book excerpt

Why ‘Donna Martin Graduates’ Is the Essential Beverly Hills, 90210 Episode

“You sound like Spiro Agnew.”

Photo-Illustration: CBS Television Distributor
Photo-Illustration: CBS Television Distributor
Photo-Illustration: CBS Television Distributor

One of our first jobs in writing A Very Special 90210 Book: 93 Absolutely Essential Episodes From TV’s Most Notorious Zip Code was to whittle down the seminal teen drama’s 292 (!) episodes to the truly indispensable outings everyone remembers. This wasn’t all that arduous a task once we chucked most of the last three seasons and their soapy pill addictions and gambling rings. Plus, a handful of the core Bev Niner gang’s adventures have lodged in the collective cultural memory like poppy seeds at the gumline. Such moments as: a betrayed Brenda (Shannen Doherty) hollering at Kelly (Jennie Garth) and Dylan (the late Luke Perry) that she hates them both, then Brenda-stomping to the horizon; the show’s “golden boy,” Brandon (Jason Priestley), getting dosed with “U4EA” at a “rave” while Steve (Ian Ziering) and Andrea (Gabrielle Carteris) drive all over the 213 trying to “exchange an egg.” Even some of David Silver’s (Brian Austin Green) terrible “music” has become iconic.

But one episode’s cheese stands alone as the most emblematic of the series at its best and worst — the episode nearly everyone who was alive at the time recalls, even if they aren’t sure why. It’s such a classic that it’s the prototype recap we included in the book’s proposal: Season Three, Episode 28, officially titled “Something in the Air” but known to a generation as “Donna Martin Graduates.”

Why this one? What makes “Donna Martin Graduates” a legend? The plot in a nutshell, in case you’re under 35, is that Donna Martin (boss’s daughter, Tori Spelling) got wasted on Champagne at the prom in the previous episode, and despite her friends’ best efforts, she’s busted by the principal and told she can’t walk in graduation with her classmates. “Something in the Air” turns that sentence into a cause duh-lèbre for not just Brandon and the Gang but the entire school. The episode aired during May sweeps in 1993; it features the core gang in their senior year, during the show’s popularity peak; it lets Brandon show off his leadership skills; and it throws Tori Spelling a bit of serious-acting meat, while also kicking off the characterization of Saint Donna, Universally Beloved Virgin (Until She Isn’t).

If you want even more Beverly Hills, 90210, join us tonight, September 25, at 7 p.m. ET for a virtual trivia night with McNally Jackson. But for now, return with us to simpler times, before smartphones and hashtags (#TeamEphardt), when the fate of a ditz with no tolerance riveted a nation.

Following her disastrous failure to carbo-load before booze in “A Night to Remember,” Donna is suspended from school.

There’s a disciplinary hearing yet to contend with — although this pales in comparison to the Ire of Felice, directed as it is not only at Donna but also at Mel Silver for giving the kids the goof juice in the first place. And we live for the logicproof dudgeon of Felice Martin — not least because there’s still lingering awk between Brandon and Andrea after they totally didn’t Do It, again, at prom, and Felice strapping her bitch on is just easier to watch.

But it looks like Donna won’t get to graduate with her classmates, and this is a fair and fitting outcome! Donna should have gone to summer school and picked up her diploma on some anonymous August morning because she broke the rules, and rules apply to everyone, even dumb babies!

Donna herself seems to agree, but this is not how it shakes out, for two reasons: The actor playing Donna is the boss’s daughter, and Beverly Hills, 90210, could seldom resist positioning golden boy Brandon as a defender of the downtrodden. The rationale for his entering the bray — er, “fray” — this time is more baffling than the customary “Brandon learns two things about an issue, then takes it up with the humorless zealotry of the convert” M.O. of his “activism.” Here, he’s taking up Donna’s cause in part because the rising seniors on the Blaze razz Brandon and the rest of the Class of 1993 for their alleged “slacker” attitude toward capital-I Issues, inspiring “Ace” to show them he really does care, especially about his friends. If that rationale sounds weird and tortured, well, it is, but the writers have to find some reason to turn Donna’s situation into A Movement when she broke clearly stated rules.

A Very Special 90210 Book: 93 Absolutely Essential Episodes from TV’s Most Notorious Zip Code, by Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting.

Given Brandon’s 99-percenter attitude toward his twin’s trip-to-Paris reward for acting out earlier this season, it’s a bit weird that he’d lead a literal March on the School Board on behalf of Donna, the fellow Gangster he’s probably least close with. Also, Donna’s so-called martyrdom is horseshit. First of all, as putative villain Superintendent Ephardt points out during Donna’s hearing, “The no-drinking rule was passed unanimously by this board. What kind of message do you think it sends when the first student who breaks it gets off?” WELL, REALLY. Donna knew the rule; she broke the rule. But no, after Gil makes yet another unnecessary appeal to Brandon’s innate leadership (barf), it turns into A Whole Movement, with future disgraced Senator Seldom Right and Wrong Again at its obnoxious and self-congratulatory helm, and it has the following repellent outcomes: (1) Even though he changes his mind later thanks to peer pressure, Dylan initially points out that nobody is going to (read: “should”) care about a poor little rich girl puking at prom, and he’s going to focus on getting into Berkeley, and the fact that we agree with Dylan on anything is disorienting; (2) the “Donna Martin Graduates” episode is ground zero for the Donna-fluffing (she’s so pretty! Her fashion designs kick ass!) that came to dominate the postcollege era of the show, kicked off here with a clonky line from Brenda about how she never knew how much “everyone” at West Beverly loved Donna; (3) it inflates Brandon’s already metastatic sense of self-importance — the junior editors on the paper, Mrs. Teasley, everyone defers to him as the point man, an impression he’s happy to further by holding up his hand to silence the 500 people in the board meeting. (He also compares his father to Spiro Agnew, a reference that would have gotten these authors sent to their rooms had it made sense; reader, it does not.)

Ephardt threatens to call parents and police and to get college recs and acceptances revoked, and to this day we don’t understand why he doesn’t. But: He doesn’t, and the board votes in Donna’s favor. The juniors get the dress-code repeal they backroom-dealt for with Brandon. Donna gets to pin a mortarboard to the back of her overprocessed head like it’s Jersey in the ’80s. Great meritocracying, everyone!

Excerpt from the new book A Very Special 90210 Book: 93 Absolutely Essential Episodes from TV’s Most Notorious Zip Code, by Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting, published by Abrams Image © 2020 Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting.

This Is the Essential Beverly Hills, 90210 Episode