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     | |________________________________________________________________| |

  ...presents...  _Beverly Hills 90210_ as Nostalgia Television
                                                         by Crystal Kile

                      >>> a cDc publication.......1994 <<<
                        -cDc- CULT OF THE DEAD COW -cDc-
  ____       _     ____       _       ____       _     ____       _       ____

     The full title for this work is "Recombinant Realism/Caliutopian
Re-Dreaming: _Beverly Hills 90210_ as Nostalgia Television" and was presented
at the 1993 National Popular Culture Association meeting in New Orleans for its
"Television and Postmodernism" panel.  Crystal Kile is in the Dept. of Popular
Culture/ American Culture Studies Program at Bowling Green State University,
Bowling Green, Ohio 43402.

     My life as an instructor in the environment of the undergraduate popular
culture studies/television studies classroom is roughly contiguous with the
life of the wildly popular FOX series, _Beverly Hills 90210._  Over the past
three years, I have read literally dozens of informal response papers and
formal essays in which students have attempted to engage and develop some
critical angle on the series.  What I have found is that my best efforts to
stress to them that "the metaphoric real world displayed on television does not
display the real world, but displaces it" (F&H 48) and "television does not
represent the manifest actuality of our society, but rather reflects,
symbolically, the structure of values and relationships beneath the surface"
(F&H 24), seemed to have been for naught when the show at hand is _90210_. 
Well over 80% of my students' essays about the series could be condensed to
three sentences:  "I can totally identify with Beverly Hills 90210.  It is the
only show on television that really addresses the issues facing young people in
America today.  It is an important show because it is so realistic." 
Conversely, the most popular anti-_90210_ student response, a response that
generally makes itself most felt in classroom discussion, is that _90210_ is a
stupid and unimportant show, a "fluffy chick show" as one student so concisely
put it last semester, because it is so UNrealistic (read: because everyone is
so rich and good-looking and all of the problems are tied up at the end of the
hour).  What I want to present to you today is my take on why the _90210_
debate, wherever it takes place, from the classroom, to the pages of
_Entertainment Weekly_ or _Vanity Fair_, to the _90210_ newsgroups/mailing
lists on the Internet and CompuServe, seems to rage around the topic of
issue-oriented "realism."  I want to question what might be at stake in
interrogating the "realism" (or the "unreal" pleasures) of this youthcult TV
phenomenon.  This is a textual reading of the series, one which puts into
dialogue the ultimately conservative ideological work of _90210_ and the
peculiar postmodern aesthetic strategy contextualizing it.  In short, I want to
argue that _Beverly Hills 90210_ is what Frederic Jameson, were he to deign to
deal directly with the medium, might call "nostalgia television."  If this
weird elision of youthcult and nostalgia seems to you a bit pernicious, well it

     On the way to establishing that _90210_ is both of the postmodern moment
and "not of the moment," it is important to say a word or two about the
contexts from which the show emerged.  In many ways, _90210_ is a response to
the genre of affectless, consumerist, violent, post-punk youthcult literature
that emerged in the mid-1980s.  The best known of these works, Bret Easton
Ellis' _Less Than Zero_, the novel as well as the bomb of a movie that was made
of the novel in 1987, is perhaps _90210_'s closest relation, its
"twentysomething" sibling.  For those of you unfamiliar with the work, the
milieu of _Less Than Zero_, like that of _90210_, is upper-upper middle class
Los Angeles youth culture.  But that is where the resemblance ends.  The world
that Ellis' so numbly and plotlessly conjures in one of cocaine, anonymous
bisexual promiscuity, the best brand name goods, ritual murder, absent
families, and young men prostituting themselves to pay off drug debts.  In the
best tradition of the "L.A. literature" from Nathanel West to Joan Didion to
Black Flag, it is apocalyptic.  As a cult youthcult text, it elicited alarm. 
My favorite response to the novel/this genre is UGA professor Sanford Pinsker's
1986 Georgia Review essay, "The Catcher in the Rye and All That: Is the Age of
Formative Books Over?"

     Pinsker needn't have worried.  When _Less Than Zero_ was filmed, it was
transformed into a morality tale, one which eerily prefigured _90210_.  In the
film version, the subjectivity-less "anti-protagonist" of the novel is
transformed into a young hero who rides back in from college in the East and
tries to save his friends from coke and nihilism.  The bi-prostitute, coke
addict friend, beyond redemption, dies at the end & the hero's girlfriend goes
back East with him.  In my experience of teaching the novel and the film
together, the point being to emphasize the "conservative" dynamic at work in
the production of popular texts such as films for the youthcult market, I have
found that my students greatly prefer the film version of _Less Than Zero_, the
version from which any critique (however affectless) of late consumer
capitalism has been excised in favor of emphasis on individual morality, much
for the same reasons that they want to insist in the "realism" of _90210_.

     So, what's up in _90210_?  What is the ideological spin of the series? 
Upon what cultural mythologies is the series built, and how are they connoted
in the text?  How do the writers work the issue of "realism"?  What aesthetic
strategies do they deploy to allow them to deal at this moment with this litany
of "contemporary issues": teen alcoholism, a parent's addiction, teen
sexuality, drinking and driving, date rape, eating disorders, racism, classism,
child abuse, adoption, obsessive relationships, drugs, AIDS, steroid abuse,
teen suicide, breast cancer, finding oneself the victim of a violent crime,
toxic waste dumping, gambling, the divorce of one's parents?

     In a July 1992 Vanity Fair story about Luke Perry and _90210_, Barry
Diller, then-chairman of FOX television, himself an alumnus of the real Beverly
Hills High, remarked, "I always thought that a serial-like series about Beverly
Hills High was a great idea, because I thought it was a small town in both
sensibilities and borders -- very small town -- while at the same time it was,
after all, Beverly Hills...[The glitz of Beverly Hills] is just the carny
barker outside the tent, getting you into the tent.  Once you're in the tent,
you go, 'Oh my God!  You mean this is really about families?  [_90210_] is
about family values, but from all different aspect ratios."  Ahhh...but the
show really isn't about "families," but about a family, and not a "Beverly
Hills family," either.  _90210_ is about the Walsh family, a nice, upper-middle
class Midwestern family that moves to Beverly Hills when Walsh, an investment
counselor/accountant of some kind, receives a promotion.  Introducing this old
fish-out-of-water premise, the very first ad blurb in TV Guide about _90210_
read: "The nice, normal Walsh family just moved from Minneapolis to Beverly
Hills.  It might as well be Mars."  Initial episodes of the series revolved
around twins Brenda and Brandon Walsh's negotiation of and adjustment to the
opulent fast lane of West Beverly Hills High social life.  The Walsh kids are
initially status-struck, especially Brenda, but slowly come to realize how much
their new friends envy their "boring housewife mom" and everpresent dad.  The
Walsh family is the only stable nuclear family featured in the series.  Master
mediators , crisis managers, and instillers of values, the elder Walshes become
surrogate parents to their children's friends, and in some cases, to those
friends' parents.  In short, from their very traditional home, the Walshes
clean up Beverly Hills.  Condensing it ever further, we could express the
dynamic this way: Midwest redeems Sin City.  In what context is this redemption

     I subscribe that the popular genius of _90210_ is that while it is
superficially topical and relevant, while it addresses some of the tensions and
themes addressed in 1980s youthcult fictions about and from L.A., it also
evinces a deep, yet blank "nostalgia for the "kinder, gentler," "California
youthcult mythos" of the late 1950s and early 1960s, nostalgia for the myth of
Southern California as paradise for Midwestern WASPs, as Gidget-land, as
Disneyland.  This  "nostalgia" is, in large part, the pleasure of the text.  In
the moment of 'Just Say No" and sex=death and MTV, this wildly popular
re-visioning of the "traditional" Caliutopian white youth culture fantasy, the
mythically mediated fullness and "realism" of the show speaks peculiarly well
to the "postmodern subjects under construction" who consume it weekly.  In a
January 1992 article in GQ, TV critic Gerry Hirshey put it this way: 

     "...Aaron Spelling knows America.  His wife may wear $4 million in jewels
to lunch with the girls, but this TV Croesus is better connected to the weary
workaday heartland than any Democratic hopeful with a pantload of consultants,
pollsters and focus-group transcripts....[This is the] big populist secret of
[Spelling].  I think that he loves his children madly, beyond reason.  I think
that, like anyone facing postnuclear child-rearing, he's scared to death for
them.  Daddy's true colors have produced a mammoth hit."

     In _Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism_, Frederic
Jameson diagnoses the symptomatic nature of postmodern texts such as _90210_
this way:

     "...the postliteracy of the late capitalist world reflects not only the
absence of any great collective project, but also the unavailability of the
older national language itself.

     In this situation, parody finds itself without a vocation; it has lived,
and that strange new thing pastiche slowly comes to take its place.  Pastiche
is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style,
the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language.  But it is the
neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody's ulterior motives,
amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that
alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy
linguistic normality still exists.

     ...this situation evidently determines what architecture historians call
"historicism," namely the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past,
the play of random stylistic allusion, and what Henri Lefebvre has called the
increasing primacy of the "neo."

     Nostalgia films [Jameson discusses texts as diverse as Body Heat, American
Graffiti and Raiders of the Lost Ark] restructure the whole issue of pastiche
and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt
to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion
change and the eminent ideology of the generation.  [George Lucas's _American
Graffiti_ was the inaugural film in this genre]....More interesting, and more
problematical, are the ultimate attempts, through this new discourse to lay
siege...to our own present..." (17-19).

     There has always been a certain "nostalgia" element to _BH90210_, most
notably the much remarked-upon resemblance of the character Dylan McKay, a
loner, surfer, heir to a multi-million dollar fortune and proud owner of a '62
Porsche, to James Dean.  Still, having followed _90210_ since its premiere in
October 1990, I must admit that I was quite shocked to turn on my TV on the
evening of July 11, 1991 to see the likes of this (CLIP OF SECOND SEASON
INTRO).  A variation on this first summer season intro remains the show's
regular intro to date.  In any case. the first episode of the show's first
summer season, titled (no kidding) "Beach Blanket Brandon," saw Brandon give up
his counter job at "The Peach Pit," a neo-fifties hamburger place which comes
to figure very prominently as the characters' primary hangout during the show's
second and third seasons, to work for the summer at The Beverly Hills Beach
Club.  (Sounds like some cheesey club in some landlocked Midwestern town to
me...).  The plot of the episode that followed this one was lifted almost
directly from the 1984 nostalgia film, _The Flamingo Kid_.  Keep in mind that
this major shift in the tone of the series took place in the series timeline
immediately after the infamous and controversial (and, yes, "realistic")
episodes during which Brenda and Dylan have premeditated prom night sex and
then experience a pregnancy scare.  It is also notable that during this arc of
summer episodes, Andrea's and Brenda's teen libidos do battle over a summer
school drama teacher played by Michel St. Gerard, the actor who portrayed the
young Elvis Presley in the short-lived 1990 ABC series, _Elvis_.  It may be
true that, as Michael Angelli wrote in the July 1992 issue of _Esquire_,
"Frankie and Annette are way, way dead.  Gidget's gone.  Mike Love's playing
the White House.

     Today's beachboys are tattooed savages wearing a million dollars worth of
endorsements, soundtrack provided by the Butthole Surfers," but one could never
tell that from watching _90210_.  Notably, Brandon Walsh's payoff for a summer
of hard work as a cabana boy at the BHBC was a pristine 1965 Mustang
convertible to replace "Mondale", the Ford LTD beater that he totalled in the
first season "drinking and driving" episode.

     During the second season of _90210_, the scripts continued to deal with
big "issues of the week," but the secondary nostalgia text developed so
extremely during the summer episodes continued to assert itself rather
forcefully.  As already noted, it is during this second season that the Peach
Pit, jukebox in the corner, faux-50s decor on the walls, chrome shining, is
foregorounded as a site of action... sort of like Arnold's was in _Happy Days_.
The fiftiesish personal styles of the two central male characters, Brandon and
Dylan, fit right in with the decor, while the more "contemporary" (whatever
that means here) styles of the other characters were more or less absorbed and
naturalized into the retro setting as the season wore on.  Its reality so
constructed around the warmth of the Walsh home, a mostly white high school,
the beach and The Peach Pit, _90210_, its cosmos thus insulated, continued
unflinchingly in its role as youthcultural bard, the most remarkable episode
being the one in which a young black man is brutally harassed by the BH police
while on his way, on foot, to visit his girlfriend, the daughter of a black
family who had recently moved in a few doors down from the Walshes.  Typical of
the good, liberal, assimilationist manner in which _90210_ glosses all issues
of ethnicity, we never saw these characters again after the _90210_ regulars,
particularly Brandon, cast as a crusading reporter for the school newspaper,
confronted issues of racism though contact with the featured black "guest
characters."  While the "Other" may get the occasional guest spot on the
series, he or she is summarily excised after he/she has taught the _90210_ers
some lesson about life.  Such has been the fate not only of black characters,
but of Chicano characters, gay characters, disabled characters, merely geeky
characters...you get the idea.  Similarly, though the writers from time to time
emphasize the class differences within the core group of characters, the sorts
of issues about class and status-consciousness that colored the series' first
season, are for the most part wholly glossed over by the second season as the
Walshes have somehow become more "at ease" with Beverly Hills.

     But still, we have to consider that which is simply not permissible in the
L.A. that the _90210_ writers have so carefully constructed.  You have no doubt
noticed that I have yet to really mention the female characters of _90210_:
Brenda, Kelly, Donna and, occupying a different space in the text as the token
intellectual in the group, Andrea.  Rather, it is the young male characters,
their styles, activities focus the nostalgia subtext of the series.  Not
surprisingly, the nostalgia subtext of the series implies a gendered hegemony
in which the existence of the female characters is determined by their
re-action to the actions of the male characters, be they boyfriends, fathers,
stepfathers, or just-friends, and by the clothes that they wear.  In the
contexts of the series, contemporary female adolescent ambition has been easily
clawed back into "nice girls'" nearly exclusive obsessions with romance and
fashion.  What/who cannot exist, then, in the _90210_ world?  Brandon's "fatal
attraction" Emily Valentine, the dark side of postmodern teendom incarnate,
that's who.  The development and resolution of the Brandon Walsh-Emily
Valentine romance is a crystal-clear example of the ideological implications of
the "nostalgia" subtext of the series.

     When viewers last saw Emily Valentine, Brandon was paying her a Christmas
visit in a mental hospital.  When we first saw Emily Valentine, she was riding
up to the doors of West Beverly Hills High School on her motorcycle.  At this
time, September 1991, _90210_ was at the height of its popularity.  Emily
Valentine had short, tousled, bleached blonde hair with dark roots, she dressed
butch, was sexually aggressive, wore interesting earrings, turned both Dylan
and Brandon on and, in short, was the only character on the show who might
reasonably be expected to know the names of all the members of L7.  Emily, we
learned had a very un-Walshlike upbringing.  Many of her emotional problems
resulted from having been bounced from city to city, from Cambridge, to San
Francisco, to L.A. to San Francisco, et cetera, whenever her father, identified
only as an editor of radical newspapers and journals, took a new job.  Emily,
then, was coded as a nightmare child of the Sixties generation, as a "bad"
postmodern teen.

     Nowhere in the series is the conservative function of show's nostalgia
subtext more clearly illustrated in the 11.14.91 episode, "U4EA," in which
Emily leads "the gang" on an excursion away from the safety of The Peach Pit
into what is supposed to represent the druggy bowels of the LA club scene.  The
clip that I'm going to show you now highlights the way that this episode set up
the contrast between the safety of _90210_-world and "the real world."  (CLIP) 
Later in the episode, Emily slips Brandon some Ecstasy (or U4EA) under the
pretense of "bringing them closer together."  Brandon indeed experiences
extreme U4EA, but ends up having to abandon his car outside the club when the
joint is raided.  When he and Dylan return for it early the next morning (even
hung-over, Brandon must be at work at the Peach Pit by 7AM), they find the '65
Mustang trashed and stripped.  Moral: contemporary or "postmodern" LA is a
dangerous place.  This moral is emphasized over the next couple of episodes
when Emily goes into _Fatal Attraction_ mode after Brandon breaks it off with
her for dosing him.  After she threatens to self-immolate on the Homecoming
Float parked in the Walshes driveway, Emily finds herself in the custody of
mental health professionals and that is that.

     The gang goes back to The Peach Pit and back to the beach where they
remain, more or less firmly anchored to this day, even as the series, now in
slow decline, has become more conventionally soap opera-like in its emphases. 
For example, in a juicy little intertextual bit from this past season's
Brenda-Dylan-Kelly love triangle, we saw Dylan and Kelly frolic la James Dean
and Natalie Wood (or is it la the video for that Paula Abdul song) outside
Griffith Observatory.

     If we accept Fiske's and Hartley's assertion that the bardic utterances of
television drama are organized and encoded "according to the needs of the
culture for whose eyes and ears they are intended," and that the conventions of
seeing and knowing that govern individual dramas code and (re)produce a
culture's assumptions about the nature of reality or anxieties about the nature
of "reality," then the realism of _90210_ is a fascinating realism.  It is a
dual realism.  As a topical, and "meaningful" youthcult television series,
_90210_ faithfully and pleasurably addresses issues of great concern to a
teenage and young adult audience coming of age in a postmodern moment.  But in
a peculiarly postmodern fashion, the realism of the series turns back on itself
to reveal that the mode in which television as a mediator of the postmodern
chooses to deal with the postmodern and specifically with postmodern youth
culture is le mode retro, a mode that implies inertia and containment, the end
of ideology, politics, history.  A mode that implies a flat-line panic about
the future.  This, for me, is the troubling thing about the "realism" of
 _______  __________________________________________________________________
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  .ooM   |Copyright (c) 1994 cDc communications and Crystal Kile.           |
\_______/|All Rights Reserved.                               07/01/1994-#262|