One of the things I did this summer was commit to expanding my ABC Family viewership, figuring the network had too many shows ("Middleman," "Greek") that people insisted I'd like that I'd somehow missed.
That's probably why, when I settled in to watch the season's first two episodes of The CW's "90210," I had an odd thought: "90210" is already in its third or fourth creative incarnation since The CW decided to reboot the franchise, which means the netlet is finding it impossible to nail, just once, what ABC Family has been churning out for a several years now on an assembly line.
ABC Family has "90210: Preachy" ("The Secret Life of the American Teenager"), "90210: Springy" ("Make It Or Break It"), "90210: The College Years" ("Greek") and "90210: Pseudo-Shakespeare Comedy" ("10 Things I Hate About You"). Not all of those shows are entirely creatively successful, but they're all confident in their tone and execution.
The same still can't be said for "90210," which is a long way from the show that premiered 12 months ago with an onslaught of hype and an absence of screeners for critics. It's getting closer to capturing the tone of the original "Beverly Hills, 90210" without the name-dropping and cameos that plagued the first season. It still isn't the flagship brand The CW wants or needs for it to be.
[A review of the start of the second season of "90210" after the break... Some spoilers, but not many...]
The season premiere of "90210" is titled "To New Beginnings" and it does, indeed, offer the latest reconstituting of the show, courtesy of the prolifically named Rebecca Rand Kirshner Sinclair, who took over as showrunner in the homestretch of the first year.
The first and most obvious difference that fans will discover is that the new, new "90210" is, as it probably always should have been, about the core group of high school students.
There's nary a mention of a single "Beverly Hills, 90210" original, which means nobody much cares what's up with Kelly or Brenda or Donna or the guys who weren't interested in coming back for cameos. As the first season didn't benefit at all from their addition, the second season certainly benefits from their subtraction from the main narrative.
But it isn't just the original-flavor "90210" gadflies who have been sent off to their boring lives. The season's opening two e pisodes have mostly eliminated Lori Loughlin's Debbie and pushed Rob Estes's Principal Wilson into a marginalized corner. Loughlin and Estes were actually at their most entertaining in the finale, but both actors would be well-served looking for additional work. Gone entirely is Jessica Walter's Tabitha, who has gone to Las Vegas to do a show. Since Walter was on a different (funnier) show, she's not a big loss and she's so forgotten that the Wilsons have moved to a home of their own.
Also missing from the premiere are Ryan Eggold's teacher and Sara Foster as Jen Clark, the wicked sister to AnnaLynne McCord's Naomi, though both characters return in the second episode.
Instead, we're looking at the young characters, mostly focusing on the aftermath of the finale, which left Naomi, Erin (Jessica Stroup) and Dixon (Tristan Wilds) in summer school after Annie (Shenae Grimes) called in the cops on their after-prom party. Naomi, convinced that Annie slept with boyfriend Liam (Matt Lanter), has ostracized Annie, become BFFs with Erin and Adrianna (Jessica Lowndes) and embarked on a tentative relationship with a much, much older man.
Because the writers realized last season that they can give Lowndes the dramatic heavy-lifting, Adrianna is still dealing with the psychological impact of having a baby and giving it up for adoption that season. And because the writers mistakenly believe that Grimes is capable of dramatic heavy-lifting, Annie coping with being friendless and also with whatever the heck it was that she hit with her car in the finale. Because Grimes isn't actually all that good with the dramatic stuff, her interpretation of "haunted" and "traumatized" could easily be confused with "forgot to wear makeup and didn't wash hair."
Because The CW is all about the ladies, "90210" starts its season with almost no interest in the male characters. Dixon's annoyed by his sister and hoping to rekindle affections with Silver, while Navid's (Michael Steger) still just hoping to get laid. Both characters have a bit more action in the second episode as Navid tries reminding viewers that nothing is more exciting than life at a high school TV station and Dixon forgets he played lacrosse and tries out for the surfing team. Stop laughing!
Speaking of lacrosse... You know who else is gone? That's right. Ethan. He's been replaced partially by Liam, who gets a home-life and a backstory in the second episode, loosening up to become best buds with Dixon and Navid (because that was so plausible in last season's bachelor party episode).
Taking more screentime is new addition Teddy Montgomery, a tennis star, son of a movie star and the young man who deflowered Adrianna. I should put "young man" in quotes, because Teddy is played by Trevor Donovan, who's 30 and looks 35. Teddy's addition to the cast should open the door for conflict between Navid and Adrianna and also for easy access to alcohol, since there's no chance this kid will ever get carded.
The refocusing of the show is a good and necessary idea. The older characters and the original characters were good for nostalgia, but nostalgia was what led to the large premiere audience, while general disinterest was what caused the show's ratings to plummet in the middle of the season. The younger female viewers The CW craves didn't want to or need to hear Donna Martin complaining about David Silver's problems with living in Japan.
The series has also adopted a looser look and style. The new "90210" is less glossy and more playful in its opening episodes and not just because the premiere finds reasons to keep the main characters in swim trunks for most of the hour. There's more music and even more dancing, including an out-of-left-field group dance and break dancing in the West Beverly parking lot.
What "90210" doesn't have is the clever, pop culture savvy dialogue of a "Greek" (random references to Monica Lewinsky's handbags and to "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" [12 months after its release] notwithstanding), nor does the Sisterhood of the Traveling Expensive Pants female bonding dialogue have the emotional honesty that "Make It Or Break It" achieved once or twice in its first season.
The question of what tone "90210" wants to set remains very much up in the air. Lame retread plotlines about the dangers of sexting and how to set the perfect mood for losing your virginity suggest that the show is aiming only for a very young and not very edgy audience.
But then there's the very real possibility that Annie may have committed vehicular homicide, which would seem to be spinning the show off into a soapier direction that would model the later years of "90210" and its new "Melrose Place" lead-out.
Sara Foster's character is part of a push in the latter direction, while Annie and Dixon's parents are a vestige of the former. The building love triangle between Teddy, Adrianna and Navid is the sort of plotline that could go either way, toward gentle cliches or toward operatic, "Fatal Attraction" excess. And speaking of "Fatal Attraction," is anybody else tiring of Silver's instability? We get that she's bipolar, but there's a scene in the pilot where she breaks down in tears and attempts suicide when she learns that "Smallville" moved to Friday nights. Yes, that's a lie, but it's also an indication of how delicately her bi-polarity is being treated.
As a dedicated fan of the original "90210," I keep watching the spinoff, waiting to see if it has found its voice. So far in Season Two, it's close, but not quite there.
"90210" returns to The CW on Tuesday, Sept. 9.