be to the rest of the broadcast landscape.

Perry never gave the impression of actually being Dylan McKay, though his brow had the same furrow and his voice the same whispery timbre. That voice was gruff and yet consistently surprisingly high in pitch, soft in tone, a voice designed equally for a growl of dismissal and the peaks of emotional torment. More frequently, when he was just talking as himself, Perry's voice conveyed humility and, gradually, wisdom. It was a voice tailored for the wry self-amusement of his Simpsons cameo as Sideshow Luke Perry and, eventually, for Perry's career transition from cover-boy pin-up icon to character actor with gravitas.

The idea of "cool" that Perry was embodying on 90210 wasn't an especially original one. He was James Dean, and his corner of 90210 was Rebel Without a Cause. The tragedy of Dean, of course, was that he never got to grow old. Other than under the layers of his makeup in Giant, audiences never saw him mature or show any weight of age. Because he was already a bit too old for high school when he started on 90210, Perry was almost immediately making a transition from pretty to post-pretty, from juvenile rebelliousness to the unknowable what-comes-next.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was already using Perry not for actual, in-the-moment coolness, but for embodying an established "idea" of coolness, a masculine archetype made secondary to the demon-fighting new model, with the actor literally peaking out around co-star Kristy Swanson in the poster. Dylan McKay himself became more about the distance between that Forever Young James Dean archetype and the consequences of having to actually keep living after the torment of being a teen.

TV auteurs like Tom Fontana (Oz) and David Milch (John From Cincinnati) saw great potential in Perry's ability to play that distance. Perry got and gave tremendous value because any character he played arrived with the built-in journey from Dylan McKay to the maturing adult Perry was able to embody. That included Dylan McKay himself, as the character grew from a pose of inaccessible coolness to one capable of growth and friendship and healing.

It's no wonder that the creators of The CW's Riverdale came to understand quickly that having Perry as Archie Andrews' father delivered a punch far deeper than the mere passing of a torch, which might have been what they expected when the casting was announced. By the second or third season of Beverly Hills, 90210, maybe we chortled at Perry's receding hairline or at the idea that Dylan McKay might be coloring his gray hair. Twenty-five years later, the remnants of that perfect pompadour and the white in that five o'clock stubble meant "experience" and "wisdom" and the ability to survive one phase and thrive in the next.

Fox is in its own period of transition now. It hasn't been the upstart cool kid on the network block for years. It's in the process of rebranding and redefining itself, and it's probably fitting that part of that look at the future was a look to the past, with last week's announced ordering of a new 90210, one that even when it was announced wasn't going to feature Perry in a regular role, because he already had a regular TV gig of his own.

That Perry was able to make this transition makes his death on Monday at the age of 52 all the more gutting. A generation grew up with him and matured with him and mellowed with him in a way we sadly don't always get to do with our heartthrobs. It seemed easy to minimize Perry's "acting" when all he was tasked with doing was out-cooling his Beverly Hills, 90210 co-stars, but with each life progression and each standout new project, it became increasingly clear how many different fictional worlds Perry could hold his own in. It was easy to look at where he was now and where he'd come from and feel confident that each future step in Perry's career might be more interesting than what came before.