Recombinant Realism/Caliutopian Re-Dreaming: Beverly Hills 90210 as Nostalgia Television
Issue #8, October 1993
'Polaroid baby, Polaroid baby, We're so white and we're so cute.'
— Bratmobile, 'Polaroid Baby'
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 such concepts as 'the metaphoric real world displayed on television does not display the real world, but displaces it' (Fiske & Hartley, Reading Television 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' (24), seem to be 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's not like Saved By The Bell; 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). Still, the majority of my students follow the series and report an investment in some aspect of the show.
Wherever the 90210 debate takes place, from the classroom and the pages of Entertainment Weekly and Vanity Fair, to the 90210 newsgroups/mailing lists on the Internet and CompuServe, this debate 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 should.
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. 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 is 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 Nathaniel West to Joan Didion to Black Flag, it is apocalyptic. As a cult youthcult text, it elicited alarm among certain literary critics. In what was perhaps the most extreme panic response to the novel/this genre, University of Georgia professor Sanford Pinsker's wondered in a 1986 Georgia Review article, '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 popular 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 to save his friends from coke and nihilism. His coke/heroin addicted childhood friend, beyond redemption, dies at the end of the story, but the hero's girlfriend goes back East with him to be purified by romantic love in a less noxious setting. 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 (one of the series' stars) 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?  is about family values, but from all different aspect ratios.' 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 pere, 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.' The first season intro/titles sequence was a montage composed of shots of famous and notorious sites around Beverly Hills and character-establishing shots emphasizing the 'Walsh'/non-'Walsh' tension of the show. 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 'naturalized'?
I subscribe that the popular genius of 90210 is that while it is superficially topical-n-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 revisioning 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 childrearing, 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 90210, 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 find the series' 'fish out of water' intro/titles sequence replaced by one that drew on each and every Beach Boys-inspired Caliutopian cliche. 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 cheezy 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, a 'nostalgia car' if there ever was one, to replace 'Mondale,' the Ford LTD beater that he totaled during the first season in the '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 foregrounded as a site of action, sort of like the way that 'Arnold's' was in Happy Days. The fifties-ish 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 episodes being 'the Rodney King episode' in which a young black man is brutally harassed by the Beverly Hills 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. The post-LA riots episode in which West Beverly Hills High officials, operating from 'fear of racial violence,' cancel a football game against a South Central high school that West Beverly Hills High is to host, is an excellent example of the series nostalgia-warped politics of containment: students from both high schools prove that they can 'all get along' by mixing without incident at a WBHS sock-hop cum rap concert organized by Brandon and Brenda Walsh. While the 'Other' may get the occasional guest spot on the series, he or she is summarily excised after he/she has taught the 90210ers some lesson about life. Such has been the fate not only of black characters, but of Chicana characters, gay characters, disabled characters, and merely geeky characters. 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.
This brings us to the 'women of 90210: Brenda, Kelly, Donna and, occupying a different space in the text as the token intellectual in the group, at least nominally, Andrea. Notice that it is the young male characters and their styles and activities that focus the nostalgia subtext — the pleasure — of the series. The nostalgia subtext of the series implies a studied, regulated, 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, brothers, fathers, stepfathers, or just-friends. In the contexts of the series, contemporary female adolescent ambition has been easily clawed back into a reactionary space focused on 'nice girls'' nearly exclusive obsessions with romance, the latest fashions, and quiet self-sacrifice. Even ambitious Andrea foregoes Yale to attend California University with her friends. The girl who cannot exist, then, in the 90210 world is a character like Brandon's 'fatal attraction' Emily Valentine, the 'dark side' of postmodern teendom incarnate. 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, in September 1991, 90210 was at the height of its popularity and she was riding up to the doors of West Beverly Hills High School on her motorcycle. This character had short, tousled, bleached blonde hair with dark roots, dressed butch, was sexually aggressive, wore interesting earrings, turned both Dylan and Brandon on (and all of the girls off) 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, viewers learned, had a very un-Walshlike upbringing. It was implied that 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 the show's nostalgia subtext more clearly illustrated than in the 'U4EA' episode, 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 first half of the episode sets up the contrast between the safety of 90210-world and the obvious threats to 'the gang' once they cross the boundary into a more contemporary moment. 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 emphasisized 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 the third season's Brenda-Dylan-Kelly love triangle, Kelly-n-Dylan frolic like James Dean and Natalie Wood (or is it like Keanu Reeves and Paula Abdul!?) outside Griffith Observatory.
It is already clear that the writers intend to work the nostalgia subtext of the series to ease the characters' transition from high school to college. The fourth season episodes that have aired so far this year have featured an especially intrusive 'oldies' soundtrack and have seen three principal characters (all college freshmen, mind you) move permanently to a much-too-chic beach house which promises to be the site of much hard-edged Sandra Dee movie-esque action.
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. A mode that works beautifully, mythologically speaking, to contain such distressing little blip-threats as the L.A. riots. This is the troubling and the illuminating thing about the 'realism' of 90210.
Crystal Kile is a doctoral fellow in the American Culture Studies Program at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. She is currently at work on a dissertation titled 'Girls Can Do Anything!: Women Coming of Age in America, 1970-1990.'
(This paper was originally presented at the 1993 National Meeting of the Popular Culture Association.)