This week marks the 25th anniversary of Beverly Hills, 90210, which debuted on October 4th, 1990 on the then-fledgling Fox network. A primetime soap opera aimed specifically at teens, it ostensibly chronicled twins Brandon (Jason Priestly) and Brenda (Shannon Doherty) Walsh and their family as they adjusted to life in posh Beverly Hills after relocating from suburban Minneapolis. But even from the beginning (and well after Brenda and Brandon both became well-entrenched amongst their peers), it was also as focused on addressing topical issues as it was the tumultuous and ever-changing relationships of its main characters (to varying degrees of success and subtlety). Over the course of the show’s 10 year run (it went off the air in May 2000), characters got together and broke up and made up and got back together again, and the show tackled everything from divorce to alcoholism, AIDS, adoption, eating disorders, rape, domestic abuse, infidelity, drug usage on multiple levels, and even mob violence. Along the way, it became a ratings smash, helping put Fox on the map and making teen idols out of its decidedly-not-teen stars while triggering a conversation about the level of frankness in subject matter its young-skewing audience could handle.
In celebration of the show’s 25th anniversary and its role in TV history, here is a list, in chronological order, of 25 iconic moments from the show, moments that played a significant role either in developing the show’s narrative or its impact on the TV landscape of the time. Split in two, this first half covers moments from the show’s first four seasons.
1. The Beginning: Season 1, Episode 1, “Class of Beverly Hills”
The series’ pilot episode, like most pilots, is a little rough around the edges in terms of what’s to come: the Walsh house, the most consistent and recurring set on the show, is completely different from what viewers will come to know, Brandon’s car Mondale isn’t yet Mondale, and sideburned bad boy Dylan (Luke Perry) is nowhere to be found. But the basic DNA of the show is here. The immediate hook of Midwestern siblings trying to make a go of it in the world of big houses, fast cars, and rich kids (with Brenda and Brandon’s awe at their new surroundings speaking to then-contemporary America’s fascination with the lifestyles of the rich and famous), the burgeoning relationships between most of the central characters (aside from the not-yet-introduced Dylan, still-alive Scott, and just-a-glorified-extra-at-this-point Donna), and the show’s groundbreaking, occasionally-admirable, often ham-fisted depiction of topical issues, particularly sex, which comes up in both Brandon and Brenda’s plots in the pilot.
2. Angsty Dylan Smashes a Flower Pot: Season 1, Episode 10, “Isn’t it Romantic?”
Dylan McKay, the James Dean-esque bad boy who compared himself to Byron—”mad, bad, and dangerous to know”—in his first appearance in the show’s second episode, is one of the series’ earliest breakout characters, but he existed initially only as a friend for Brandon. He doesn’t really come to be the Dylan fans know and love until the tenth episode of the series, when Dylan, angry at his oft-absent, shady financier father, over-dramatically smashes a flower pot at Brenda’s feet (in a telling display of how this show will handle big emotions going forward: as histrionically as possible). Brenda, rather than running for the hills, falls for him even harder, and the Dylan/Brenda romance is born. It becomes the signature relationship of the series (at least in the early goings), one which will, whether in its on or off mode, provide a spine to much of the series’ narrative throughout Brenda’s tenure on the show, and lead in turn to a number of other significant and notable moments.
“Isn’t It Romantic?” also introduces the series’ relatively frank approach to sex, as a subplot in the episode involves a famous actor coming to West Beverly High to give a speech during a sex ed class, and announces that she has AIDS. 90210 came of age in the midst of the AIDS crisis, and for all the buzz at the time over the show’s depiction of sex (and, to be clear, it definitely made the sex lives of its teenage characters into plot points), it also wasn’t shy about emphasizing the ramifications of sexual relationships, be they physical, mental, or emotional. Rather than glorifying teenage and pre-marital sex, the show really aimed to start a dialogue about sex, and those efforts began in earnest with this episode. The show wouldn’t always succeed in this goal, and more or less gave it up entirely as the characters grew and the show aged away from the years when there was very much a culture of fear surrounding sex, but at the time, it was willing to embrace subject matter from which most network TV shows were running.
3. Brenda and Dylan Have Sex For the First Time: Season 1, Episode 21, “Spring Dance”
The penultimate episode of season one, the titular spring dance proves to be a backdrop to a number of significant moments: a drunken Steve reveals that he was adopted, a development that will drive a handful of stories for the character throughout his high school and early college years; Brandon tells a recently-enamored Kelly, his date for the dance, that he thinks of her like a sister, a declaration which, in a surprising show of restraint on the parts of the writers, effectively sidelines that potential romantic pairing until the end of the fourth season; and we get our first inklings of the David/Donna romance (and the beginning of the deeper integration of Brian Austin Green’s David into the show overall), a relationship that in the later years will supplant the Brenda/Dylan romance as the on-again/off-again/on-again narrative spine of the show.
But most importantly, “Spring Dance” is the episode in which Brenda and Dylan have sex, bringing the show’s ongoing conversation about sexual relationships in the ’90s to the foreground as the virginal Brenda sleeps with her less-virginal boyfriend for the first time. Not only does this add a layer of complexity to their relationship, it also adds to the show’s dialogue about sex, suggesting that strict abstinence isn’t always the answer, a departure from the usual TV fare aimed at teens.
4. Summer Begins, Brenda and Dylan End: Season 2, Episode 1, “Beach Blanket Brandon”
The second season premiere is notable for two reasons. One, it marks the first significant break-up in the Brenda/Dylan romance, as Brenda experiences a pregnancy scare and realizes she isn’t ready for the emotional ramifications of a sexual relationship, in a scene that forever linked Brenda and Dylan breaking up with REM’s “Losing My Religion” in the minds of many fans. It’s also a strong statement about sexual relationships: “Spring Dance” may have suggested that pre-marital sex isn’t inherently bad, but this episode counters that by suggesting that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone, all the time, either.
Secondly, this episode first aired in July of 1991, a full three months before the launch of the traditional network TV season, kicking off a string of summer-themed episodes (set mostly at and around the Beverly Hills Beach Club, where Brandon gets a summer job and his well-off friends all have memberships) that constituted some of the only original primetime TV programming over the summer. As a result, this episode marks the beginning of the show’s rating dominance, as following strong numbers for its summer outings, it continued to rise in the ratings in the fall, improving on its mediocre first season numbers to quickly become one of Fox’s biggest hits. In doing so, it also hinted at the emergence of the year round schedule, a transition TV is in the midst of now, by suggesting that original content could find an audience (and even thrive) during the hot summer months traditionally avoided by the networks.
5. Scott Scanlon Shoots Himself: Season 2, Episode 14, “The Next 50 Years”
Following the initial string of summer episodes, 90210 found itself with a narrative structural problem: Geeky David Silver, originally paired with his pal, the equally geeky Scott Scanlon (Douglas Emerson), for much of season one, had spent the summer transitioning into the core clique of main characters. This left Scott, already bland even in comparison to David, with little narrative purpose or much of a character to build stories around. So the show took advantage of the dead-end that had become Scott Scanlon to do another “very special episode”, this one about the dangers of handguns, as Scott (who spent the summer while David was becoming cool gaining an appreciation for firearms on his uncle’s ranch in Oklahoma) accidentally kills himself with his father’s gun while showing off for David at his birthday party. The ramifications of his death are, of course, focused more on David than anyone else—fittingly, as David’s growing characterization is what led to Scott’s irrelevancy and ultimate death in the first place, and the first departure of a series regular from the show.
6. Spinoff: Season 2, Episode 28, “Wedding Bell Blues”
The second season finale is once again filled with more relationship drama. In the wake of Kelly’s mom marrying David’s dad (thus cementing David’s place within the group and making him step-brother to the girl he creepily ogled throughout most of the first season), Brenda’s father Jim (James Eckhouse) forbids Brenda from seeing Dylan following a trip to Mexico that Jim had earlier expressly forbidden, prompting Dylan to angstily race away from the wedding. But “Wedding Bell Blues” also marked the end of Grant Show’s brief tenure on the show as Jake, a carpenter acquaintance of Dylan’s and brief love interest for Kelly, a tenure that was setting up the first 90210 spin-off, where Jake would be a regular: Melrose Place. It served as an indication of just how far the show had come, becoming such a ratings juggernaut that it could be used to launch a new series, one which applies the 90210 model of social topicality and frankness to the relationships woes of attractive twenty-somethings instead of teens (and in doing so, looking an awful lot like what 90210 would become years later, after the characters graduated from college).
7. “I choose you.”: Season 3, Episode 19, “Back in the High Life Again”
Following their tumultuous trip to Mexico, and a brief period of teenaged rebellion-inspired and ill-conceived co-habitation, Brenda and Dylan spent most of season three’s summer episode apart: Brenda in Paris with Donna (and a hunky American played by Dean Cain) and Dylan on the beach with Kelly, in a storyline that found Brenda’s boyfriend and her best friend developing feelings for another. Before long, 90210 had on its hands that most stalwart of soap opera plotlines, the love triangle, as Dylan was forced to choose between Brenda and Kelly. Later in the season, after milking the triangle for all it was worth, Dylan did just that, surprising fans by choosing Kelly over Brenda. In the process, the central romantic paradigm of the series was uprooted, and a new “one true pairing” was introduced, that of Dylan and Kelly, a pairing which, thanks to Shannon Doherty’s eventual departure from the series, ran even longer and became more twisty and turny (not resolving until the very end of the series, in fact) than that of Dylan and Brenda.
8. Dylan’s Dad Explodes: Season 3, Episode 21, “Dead End”
Arguably the show’s biggest cop to its soap opera roots occurred later in the third season when Dylan, long-estranged from his father Jack (Josh Taylor)—who had been jailed earlier in the series for financial crimes—is given an opportunity to reconnect with his dad thanks to an early parole and a newfound desire on Jack’s part to make up for lost time. However it turns out Jack’s release is predicated on his testifying against his old mob buddies, which leads to Dylan’s reunion with his father being tragically cut short when Jack is seemingly killed by a car bomb. It’s outlandish and over-the-top (Luke Perry literally falls to his knees in the scene, clenching his fists in sorrow and rage), but it is memorable, and the creative team wisely gives the event its due, making the act of grieving for Dylan a plot point over the course of several episodes rather than quickly blowing past it.
9. “Donna Martin graduates!”: Season 3, Episode 28, “Something in the Air”
Arguably, no moment from 90210 is more seared into the pop culture zeitgeist than “Donna Martin graduates!”. After Donna (Tori Spelling) is caught drunk at the senior prom in the previous episode, she is immediately suspended and barred from graduation due to a new no tolerance rule that was put into effect before the dance. This incites her friends to action, who organize a protest and convince the entire senior class to walk out on finals, marching on the school board and demanding that, well, Donna Martin graduates, or none of them do (their argument essentially boils down to the new rule, which was meant to stamp down on repeat offenders, simply catching the wrong person at the wrong time, that Donna is receiving too harsh a punishment for one mistake).
In the process, the episode makes both subtle and overt allusions to the protest era of the ’60s and the Vietnam War. To adults, their protest comes across as deeply ridiculous, the allusions to the protests against Vietnam only heightening that sense, as the teens’ argument essentially boils down to, “our friend knowingly broke a rule, but she’s really nice and our friend, so she doesn’t deserve to be punished” (the continued arguments for Donna’s inherent goodness in this episode is also made more eye-rolling when recalling that she’s played by series creator Aaron Spelling’s daughter), which is in no way an approximation of the issues surrounding the protests of the ’60s. But to adolescents watching at the time, chants of “Donna Martin graduates!” gave a sense of righteous indignation, cheering from home as their favorite characters stood up against the perceived oppressions of the adult world.
10. Graduation: Season 3, Episodes 29 & 30, “Commencement”
Though by no means a surprise (the show had been building up to it over the course of much of the third season), “Commencement” affirms something that wasn’t necessarily a given at the time: that the characters (played by actors who, for the most part, were already well past their teen years) would continue to grow up, and that the show would leave behind the familiar trappings of West Beverly High that had served as the backdrop to much of the series thus far. In doing so, “Commencement” opens the door to more adult stories, as the characters enter college and, eventually, outright adulthood, and in the process, gradually moving the series away from its initial “teen drama” template and towards a more traditional soap opera format.
11. David Does Drugs: Season 4, Episode 16, “Crunch Time”
Prior to the show’s fourth season, drug abuse had been addressed before, but mostly off on the side: Kelly’s mother was an occasionally-relapsing alcoholic and cocaine user, while Dylan’s alcoholism was an established part of his character from the get-go that occasionally reared its head (such as when his father died). But “Crunch Time” marks the first time one of the central characters of the show gets embroiled in a drug abuse storyline head-on, as David gets hooked on crystal meth in order to keep up with his college workload. It’s the first of what would become several drug abuse storylines on the show, as everyone from Kelly (cocaine) to Dylan (cocaine and heroin) to Donna (prescription meds) would eventually get saddled with drug addictions.
12. Goodbye Brenda: Season 4, Episodes 31 & 32, “Mr. Walsh Goes to Washington”
The fourth season finale could arguably fill one fifth of this list alone. In the two-parter, Andrea (Gabrielle Carteris) completes her transformation away from the frumpy, book-ish geek pining after Brandon when she gives birth to her daughter (a plot development written in at the request of Carteris to accommodate her real-life pregnancy), David and Donna, the romantic rock of 90210 for the last several seasons, break up after David, unable to handle Donna’s insistence on waiting for marriage to have sex, cheats on her with a record company executive, Brandon and Kelly, a romantic pairing effectively shelved since season one’s “Spring Dance”, become a couple after the latest end to Kelly and Dylan’s relationship, thus launching a new romantic relationship that would become central to the show over the next four seasons, and Dylan loses his millions-of-dollars trust fund after signing it over to a pair of con artists.
But the biggest moment of the episode is the departure of Shannon Doherty, effectively one of the show’s co-leads and one of the series’ biggest stars at the time (with Brenda being written out by leaving Beverly Hills to attend a prestigious drama school in London), marking the first significant cast departure from the series. It won’t be the last time one of the main characters leaves the show, even one as seemingly-integral to the series as Brenda (in fact, by the time the show ends, the entire Walsh family, so important to the narrative when it began, will be gone), but her exit at the time was definitely a big deal, one which left the future of the show particularly uncertain, arguably even moreso than the graduation at the end of the previous season did. Could the show continue without Brenda? If so, how would it fill the void she left behind? More than anything else setup by the momentous fourth season finale, those were the questions on fans’ minds as the series entered its fifth year.
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