'BH90210': TV Review
Fox's reboot of 'Beverly Hills, 90210' reunites Gabrielle Carteris, Shannen Doherty, Jennie Garth, Brian Austin Green, Jason Priestley, Tori Spelling and Ian Ziering.
On a scale of reboot aspiration that slides between the sluggish pandering of Netflix's Fuller House and the expectation-defying anti-pandering of David Lynch's Showtime expansion of Twin Peaks, Fox's new take on Beverly Hills, 90210 rests in a middle ground.
Redubbed BH90210, this blend of meta autobiography, parody, Hollywood satire and unapologetic soap opera has an amusing takeoff point and makes frequently effective use of its cast without ever delivering an execution sharp enough to live up to its premise.
That will enough for audiences with low expectations to tune in because, for all of its appetite-whetting format bending, BH90210 probably isn't aspiring to much more than a half-improvised three-minute sketch exercise with the prompt, "What if Charlie Kaufman rebooted 90210, only Charlie Kaufman was actually Tori Spelling?" stretched to series length.
Conceived by Chris Alberghini, Mike Chessler, Jennie Garth and Tori Spelling, BH90210 stars Brian Austin Green, Gabrielle Carteris, Ian Ziering, Jason Priestley, Shannen Doherty, Garth and Spelling as fictionalized versions of themselves, celebrating the 30th anniversary of Beverly Hills, 90210 as part of what seems like the cheapest, least exciting Las Vegas reunion imaginable. The event goes comically wrong, but also causes the stars to realize that a reboot of the show that shaped and dominated their youth might be the best thing to kickstart the sleepy middle-aged phase of their lives.
As fans will surely know, the actual 30th anniversary of Beverly Hills, 90210 will be next year, just one of countless points at which the reality of BH90210 and actual reality are either very slightly out-of-sync or complete strangers to each other. The pleasure of BH90210 resides almost entirely on figuring out that displacement and trying to decide if and how it matters. In addition to the two creators — technically credited with "conceiving" this story — all of the original series stars are executive producers here, so the way that the show chooses to depict their "reality" is a tapestry of personal representational choices.
As presented in the reboot, Garth is heading toward her third divorce and trying to keep her teen daughter from going down the same professional path; Spelling is married to an ex-jock (her Mother May I Sleep With Danger? co-star Ivan Sergei) and struggling with finances despite starring in a reality show; Priestley is plagued by anger issues and mostly working with a director; Green is a stay-at-home dad married to a pop star (La La Anthony's Shay); Ziering is aggressively pushing a variety of consumer brands; Carteris is the head of an acting union (but definitely not SAG); and I'm not going to spoil what Doherty is up to.
Like absolutely everything else in the show, these approaches to scripted autobiography combine disingenuousness and candor in ways that spur questions like, "Why did they accentuate or fabricate that imperfection?" "What are they trying to say about how they're being misused by the industry?" or "Is there any point in even pondering which of their behind-the-scene stories are true and which have been assigned to other actors — and what difference does it make anyway?"
The execution is all flimsy. Less than two days before the premiere, there were no final credits for writing or directing on the pair of episodes sent to critics; whether or not that's the reason every scene feels less like it was written and directed than given a topic and a stopwatch is unclear.
"Is this a comedy or is it a drama? This almost reads like it doesn't know what it is," Green says in a scene that finds him auditioning for a movie after deciding to get back to acting work. It's a definite wink-and-nudge to the series as a whole. Green, who actually was on the brink of a real professional transformation after Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and several other shows a decade ago, is going for grounded, likable drama, as is Carteris, who hasn't had a role this substantive probably ever. Spelling is playing this as the broadest of multicam comedies. Ziering and Priestley are enjoying lightly barbed self-parody. Doherty's just doing silly stuff, and you can tell she's glad she was invited to the party at all.
From the pacing and transitions, BH90210 is usually favoring hacky, sub-Curb Your Enthusiasm Hollywood comedy — only it's an hourlong show and, in addition to the storylines about which of the actors are going to instigate a revival-within-a-revival of Beverly Hills, 90210, the series features an assortment of surprise pregnancies, infidelities and at least one potentially dangerous stalker. It's striking how poorly developed the fake spouses to these actors all are and between Anthony, Sergei, Vanessa Lachey as Priestley's publicist wife and a few others, there isn't a good character or performance among them. It's almost, perhaps literally, as if the actors/executive producers wanted to make sure nobody upstaged them. And nobody does. That means that the real actors' fake domestic lives all feel insubstantial and barely sketched and, again, that's perhaps intentional. Or maybe it's not.
If you want to see anybody trying to explore anything interesting about reboot culture or the aftermath of juvenile stardom or the impact Beverly Hills, 90210 had on the TV landscape or on Fox as a network (and what it means that the reboot is as much a part of the redefining of New Fox as the original was to defining original Fox), you're out of luck. Whoever wrote or directed these episodes, there's nobody steering this ship with a hand confident enough to handle that.
I'm completely the target audience for the show's nonstop string of episodic references and homage soundtrack choices, shout-outs and secondary cameos, and I love being pandered to. But it sometimes feels like half of the things on TV are pandering to my youthful cultural references and it's not enough to just open the floodgates without attending to form or function.
Also, this isn't opening some long-closed vault of self-mocking instincts. Are we just supposed to pretend that Green and Ziering weren't much better utilized as themselves in the otherwise uneven Domino? To ignore that Priestley perfectly deconstructed his teen idol iconography in Love and Death in Long Island? To forget that 90210 creator Darren Star's short-lived Grosse Pointe was this premise only better?
This probably brings up another key failing here. I don't doubt the sincerity of anybody involved in wanting to acknowledge Luke Perry's passing and to do it with honor. But instead, the treatment of Perry's death in the first episode feels like exactly what it was: a tragic postscript that nobody knew how to work in, but everybody knew couldn't be ignored. The solemnity the cast felt was surely real. The solemnity of the mentions of Perry in the premiere is forced schmaltz or even worse. There's a reference to how they're all there for the reunion and Jason says he wishes that were true and everybody pauses their schtick for a couple seconds of respectful silence — as if the project hadn't been announced, without the busy Perry's involvement, before his death.
Later, Spelling reflects, "Well, we're not all gonna be here forever, but we made something that will be," and Perry is saluted; intentionally or unintentionally, the actor's very real death is used as an in-show catalyst for the actors to ponder their own 90210 legacies. It isn't meant to be tacky, but it feels tacky. Then Perry isn't mentioned in the second episode.
There are things I enjoyed a lot about the first two BH90210 episodes. Garth and Spelling's comic chemistry, which has been utilized in the past as well, can be a pleasure to watch. Green is a decent actor and really could have had a second act as a worthy drama star, which I never would have guessed when David Silver was setting back the cause of diversity in hip-hop permanently. Carteris was never this good in the show's original run and I was a little shocked at how meaningful her arc is in a show that doesn't go for "meaningful" very often. It's something.
I don't want to say that BH90210 should have been better. More likely, it should have been awful. But it could have been smarter and sharper. Much smarter and sharper.
Cast: Gabrielle Carteris, Shannen Doherty, Jennie Garth, Brian Austin Green, Jason Priestley, Tori Spelling and Ian Ziering
Conceived by: Chris Alberghini, Mike Chessler, Jennie Garth and Tori Spelling
Airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Fox, premiering Aug. 7