The Best High-School Show of the Past 30 Years, Round One: Beverly Hills, 90210 vs. The O.C.

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture

For the next three weeks, Vulture is holding a High-School-TV Showdown to determine the greatest teen show of the past 30 years. Each day, a different writer will be charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals on November 13. Today's battle: Willa Paskin judges Beverly Hills, 90210 versus The O.C. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture's Facebook page to vote on which show you think should advance.

Beverly Hills: 90210, which ran from 1990 to 2000, created the teen drama as we know it. There is hardly a show on this list — save Saved by the Bell, which started in 1989 and was essentially G-rated — that would exist without it. 90210 took a group of teenagers and set them to frolic in an overwrought melodrama. It started gently: Minnesota transplants the Walshes — square and responsible parents Jim (James Eckhouse) and Cindy (Carol Potter), and their twins, reliable Brandon (Jason Priestley) and rebellious Brenda (Shannen Doherty) — arrive in Beverly Hills and set about seeing whether their midwestern values can survive in a hotbed of glamour, wealth, and bad behavior. The first two seasons explored, in the manner of after-school specials, every hot-button issue of the day: AIDS, breast cancer, alcoholism, drug use, racism, gun violence, and, over and over again, teen sex. But by the time Fox decided to air the third season over the summer to further cement the show’s rapport with teens home from school — this was the summer that Brandon spent working at the beach club, Brenda and Donna spent in France, and Dylan and Kelly spent becoming Brenda-betraying cheaters — it had backgrounded issues to foreground the drama, just as any soap opera worth its suds should.

What 90210 established — discovered even — is something incredibly obvious in retrospect: The soap opera, the form of continuous angst and perpetual agitation, is the proper context for adolescence. 90210 is not particularly realistic (nor by the standards of a Gossip Girl particularly outlandish). It does not capture the awkwardness, the inexplicableness, the rush of teenage becoming that shows like My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks expressed so completely. But it tipped these shows off by treating the travails of teenagers as seriously as teenagers take their own travails. When Dylan smashed a flower pot at Brenda’s feet, chased after her in the street, grabbed her from behind, begged her to stay, and then kissed her, it was overwrought, corny, and not nearly as romantic as they both imagined, which is a pretty fair description of both teenage behavior and teenage fantasy.

90210 stayed on the air long after its characters left high school. For the purposes of this high-school-centric bracket, I feel absolutely free to ignore seasons four through ten, when the gang, which included Brenda through freshman year, headed off to college, Donna’s virginity intact. I'll perform some similarly selective slicing and dicing on The O.C., which aired for just four seasons, also on Fox, beginning in 2003. Unfortunately, the cut I want to make comes long before the cast went to college or a major character exited the scene. For its first season, The O.C. was the best version of 90210 that never aired, the happiest marriage of goofy soap tropes — every episode there’s a giant party and someone ends up in the pool! — and affectionate realism on this list.

The O.C. was knowingly in conversation with 90210 (and even more knowingly in conversation with the reality show Laguna Beach), using the perspective of another newbie, bad boy Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie, who even had sideburns back then, in what can only be an homage to Dylan and Brandon), to explore another tony California Zip Code. But The O.C. takes the premise of 90210 and twists it every so slightly: What if the outsider agog at California plenty is arriving not from some wholesome midwestern state, but, gasp, Chino? Ryan, like the Walshes before him, is exposed to a decadent world full of money and parties and bullies who say Welcome to the O.C., bitch, but instead of sticking to his values, which are all self-destructive, he has to embrace the ethos of the Cohens, the loving Brooklyn–Newport Beach, WASP-Jewish family that’s California wealthy, but in the right way (sheepishly). Sandy (Peter Gallagher), Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), and Seth (Adam Brody) are insiders who are decent enough to feel like outsiders and they invite Ryan into their quirky, fierce, Chrismukkah-celebrating home.

Ryan and Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton), the poor little rich girl who lived next door, were supposed to be the show’s major romance, but flukes of casting changed the planned dynamic. On paper, Seth was Ryan’s sweet, funny, anxious new brother, the perfect sidekick. But Brody was a born scene-stealer, a torrential talker with screwball delivery and too many band T-shirts. He soon found himself involved in an undeniable and satisfying romance with Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson), a character who wasn't even supposed to make it out of the pilot. Seth and Summer’s love story became the show’s primary one and with good reason: They were the cutest. (Another fluke was less fortunate, as Mischa Barton is about as good an actress as rats are snorkelers. There’s no need to say more, but know that sometimes when I want to contemplate infinity, I think about how much better The O.C. could have been with another actress in the part.)

Initially the show rolled with Barton’s shortcomings, a loving and lovable family melodrama always grounded in the Cohens, who talked and chattered and nattered and teased like a real clan does. The O.C. was most certainly a soap opera — Julie Cooper (Melinda Clarke) remains an unsung soap diva — but it was grounded in kindness in a way soaps rarely are. Ryan Atwood was an abandoned child who found the family he so desperately needed. Even the silliest black-tie events, of which there were many, contained real and true feelings.

But it is hard to maintain that which is real and true in a soap opera, for which real and true are never the priority. Things started to go downhill midway through the first season, when the dreadful and unstable Oliver showed up to complicate Ryan and Marissa’s relationship. By the second season the show had gotten downright preposterous, and, even worse, started to futz with Sandy and Kirsten’s marriage, whose love should have been inviolable. At the end of season two, Marissa shot Ryan’s brother. At the end of season three, Marissa died in a car crash. The fourth season of The O.C., the post-Marissa years, was pretty enjoyable — Autumn Reeser’s Taylor Townsend is underrated — but it was too late by then. The show didn’t live half as long as 90210.

The O.C. was a wonderful show for a fleeting period of time. 90210 influenced everything, while capturing something elemental about the feverishness of adolescence, even if it did so in unrealistic fashion. (Gabrielle Carteris was playing 15-year-old Andrea Zuckerman when she was 29.) 90210 is a more important show than The O.C., but here’s the pickle: Almost any given episode of The O.C. is better than any given episode of 90210. They're better acted, better plotted, funnier, smarter, and overall benefiting from the seismic quality-upgrade TV underwent in the decade between the two shows’ beginnings.  

But “better” does not always mean more enjoyable, even though it’s easier on us and the entire concept of taste when we pretend that it does. I write about TV for a living and I am lucky to do so at a time when TV has gotten better than it was in the '80s and '90s and also become much more widely esteemed. But I loved 90210 way before that and my love for it reminds me of a truth about TV that the wash of excellent programs — but not a list of the most-watched one — lets us obscure: We don’t just love great TV.

Of course we don’t! We humans have the capacity to love all sorts of mediocre things, from junky TV shows to diabetic cats to people who wear statement hats. We love all these things only in the glory of their specificity, for the fascinating way that Brenda’s face always looks so asymmetrical in mirrors, for the psychological acuity underlying the “Donna Martin Graduates” protest, for the way Brandon’s hair, without ever changing styles, morphed from floppy and free to rigid and structural, like an overdetermined metaphor about growing up. As Pauline Kael put it in her essay “Trash Art and the Movies,” “It’s preposterously egocentric to call anything we enjoy art — as if we could not be entertained by it if it were not.”

As if! Our love of trash may by some measure be an indictment of our taste, of the hours we have spent on that which is meh, but it is also a measure of our curiosity, our loyalty, our sweet and silly desire to know what happens next, even to people as doofy as Steve Sanders. It’s only after you have watched many episodes of 90210 that the synthesized clap of the opening credits will bring you joy. But if you have, it really, really does.

WINNER: BEVERLY HILLS, 90210

Willa Paskin is the TV critic at Slate.