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'90210': New wine in an old zipcode

Time waits for no TV teenager, so Tuesday's debut of 90210 (which unaccountably was not made available for advance screenings) got right down to it:

90210 First oral sex in high-school parking lot, four minutes into the show. First drug deal, 13 minutes. First Faustian bargain by a corrupted Kansas kid (trading a term paper for an $800 Rodeo Drive dress), 39 minutes. First mindlessly vicious act of revenge, 40 minutes. First trashy peer-pressured behavior by a previously good kid, 54 minutes. First wanton conspicuous-consumption of designer outfit, an hour and three minutes.

The good news about teenage culture, I guess, is that we'll have to wait until week two for group sex, organ theft and Satanic sacrifice. The bad news is that you were probably thinking as you read that first paragraph, didn't I see all this already on The O.C., Veronica Mars and Gossip Girl?

Well, yeah. The surprise is not that 90210 is a clone -- it is, after all, a remake of Beverly Hill, 90210, the sacred text of teen angst -- but the source of its DNA. From its insider/outsider culture wars to its cross-generational contrasts of the scandals of the kids and their parents, 90210 is practically indistinguishable from the recent generation of populist teen soaps that began with The O.C.

The outsiders in this case are Annie Wilson (Shenae Grimes, Degrassi: The Next Generation) and her brother Dixon (Tristan Wilds, The Wire), who blow into West Beverly Hills High like tumbleweeds from the Kansas prairie. (Perhaps aware that even hicks as good-looking as these two would have no trouble winning acceptance, the producers cemented their outside status by making their dad the new school principal, and to make Dixon a black adoptive son of white parents.)

They quickly befriend, alienate or form romantic triangles with the standard assortment of stock characters: Bitchy social princess. School-paper geek. Vengeful gossip-blogger. Handsome jock with a troubled soul. Porn pigs. (That's not an epithet, but actual pigs stolen from a porno set. On the rare occasions when 90210 strikes an original note, it's really original.) Meanwhile, the various parents start revisiting old affairs or starting new ones. Kansas virtue not-so-slowly dissolves into Beverly Hills decadence.

If any of these plot lines would fit comfortably into Gossip Girl, 90210's bubbly cast would not. Grimes, Wilds and most of the others have the gloss and glamor of the best teen soaps, but they don't show the streaks of bitterness and remorse that can transform frothy Chanel fashion shows into real drama.

The single exception is AnnaLynne McCord, who played a memorable arc on Nip/Tuck last season as a vicious bad-seed stepdaughter. Here she plays Naomi, whose shop-till-you-drop party girl persona imposed by her parents occasionally gives way to the primal rage of a trapped animal. Whether icily dismissing a social rival or slugging an errant boyfriend, she flickers like a diamond amid the smiley-face characters around her.

A few of those faces are a mite haggard. Some of the characters and venues of the old Beverly Hills, 90210 have been carried over to this show. Some have facelifts, like the Peach Pit diner, now a coffee bar; some, like Jennie Garth and Shannen Doherty, reprising their roles as friends-turned-romantic-rivals Kelly and Brenda, disastrously don't. Their presence hints at the karmic bottom line of teen soaps: The wages of sin are jiggly underarms and piano legs.


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