The team behind Lifetime’s “The Unauthorized Beverly Hills 90210 Story” owes Shannen Doherty a debt of gratitude. The starlet’s notoriously bad behavior behind the scenes of Fox’s ’90s teen soap provides the narrative hook for a breezy guilty pleasure — the latest in the cabler’s ongoing franchise of nostalgia-driven skin-deep exposes of small-screen favorites (previous entries include “Full House” and “Saved by the Bell”). Essentially a feature-length reenactment of a Wiki webpage crossed with IMDb’s trivia section, “90210” can at least count on Doherty to bring some drama.
Samantha Munro (“Degrassi: The Next Generation”) isn’t exactly a dead ringer for the erstwhile Brenda Walsh in the role, but she’s not far off. More than that, her performance channels the special blend of spoiled brat poutiness and air of superiority that often results from growing up as a working actor and ultimately landing the top spot on the call sheet of a hit show.
Scribe Jeff Roda gets a lot of mileage out of Doherty’s flirtations with co-stars Luke Perry (Jesy McKinney) and Jason Priestley (Max Lloyd-Jones), rivalry with Jennie Garth (Abbie Cobb, winning the ensemble’s look-alike prize) and tenuous friendship with Tori Spelling (Abby Ross).
Among the choice nuggets: Doherty and Priestley were repeatedly told to stop getting so cozy during their audition to play the Walsh siblings (one of many ways in which “90210” was no “Game of Thrones”); it was Spelling who suggested casting both Doherty and Priestley to her mega-producer father, Aaron (Dan Castellaneta, whose over-the-top turn dominates whenever Munro’s Doherty isn’t on screen); and after enduring seasons of discord, Garth organized a cast meeting where everyone unanimously agreed Doherty needed to go.
Beyond the Shannen saga, this “Unauthorized” account doesn’t dig up much dirt, preferring instead to indulge in a mix of random factoids (Priestley used to be roommates with Brad Pitt) and meta references to future Fox projects like “The X-Files” and “Glee.” The cheesiest moment by far comes when eventual “Sharknado” star Ian Ziering (David Lennon) takes Doherty out for a joy ride and tells her she’s behaving like “a mixture between shark and a tornado.” (“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” Munro expertly deadpans in response.)
Then there are the on-set hookups. As one crew member marvels, “Everyone’s making out with everyone!” However salacious those shenanigans got, the action here is limited to a few innocent makeout montages that wouldn’t have raised the eyebrows of ’90s-era Fox censors (who are seen lecturing the cast after Perry’s hand makes contact with Doherty’s clothed breast during a passionate on-camera kiss).
The overall E! News-style approach to the docudrama should resonate more strongly with the target aud than will the pic’s more business-oriented details. The latter include: how the elder Spelling was looking to revive his sagging TV status; offered to pay Perry’s salary out of his own pocket when Barry Diller’s underlings at Fox balked at expanding the cast; and backed the costly gamble of producing additional episodes for summer airing — which paid off in a pop-culture breakthrough.
For the record, the pic entirely omits any reference to first-season regular Douglas Emerson, as well as older cast members Carol Potter and James Eckhouse, who played the Walsh parents for five seasons. It also ends less than halfway through the show’s 10-season run — at the point when Doherty exits and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen (played in a world-building cameo by Alyssa Lynch of “The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story”) arrives.
But Lifetime will keep the nostalgia train rolling for now. A “spinoff” of sorts is already scheduled to air one week later, when Castellaneta and Adam Korson (who plays “90210” creator Darren Star) reprise their roles for “The Unauthorized Melrose Place Story.”