Monday, August 27, 2012

Beverly Hills 90210 outsiders


The original Beverly Hills 90210 is my guilty pleasure. The show’s concept works: a rich kid’s mix of Afterschool Specials and daytime soap opera. The Hollywood location always kept me from taking this too seriously, and the writing was great for what it was. The first two seasons were very issue-oriented and like afterschool specials, they often had an agenda or message. But into the third season, and for the rest of its run, it turned into full time soap. However, this was soap at its best: like Dynasty for young adults. Watching it as a teenager in the 1990’s seemed strange because actors such as Luke Perry seemed way too old to be in High School. In fact, Perry was about 27 years old when he was supposed to be playing the 17 year old character Dylan. These characters not only looked older, they acted older. Sex is casual and rampant in 90210. In retrospect, these details don’t bother me so much. Now that I am older than these actors were, I find it easier to fully indulge in the world of these well-developed characters. Where I was once reluctant to watch past Season 4 (the post High-School and post Brenda years), I now find that the later seasons are equally as enjoyable.

Part of what makes 90210 such an amazing series is its complexity. More so than shows that would follow in its footsteps, such as Dawson’s Creek, there were over ten main characters and viewers got to know them all intimately. The original group of friends in Beverly Hills 90210 is a nearly impenetrable, exclusive clique. Members included Brandon and Brenda Walsh, Kelly Taylor, Steve Sanders, Andrea Zuckerman, Dylan McKay, Donna Martin and David Silver. Their lives centered around romance, friendship and meeting significant others. All have plenty of money and despite their personal problems and complex relationships, none of them appear to have to hold down jobs (Brandon is the exception; Brandon can do anything!). Other young adults who attempt to permeate this group, don’t fare as well. I find these auxiliary characters fascinating. These tragic outsider characters are what keep the show interesting for me.

Brandon Walsh is the star and conscience of the show. In the first episode, his parents move to 90210 from Minnesota with him and his sister. His “all-american” abilities enable him to penetrate the inner circle of the elite. He is as much an icon to the 1990’s as Ferris Bueller was to the 1980’s. Brandon is the guy that everyone loves even though he’s more preppy than rebel. His best friends balance out his leanings towards perfection. Dylan is the brooding loner and Steve is the party-animal jock. The multitude of relationships that these characters have help bring new blood to the show. However, none of these outsider characters are able to cope with Beverly Hill’s beautiful crowd quite so easily.

Emily Valentine (played by Christine Elise), from Season 2 for example, nearly goes insane in the process of trying to fit in. The insecure Valentine drugs Brandon at a rave. Then, after attempting to torch herself, along with a parade float, she spends time in a mental hospital. Brandon still holds a place in his heart for this “bad girl” though and their romance is almost rekindled briefly in Season 4 and 5 after Emily begins to pull her life together and find some direction.

Another one of Brandon’s many girlfriends that I loved was Nikki Witt (Dana Barron) from Season 3. Barron is an actress that is most well known for her role in National Lampoon’s Vacation as Audrey Griswold. One of the things that now fascinates me about 90210 is how many of the actors/actresses were about 5 or 6 years older than the parts they were playing. Nikki is supposed to be a younger character (a High School Sophomore/ approximately 15) but in Season 3 (1992) the real life Barron was actually 26 years old! If Emily valentine was the “bad girl”, Nikki Witt was the more free-spirited hippy type. Her character was from San Francisco and Brandon saves her from a dangerous ex-boyfriend who nearly rapes her. Nikki is witty enough to almost become part of the group but unfortunately it was not to be and Season 3 was her last. Strangely, Dana Barron also appeared in a commercial for Trojan condoms around this time.

The intelligent vixen character that lasts is Valerie Malone (Tiffani Thiessen, known for her role as in Kelly in Saved By the Bell) who first appears in Season 5 to replace the hole left by Brenda’s (Shannen Doherty’s) departure. Along with Brian Austin Green (who plays David Silver) and Tori Spelling (Donna), Thiessen is the only one of the gang who is in close proximity to the age of the character she is playing and looks it. I was at first reluctant to watch the show after Brenda’s departure. However, I eventually found Valerie to be a much more interesting character. She added a lot of drama to the show in her attempts to have relationships with most of the leading men in Season 5 and 6 including Dylan, Brandon, Ray and David. At first it is the fact that Valerie is so manipulative that she is able to force her way into the group. Eventually though, she must learn to prove herself and act outside of her vindictive nature.

Unfortunately, other characters are not as strong or fortunate. Two characters are killed off after coming close to the group. These include the unfortunate Scott Sandlin, who accidentally kills himself in Season 2. And then there is Antonia Marchette, Dylan’s love interest from Season 6. The two are wed and the next day she is shot and killed.

Probably the most long-running outsider character on the show is Ray Pruit. Played by Jamie Walters, Pruit was Donna Martin’s boyfriend throughout Season 5 and the beginning of Season 6. Donna first notices Ray working construction while she is a student at California University. She tries to include him in a video she is making for a school project. When he realizes that the video is a joke that will possibly make him look stupid, he is immediately defensive. Donna is sympathetic when she realizes that Ray is deep and not just a “hot bod”.

In the show, Ray is a musician and his sensitive side comes out in his music. The actor who played Ray, Jamie Walters, landed the role right after starring in the short lived (1 season) show The Heights from 1992. The Heights was about a rock and roll band. Walters sung the title song “How Do You talk to an Angel” that became a number one hit. Recast as a musician in 90210, Walters had all the makings of a teen idol, perhaps a Ricky Nelson for the 1990s. His songs were featured in several episodes and outside of the show, he even began touring with a band.

I like Jamie Walters as an actor and his music isn’t half bad either, so it’s kind of a shame that fate didn’t shine on him. In the show Ray has a bit of a brutal past that appeared foreign to the 90210 clique. His father was abusive, his mother was an alcoholic and Ray, who never went to college, holds two jobs. He works construction and on his family farm while still trying to maintain integrity as a songwriter.



Throughout Ray and Donna’s relationship it is obvious that he has a deep love for her. However, this does not come without its problems. He often feels spiteful to her friends who view him as a bad influence. Also Ray’s abusive past makes him act aggressive with Donna at times. This becomes a more serious issue in the show when Ray’s aggression lends itself to Donna falling down a set of stairs and breaking her arm. Ray also has a brief affair with Valerie, who comes onto him. Ray is never happy about this because his connection with Valerie is mostly due to his frustration over his non-sexual relationship with Donna. He tries to keep the affair a secret. However after Donna eventually finds out, she gets a new boyfriend and Ray is again the terminal outsider. For a few episodes he is portrayed as a stalker, trying to win back Donna’s affection until he is gone from the program completely.

Despite his issues, I actually found Ray an endearing character that gets the short end of the stick, so to speak, in this series. Ray came far in trying to deal with his problems and making a career for himself as an artist. He could be violent at times, but for the most part he was very sweet. What he lacked in humor, he made up in sensitivity. In some ways Ray Pruit reminds me of James Dean. He is a rebel without a cause motivated by love and a troubled past. He never quite fit into the glamorous lifestyle of the other members of the exclusive 90210 clique. But for a while he lived there, and he did okay.

Other members of the clique had their own issues. And I’m not saying that Ray’s aggressive behavior towards Donna was at all justifiable. But certainly Ray never went over the edge the way Dylan did. Dylan acts far more despicable in Season 5 where he engages in multiple accounts of casual sex, uses Valerie, becomes addicted to drugs and alcohol, begins collecting firearms and throws tantrums at those he is closest to. If Dylan was redeemed in the eyes of the elite 90210 clique, then why not Ray? Is it because his character was poor in comparison and not from Beverly Hills? If this is the case, then as a viewer Ray gets my sympathy. To the credit of the writers, Ray does make a brief appearance in Season 7, having worked out most of his issues in therapy and appearing more well-adjusted.

In 1999, Walter’s had this to say about his role as Ray Pruit “At first he was this sort of underdog. He was this guy from the wrong side of the town, who didn't fit in with the Beverly Hills kids but he had his music and he was honest and all this stuff. And then they started twisting him into being this abusive evil boyfriend. I was like you either have to change the character or you have to let me off the show, because I'm going out and I'm like trying to sell tickets on our tour, and there's teenage girls out there who think, like they really think I'm an abusive guy you know, and they'd hold up signs saying like 'leave Donna alone' and that's so not what I wanted".

Beverly Hills 90210 was such a terrific show because even within the clique, we got to see the characters in depth and multi-faceted. As a viewer you learn to love the characters even through their toughest times. Examples of this would be when Kelly joins a cult or becomes addicted to drugs. Or when David Silver finds out that his mother is homeless. I even found at some point that I liked the character of Steve, even though he is a typical “bone head jock”, he is nevertheless still interesting and complex in his own way. I feel that Ray could’ve become such a character, given the chance. Out of all the characters that came and went on the show, he seemed to have the most potential. As a character from “the other side of the tracks” he brought something fresh to the program.

In short: the original Beverly Hills 90210 was an addicting and total watchable show.
That being said, Jamie Walters as Ray Pruitt was in this writer’s opinion a discard treasure.

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