The Best High-School Show of the Past 30 Years, Round Two: Beverly Hills, 90210 vs. Friday Night Lights

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

From late October through mid-November, 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 tasked 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: Linda Holmes judges Beverly Hills, 90210 versus Friday Night Lights. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture's Facebook page to vote on which show should advance.

At first glance, Beverly Hills, 90210 seems to have brought a knife to a gunfight here, only the knife is acid-wash overalls with one strap fastened. You must figure you know how a mismatch of this magnitude is going to end, but hey — maybe the underdog can at least make it interesting. Don't head for the parking lot just yet. Perhaps 90210 is, in an ironic twist, the Matt Saracen of this bracket.

Friday Night Lights, adapted from the Buzz Bissinger book and the Peter Berg film about high-school football in Texas, is one of only a few broadcast-network shows that pops up in most discussions of the so-called modern Golden Age of Television. It's also one of the few in that category that relies so heavily on humanity rather than inhumanity as its driver of dramatic tension, and on a stable marriage of adults as the page on which it writes knee-weakening poetry about romantic love.

Beverly Hills, 90210, on the other hand, once devised a plot that required Shannen Doherty to make advances upon a young Dean Cain using a French accent so terr-eee-bull that to call it cartoonish would rightly draw indignant objections from Pepé Le Actual Pew.

Were this a Best Overall Show bracket, the pants-down spanking that Texas would deliver unto California here would be a clear case of a Division I team being sent out to face a non-conference clown college. A Division III clown college. A Division III clown college in the middle of five years of probation. But it's not: It's a Best High-School Show bracket. And it's pretty easy to argue for 90210 as a high-school show, precisely because it's so stupid and so fake. Because you know what high school is a certain amount of the time? It's so stupid. It's so fake.

The way to appreciate 90210 a couple of decades later is with a grain of salt and a gallon of ironic distance, which makes it a lot like high school. Friday Night Lights isn't like that; it earnestly wants your soul. It will still earnestly want your soul someday when it is a nostalgia property. That comes from who the kids are: Despite their realistically foolish mistakes, the high-school students of Friday Night Lights have the depth and insight to cast crisp shadows of the adults they'll be in a handful of years. You can often look at them as adults, as an adult yourself, and close the gap between them and you without an eye-roll.

The dum-dums of Beverly Hills, 90210, on the other hand, capture the narcissistic naïveté of a young life of privilege in a way best described as "face-scrunchingly gross but maybe not entirely unfair." They are suspended — in their own way, believably so — in the absurd moment when you believe that you'll have the same friends forever, the same crushes forever, the same stricken looks on your faces forever, and the same absolute confidence that you know everything forever. It's not only that the gang of West Beverly has the specific drama of adolescence; they have the lack of self-awareness and absent perspective that marks that time for a lot of kids who are lucky enough not to have, for the most part, real problems. High-school students as pure of heart as Matt Saracen are hard to find, but in many parts of the world, you can't fluff your man-bangs without hitting teenagers who are as puffed-up with the newfound desire to be good-doers, not to mention as limited by the absolute confidence of the blinkered egomaniac, as Brandon Walsh.

There's something real and almost adorable about how awful they are, how unformed they are. There's something believable about their entitlement and their obsession with their interpersonal foofaraws. The banality of their lives, in the absence of enough things of consequence to concentrate on, has an unintended bite of truth. They're meant to be believably sympathetic, but when I look at them now, what they are is believably wretched — if I may use wretched to mean "a long way from grown."

This is one of the things that makes real high-school reunions so weird and so great: You go back and you realize how surprised you are to see these same people as normals — they have kids now, they have jobs, they exchange pleasantries. They're not boring; they're just not in high school. It is a miraculous evolution. A Beverly Hills, 90210 reunion movie where it turned out that Brandon has learned to admit when he's wrong, Dylan has bought some grown-up pants, and Brenda just sent her kid to the University of Minnesota and is really trying to read more novels? That wouldn't be a very exciting reunion movie, but it would be warmly true to life.

Also weighing against what might be the expected outcome is that much of the beauty of Friday Night Lights didn't live in its high-school stories at all, making some of its strengths inadmissible on the grounds of relevance. Eric and Tami Taylor may have had one of the most significant and beautifully realized marriages in the history of television, but does that make it a great high-school show? Much of its heft, too, depended on the tense relationship between Eric and the town of Dillon, Texas: its mistreatment of him, its manipulation of him, its single-minded belief that he was and always would be only as good as his last win — but that's not a high-school story either. Friday Night Lights is a specifically adult story, in many cases, about the sacrifices people make in light of individual passions and ambitions that, in fact, do survive the bonds of marriage and the births of children. It's often a beautiful meditation on the opportunities lost and traded and mourned by adults as they pass into middle age. All that doesn't necessarily count here.

90210, on the other hand, was handcuffed to its to high-school underpinnings, even after it went to college (although I admit that with both shows, I base my position primarily on the first three seasons or so, as this is when both were most purely themselves, and when I watched them most faithfully). It wasn't just the way a wailing electric guitar could obscure the fact that Brenda and Dylan fighting actually wasn't a matter of life and death, and it wasn't just the way virginity and grades and Hard Lessons About Life had a significance they could never have for people with jobs. It was the way that all of life seemed to be in one place: school. All the conflict, all the promise, all the disaster, it all somehow arose out of school and the people Brenda and Brandon knew there. West Beverly may not have actually been a hellmouth, but it certainly sucked up all the oxygen.

So, maybe, against all odds, we have to consider the possibility that —

Kidding, kidding, there is no contest. COME ON. Look, Friday Night Lights stumbled from time to time with its sudden swerve to murder and its emotionally undercooked love interests. But its first season in particular is a nearly flawless sequence, beginning with a deceptively slack pilot that suddenly tightens into what easily could have been the most clichéd opener in history. Somehow, though, it matures into a slow-rolling tour through the interior lives of not just the most obviously well-served characters, like Eric and Tami, but surprising late bloomers, like Lyla Garrity, who turned out to have more going on than it might have seemed. The echoing uses of "Devil Town" early and late in the season are among the finest musical decisions TV has ever made. Matt Saracen alone is a better character than everyone who was ever on 90210 and Melrose Place and Models Inc. (bet you forgot that part of the 90210-verse) put together. That its adult characters were its most compelling doesn't change the fact that it often drew remarkable portraits of teenagers.

Everything worked that maybe shouldn't have: the unlikely passes that were caught, the heroic QB felled by an injury, the shy new star in love with the coach's daughter. It was a show that was smart about race, smart about sex, smart about love, smart about athletes, smart about parents and kids. It was funny and surprising, it was disappointing, then thrilling, it was precious in ways that felt earned but totally ephemeral — and those things, too, are high school.

And while 90210 never figured out how to be a post-high-school show — it took the easy way out by following its characters to their uproariously implausible intact transplantation to California University — Friday Night Lights let its kids graduate. It let them leave, in some cases; it let the pleasure of knowing them mix with the bittersweet act of letting go of them, which every great teacher experiences. Not every new character worked, but a locker-room scene in the fourth-season premiere, "East of Dillon," beautifully scored to Sufjan Stevens's recording of "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," involved few of Coach's original players but was one of the most devastating, resonant sequences the show ever aired. FNL lived with and survived some of the realities of high school that 90210 didn't: its impermanence, and the good-byes that hang over it always.

What 90210 aspired to be at best was a populist, diverting, sometimes stiffly edifying lark, and God knows you need a certain number of those in order to enjoy life, as far as I'm concerned. (The "stiffly edifying" part was the part that was supposed to be classy, thus the special one-off episodes on AIDS and racism and people with disabilities. This was what it meant to sprinkle a show with quality as one might sprinkle a sundae with ... sprinkles.) Like its main characters, 90210 asked for a bent, adolescent kind of love — which is to say a love that feels good, means little, doesn't really hold up to scrutiny, but decays into something rueful and dear. It aspired to watchability and rewatchability, to a soapy addictiveness that it very successfully achieved. It was made to be social in living rooms and dorm rooms, to be like Scandal, except before Twitter.

What Friday Night Lights aspired to be, on the other hand, was a creative work of the best-possible quality that spoke truth while being hugely entertaining, wildly romantic, and all the other things you might ask a piece of fiction to be. Friday Night Lights had "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose"; 90210 had "Don't be a squeef."

It's funny — Dawson's Creek, the first show that got booted out of this bracket, is the exact midpoint between these shows temporally, in that it kicked off in 1998, eight years after the premiere of 90210 and eight years before the premiere of FNL. It's kind of the exact midpoint between them aspirationally, too. It came along at a time in the mid-to-late '90s when there was a little burst of experimentation with higher-class teen serials: shows that wanted respect while still inviting obsessive shippers and popcorn-munchers. (My So-Called Life is a little too much a family drama to lump in here, but think of Buffy, Party of 5, Freaks & Geeks, and so forth.)

90210 came before all that. FNL came after. The game changed in the 16 years between their respective pilots; what was being asked of television was different. This is not a fair fight — it's 100 horse-size horses against one duck-size duck. "Can't lose," indeed.


Linda Holmes is the editor of NPR's entertainment blog, Monkey See, and the host of the "Pop Culture Happy Hour" podcast.