Beverly Hills, 90210 offered me an escape from my existence
I am ashamed to say that I watched season 1 of Beverly Hills, 90210 and that I’m now in the middle of season 2. Why am I ashamed? Because I’m a fan of sitcoms. I’m the kind of woman who constantly re-watched Friends and Seinfeld. Besides, I have a soft spot for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the first three seasons of MASH. All of them are iconic TV shows. Yet, I watch a soap opera for teens. And I — mostly — enjoy it.
At the beginning of the pandemic, a wave of nostalgia for the 1990s hit me. I started listening to music released when I was a kid — Alanis Morissette, The Smashing Pumpkins, Sheryl Crow, Weezer. Of course, Friends and Seinfeld, my favorite TV shows, also nourished that wistfulness for that period. But I craved Beverly Hills, 90210, which represents my childhood. I watched a few Friends’ episodes when I was a kid, but I was obsessed with 90210.
Today, I realized I was way too young to watch this show. In Quebec, where I came from, the French dubbed version aired in September 1994, four years after the show premiered on Fox. B.Y.O.B. was the first episode I came across. Pressured by their friends, Brenda and Brandon throw a party at their house while their parents are away from the weekend. It turns out to be a dramatic evening when Brandon, drunk, crashes his car and ends up in jail for the night. I had just turned nine years old. What did I know about parties, drunk teenagers, and having sex upstairs with an ex? How can a kid living in a small town identify with teenagers living in Beverly Hills?
I was still acting like the little girl I was, but mentally, I was older. My cousin, who was like a sister to me, died in a car crash two years prior, a week shy of her fifteenth birthday. It made me grow up faster than I should have. Watching Beverly Hills, 90210 was a refuge, like reading Point Horror books. My mother was overprotective, but somehow, she understood that re-watching a hundred times my favorite scenes of 90210 on VHS, was a way to cope with the harsh world.
When I started re-watching the show, I realized how it was moralistic, especially in season 1. Every episode of this season ends on a positive note, which is almost frustrating. Even the most tragic plots weave through complex situations to conclude happily. For a strange reason, I was sure that Wally, the stray dog Brenda adopted in Spring Training, was killed at the end of the episode. But I was wrong. How could I remember the dog was put to death when, in fact, he was reunited with his young master at the end of the episode?
The Spring Dance, however, was faithful to my recollections, which is not surprising at all. I watched the last scene so often that the videotape was worn out in that place. Brenda, Dylan, Brandon, Kelly, Steve, Donna and Andrea, dancing together to the song Smile by The Rave-Ups, seemed to me one of those perfect moments on television. One of those moments I sought to comfort myself when I was a child. Beverly Hills, 90210 became my escape from the world. It didn’t matter that I was only nine years old, and that I had never been to California. Every Thursday evening, I found solace in watching this TV show, and I felt I was part of this world where every problem was solved.
In fact, it wasn’t always true that every problem was solved. The episode where Scott Scanlon accidentally killed himself with a gun during his birthday party had a deep impact on me. (Doesn’t it sound exactly like a soap opera?) This moment is the one I remember the most vividly. Even though Beverly Hills, 90210 wasn’t exactly what one would have called quality television, the show tackled issues like racism, teen pregnancy, drugs, and alcohol addiction, just to name a few. And also suicide. In an episode of the first season, Matthew Perry plays a successful tennis player with a wealthy and controlling father. He ends up trying to kill himself, but he is stopped by Brandon. Brandon Walsh: always the hero of 90210. I was so excited when I saw Matthew Perry’s name in the opening credits of April Is The Cruelest Month. But it’s probably one of the worst episodes, and the one most similar to a soap opera.
When I look back at my love for Beverly Hills, 90210, I realized it was an obsession. An obsession that I shared with Karine, a friend who was a year older than me. She was still too young to watch that show, but she had heart disease, and perhaps, like me with my cousin’s death, this tragedy made her grow faster. We were still two little girls, however. Two little girls who wrote stories about our favorite show. The term fanfiction wasn’t probably invented back then. Yes, I am that old. When Karine died of heart failure in 1996, at eleven years old, Beverly Hills, 90210 helped me to cope with the grief. However, it didn’t change the fact that I was now alone with my love for that show, and that I wrote stories about Brenda, Dylan, Kelly and Brandon alone in my room.
I mourned at the season 3 finale when the gang graduated from West Beverly High. Despite my young age, I knew it was the end of an era, and nothing would be the same. I was right. Even though I watched the next season, I didn’t feel the exaltation that had hit me with the early seasons. I stopped altogether when Shannen Doherty, as Brenda Walsh, left at the end of season 4.
Of course, I still had my videotapes, and I watched them intensely. Yet, after a while, I moved on. I fell in love with other TV shows. Because it had been an important part of my life for four years, I thought about it sometimes. My favorite scenes popped into my mind, most of them about those beautiful moments that made me love 90210 despite its flaws.
Last month, when I decided to re-watch the show after all those years, I didn’t know what to expect. My perspective was different. I wasn’t a nine-year-old girl anymore, but a woman in her mid-thirties with depression and anxiety problems. In 1994, the characters were seven years older than me — an insurmountable barrier between childhood and teenage years. I could now be their mother — a young mother, but a mother nevertheless.
Pop culture brings us back to different periods of our lives, but it’s also a reminder of the passing of time. I had a similar experience a few years ago when I re-watched Gilmore Girls. I was sixteen years old when it aired for the first time — Rory Gilmore’s age — and I was thirty-two like Lorelai when I rediscovered the show. Yet, it’s easier to identify with those characters than those from 90210. Not everything is golden in Beverly Hills, but it isn’t exactly the day-to-day life of common people, no matter if you are sixteen or thirty-two years old.
When I was a kid, a part of me wanted to believe my life would be comparable to Brenda, Kelly and the others when I would grow up. I didn’t know back then that I had Asperger syndrome, high-functioning autism that affects social interactions, among other troubles. I wouldn’t go on a camping trip with a bunch of friends and spend a night in a soppy shack, nor would I rearrange the Hollywood sign for W Bev Hi ’93. (Actually, I don’t think anybody has done this. It was one of those far-stretched moments of the show.)
Perhaps it’s because of my autism that I appreciated 90210 so much. Through the show, I could live a parallel life that I would never live, even though I didn’t know it yet. It offered me a way to forget my banal existence. The glimpse I had of this unreachable world appeared grandiose. After I wrote all these words, I’m not sure I am still ashamed to have started re-watching Beverly Hills, 90210. No, it doesn’t have the genius of Seinfeld or the wit of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but without it, I wouldn’t have experienced those magic hours where I lost myself in this captivating Californian universe.