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25 Iconic Moments From Beverly Hills, 90210: Part 2

25 Iconic Moments From Beverly Hills, 90210: Part 2

Continuing the celebration of Beverly Hills, 90210‘s thirtieth anniversary this month, here are the final 13 iconic moments, covering the show’s later years, in which its most notable events involve the departures of major characters as the show transforms into a more traditional primetime soap opera.

13. Valerie arrives in Beverly Hills: Season 5, Episode 1, “What I Did On My Summer Vacation and Other Stories”

Valerie lights up

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With the onset of the fifth season of Beverly Hills, 90210, the producers of the show found themselves needing to fill the void left behind by Shannon Doherty’s departure. To do so, they tapped Tiffani Amber-Thiessen, fresh off her iconic role as Kelly Kapowski on Saved by the Bell (the kind of squeaky-clean, brightly-colored, no-consequences teen show that 90210, in its early existence, was actively working in contrast against) to play Valerie Malone, an old friend of the Walshes transplanted from Buffalo, NY to Beverly Hills. And for the first 50 minutes of the episode, Valerie seems like a carbon copy of season one Brenda, friendly and sincere, with an aw-shucks take on her posh new surroundings that seems designed to rehash the show’s initial “fish out of water in Beverly Hills” days. But then, in the episode’s final act, after a day of playing tourist and meeting all of Brandon’s friends, Valerie retires to Brenda’s old room to light up a joint and call a friend in Buffalo, rolling her eyes at the square people and corny household she’s found herself in, and the message is clear: Valerie isn’t the best of Brenda, she’s the worst. Valerie would proceed to spend most of her time on the show oscillating between “sympathetic villain” and “scenery-chewing vamp”, an antagonist as often as a protagonist, bringing a unique and more soapy energy to the show that defined much of its later years.

14. House Fire: Season 5, Episode 13, “Up in Flames”

Up in Flames

As 90210 grew older and its characters aged along with it, the show became more and more soapy, as increasingly outlandish plots were used to generate buzzy storylines in place of traditional teen drama plots and “very special episodes”. One of the biggest such moments, and one that had a significant impact on the course of season five, occurs when a house in which Steve (Ian Ziering) is throwing a rave (the culmination of his season-long ambition of becoming some kind of nightclub impresario) catches fire and Kelly is trapped inside, leading to her being severely burned before rescue arrives. In the short term, the house fire effectively ends Steve’s nightclub arc and, later, plays a part in the end of Brandon and Kelly’s relationship, but more importantly, the event signifies a shift for the show, an embrace of its soapy roots as it turns more and more to big, shocking events to generate buzz and keep viewers watching.

15. The Peach Pit After Dark opens its doors: Season 5, Episode 17, “Sweating It Out”

Peach Pit After Dark

The Peach Pit—a ’50s-style diner that served as Brandon’s place of employment and a non-school hangout for the gang during the high school years—had been a part of the series since its earliest days, with its owner/operator, Nat (Joe E. Tata), featured as a recurring guest star and non-parental authority figure for the kids (in later seasons, Tata would be made a series regular, featured in the opening credits) and even occasionally getting his own storylines (to mixed results). But in season five, with the characters well-entrenched in college, a new, more adult hangout was needed, and the Peach Pit After Dark was born, an extension of the diner transformed into an after hours dance club in part by the fire-thwarted ambitions of Steve. Through the years, ownership and management of the After Dark would pass from character to character in increasingly laughable degrees; at one time or another, Nat, Dylan, Valerie, David, and late-season addition Noah Hunter (Vincent Young) all own or operate the place.

But more significant than its role as a new hangout for the gang was the avenue it opened up for the show’s producers: Making a night club a recurring venue for the characters meant the show could book musical guests to play on its stage, giving the marketing department another way to bring eyes to the show as it hawked appearances by musicians ranging from Barenaked Ladies to Luther Vandross to the Corrs to Christina Aguilera, and many more. As a result, the margins of 90210‘s later years serve as a kind of time capsule of popular ’90s music.

16. Kelly joins a cult: Season 5, Episode 21, “Stormy Weather”

Beverly Hills 90210 - Cult

The culmination of the aftermath of Kelly’s experience in “Up in Flames”, this episode focuses on Brandon’s efforts to free Kelly from the control of a charismatic psychology professor who has essentially created a cult from within California University. It’s another outlandish, soapy plotline for the series, but also marks the effective return of Dylan to the series (who spent most of the season thus far in an increasingly drug-induced stupor, the fallout from his having lost his fortune at the end of season four). Having sobered up and retrieved his money from the crooks who stole it, Dylan joins Brandon in his efforts to rescue Kelly and in doing so, reintegrates himself into the series as something other than a drugged-out waste for the first time since the previous season.

17. “I choose me.”: Season 5, Episode 30, “Hello Life, Goodbye Beverly Hills”

Beverly Hills 90210 - I Choose Me

The climax of both the first Brandon/Kelly relationship cycle (they’d get back together again—and break up again—later in the series) and the latest ride on the Dylan/Kelly relationship merry-go-round, both guys come to Kelly with a proposition: Brandon, of marriage, Dylan, with a trip around the world. Essentially put in the inverse of the situation she was in when Dylan chose her over Brenda back in season three, Kelly turns both men down, saying she instead chooses herself, vowing to spend some time single to better know herself following the traumatic events of the season. A decidedly empowered decision, it nonetheless did little to please the ‘shippers in either camp, and was completely undone almost immediately when, in the premiere of the following season three episodes later, the dictates of soap operatic plotting had Kelly return from a summer of finding herself with an entirely new boyfriend.

This episode also marks the final regular appearance of Andrea, the second main original cast member to leave the series. The character, who was married with an infant daughter, had already moved so much further afield of the rest of the characters that her departure didn’t have nearly the impact on the show that Brenda’s did.

18. Goodbye Jim and Cindy: Season 5, Episodes 31 & 32, “PS I love You”

Beverly Hills 90210 - Jim and Cindy

The fifth season finale mostly deals with the fallout of Kelly’s decision in “Hello Life, Goodbye Beverly Hills”, as well as Dylan’s quest to learn more about the man who killed his father and an escalation in the abusive relationship between Donna and Ray (Jamie Walters, a musician/actor who made the most of the After Dark’s role on the show). But it’s mostly significant for featuring the final regular appearance of Brandon and Brenda’s parents, Jim (James Eckhouse) and Cindy (Carol Potter) on the show. Long relegated to a supporting role (the couple headlined only one episode, early in season one) but given increasingly less screen time as the main characters left high school and went to college, both actors declined to renew their initial five year contracts with the show. With the series becoming more and more adult, it made sense to write out the traditional authority figures (although some questionable logic allowed for Brandon and his friends to continue staying in the family house, so as to not deny the show its signature and most stable setting), but it nonetheless marks a significant moment in the show’s transformation away from a teen drama and into a more traditional soap opera.

19. Dylan leaves: Season 6, Episode 10, “One Wedding and a Funeral”

Beverly Hills 90210 - Dylan leaves

One half of the show’s most famous and popular coupling, once Brenda left, Dylan probably wasn’t long for the show. Luke Perry outlasted Shannon Doherty by a season, but by the beginning of the show’s sixth season, the process of writing him out began (the actor reportedly left the show in search of more mature roles), as Dylan met and fell in love with Toni (Rebecca Gayheart), the daughter of the man who ordered the hit on Dylan’s father back in season three. Originally planning to use Toni to get at her father, Dylan eventually buried the hatchet and tried to move on as he fell for Toni, and with Dylan’s time on the show running out fast, the two characters quickly married. But her father refused to see her with Dylan and put out a hit on him instead. In a deeply soap operatic twist, it ended up being Toni, driving Dylan’s car, who was slain by her father’s assassin, leading Dylan, awash in grief, to leave Beverly Hills behind, seemingly for good.

20. David & Donna have sex: Season 7, Episodes 31 & 32, “Graduation Day”

Beverly Hills 90210 - Graduation Day

The finale of the seventh season marks another turning point for the show. Like “Commencement” in season three, it transitions the characters out of one status quo and into another, but given that this transition takes them out of college and into full-on adulthood, it also marks the end of any pretense on the show’s part of being anything but a straightforward primetime soap opera, all but indistinguishable in style and structure from spinoff series Melrose Place (which also chronicled the lives of attractive twenty-somethings in California). Even though the previous seasons had featured plenty of increasingly adult and soap-operatic plotlines, the show could still technically claim it was chronicling the lives of students and twenty-somethings in different situations than adults, chiefly defined by their jobs. But that pretense, however flimsy, ended with this episode.

Tied in with that evolution is the fact that this episode also features the first time the show’s now most prominent recurring couple, David and Donna, have sex, thus ending Donna’s longstanding objection to pre-marital sex. While the decision certainly made sense for Donna, by making the one character remaining with a unique perspective on sexual relationships just like everyone else, the show essentially ended its ongoing conversation about sex in the ’90s, a conversation that had defined the show thus far, both narratively and in terms of its reputation. One later-season AIDS-scare aside, the series was, from this point on, essentially done talking about sex and depicting ramifications of sexual relationships in any terms other than plot-related ones (i.e., who was sleeping with whom and why), thus stripping away one more thing that made the series both notable and unique.

21. The Last of the Walshes: Season 9, Episode 5, “Brandon Leaves”

Beverly Hills 90210 - Brandon leaves

When 90210 began, it was the story of one Midwestern family adjusting to life in posh Beverly Hills at the start of the ’90s. Then Brenda left at the end of season four, and her parents followed suit at the end of season five. Eight episodes into season nine, it was Brandon’s turn (the character left Beverly Hills to take a reporting job out east), and suddenly, the only thing left of the Walshes, the characters around whom the entire series was built, was their signature house (which, with a little hand-waving dialogue by Brandon on his way out the door, was left in the care of Steve). While the fish-out-water stories had long ago run their course (essentially by the end of the first season), the ever-diminishing-in-number Walshes remained central to the show’s narrative and the departure of the last one left a hole in the show that it would spend the remainder of its time trying to fill (to varying degrees of success).

22. The Return of Dylan: Season 9, Episode 7, “You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello”

Beverly Hills 90210 - Dylan returns

Two episodes after Brandon left the show, the series reclaimed if not one of the Walshes, then arguably its most popular character when Luke Perry, reportedly for financial reasons, returned to the series. Billed as a “Special Guest Star” every week, he would stick it out to the very end of the series this time. By by this point, the law of diminishing returns had set in, and most of the stories the character was given were simply rehashes of earlier ones, including another round of substance abuse stories and the return of his on-again/off-again relationship with Kelly. But having Dylan around again, even in a warmed over capacity and without Brenda, was enough to shore up the interest of longtime fans in the show’s final years.

23. Steve and Janet Get Married: Season 10, Episode 8, “Baby, You Can Drive My Car”

Beverly Hills 90210 - Steve & janet Wedding

For most of 90210‘s run, Steve was Brandon’s horndog friend, a well-meaning doofus who nevertheless found himself making one poor decision after another: breaking into the high school to change his grades, stealing a term paper from Brandon and passing it off as his own, transforming the newspaper he launched with Brandon into a tabloid rag. But with Brandon gone and the returned Dylan slotted back into his traditional “rebel without a cause” role, Steve more or less by default became the closest thing the show had to a traditional leading man, and nothing signifies that transformation so much as this episode, in which he marries his pregnant girlfriend, Janet (Lindsay Price). Shortly thereafter, their daughter was born and the former frat boy goof-off would spend the remainder of the series as a relatively low-key family man, one of the few characters to actually figure it all out and find lasting happiness on-screen.

24. The Return of Jack McKay: Season 10, Episode 18, “Eddie Waitkus”

Beverly Hills 90210 - Eddie Waitkus

As the series neared its conclusion more or less fully disconnected from anything resembling its initial premise for a good three years, there were plenty of moments along the way that could be considered “shark jumping” moments, ones that saw the series becoming little more than a traditional soap opera: Valerie blackmailing a married man with whom she had an affair, Kelly getting shot and then developing amnesia, Noah getting kidnapped and held for ransom, Matt (Daniel Cosgrove) revealing that he’s actually married, to a woman living in a mental hospital. But easily the biggest shark-jump of all occurs when Dylan learns that his father, who seemingly blew up in season three, faked his death and entered the Witness Protection Program. The sudden return of a long-thought-dead character is a retcon that comes right out of page one of the soap opera/serialized fiction playbook, and nothing signifies the end of the show’s transformation into a full-on soap opera better than the return of Jack McKay.

25. David and Donna Get Married: Season 10, Episode 27, “Ode to Joy”

Beverly Hills 90210 - David & DOnna Weddin

By the time 90210‘s series finale aired in May of 2000, the show was a shadow of its former self, all pretense at any level of social relevance long gone, its role in the pop culture conversation all but diminished, with the only remnants of what it once was the few remaining characters left from the show’s early years (and, of course, the Walsh house). The TV landscape, too, had changed dramatically since its debut ten years earlier (and was on the verge of changing even more radically). Shows like 90210, be they the teen drama it started out as or the more adult-focused soap opera it had become, were waning in popularity. What audience it had left was comprised mostly of diehard fans, ones who’d been with the show from the beginning, who simply wanted to see what happened to these characters whose lives they’d followed for so long.

Given the departures of Brandon and Brenda and the disruption to the Dylan/Kelly relationship caused by Luke Perry’s brief absence from the show, the central romance of the series by the time the show reached its conclusion was that of David and Donna. Fittingly then, their wedding serves as the focus of the final episode, a backdrop against which the characters reflect on their lives together and the fans say goodbye to the characters. Though Brandon pops up briefly via video (Jason Priestly, though no longer acting on the show, remained an executive producer), none of the Walshes who served as the primary storytelling engine of the series appear in the finale, but the producers do their best to cram in as many old faces as they can (including Kelly’s mom, Valerie, who left the show shortly after Brandon, and inexplicably, the gang’s old high school guidance counselor, Mrs. Teasley) and in the end, Dylan and Kelly affirm their love for one another, as the episode does everything it can to seem momentous.

But the central event, for the characters and the fans, is David and Donna’s wedding, the two characters who, more or less by default (the result of a long-running series that dealt with significant cast shakeups) had become the central characters of the series’ narrative. No one watching or involved with the show when it began likely would have predicted that, by the end, one character who was positioned chiefly as an annoyance to the main characters and another who was little more than a glorified extra (albeit an extra played by the series’ creator’s daughter) would become the characters around whom the series finale would be built. That the final episode is all about David and Donna speaks volumes about the transformation the show underwent in its ten year run, as it transitioned from a buzzy, earnest, and wildly-popular teen drama that helped put the Fox network on the map to a long-in-the-tooth soap opera limping along on the goodwill of its diehard fans, a near-afterthought to a network on the cusp of major, industry-wide changes.

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