Can television’s most famous zip code survive the departure of its most notorious star? From the looks of the season premiere, it ought to do very well, thank you: the writing is still sharp, the plots are thickening with potentially sudsy entanglements, and the new girl on the block might be a pleasingly disruptive force.
Shannen Doherty’s character Brenda Walsh was basically a nice girl with a sullen, slightly rebellious edge. The new Valerie Malone (played by the fetching Tiffani-Amber Thiessen), on the other hand, is wildly two-faced, putting on a wholesome mask in public and revealing a hard-boiled cynicism in private.
Back in Minnesota, Valerie’s family was tight with the Walshes — the only “normal” family unit, in the “Father Knows Best” sense, on “90210”– before the latter moved onward and upward to Beverly Hills.
But Valerie’s father has since committed suicide, so she has come out West to live in Brenda’s old room, a contrived but not-too-implausible way of replacing Doherty’s character. Director Michael Lange uses black-and-white flashbacks to fill in the details, as well as other developing twists in the cast members’ lives.
Valerie seems like an enemy agent within the sun-kissed, self-absorbed, but basically nice “kids” of the cast. Yet even within this stark outline, one senses that Valerie is a lot wittier than her new chums, brighter than most, and certainly more detached. In her last scene, confiding on the phone to an old friend while rolling a joint, she refers to the other characters as “avocado-heads”– voicing the intelligentsia’s image of “90210,” and letting the show poke fun at itself, which it does from time to time.
And what of the avocado heads? Well, Brandon (Jason Priestley) and Kelly (Jennie Garth) are now well into their steamy new affair, but they don’t know what to tell Dylan (Luke Perry), who’s off brooding in Mexico after some con-artists ran off with his millions.
Donna (Tori Spelling), still a virgin, is trying to get over David (Brian Austin Green), with only limited success, and in a storyline that has drawn some heated fire from feminist types, the once-Yale-bound Andrea (Gabrielle Carteris) finally comes home from the hospital with her new baby.
In other words, “90210” is now first and foremost a soap opera and only secondly a vehicle for airing out issues affecting teenagers. But it remains intelligently written, and that — along with the nice-looking bodies — is a big reason why the show continues to hold one’s attention.