The Unauthorized Beverly Hills, 90210 Story does’t give a crap about looking like a well-made film. Essentially a greatest hits of behind-the-scenes moments from the Brenda years (i.e., seasons one through four), it barely cares about narrative cohesion, let alone an arc—unless you consider “Shannon Doherty is the worst” to be an arc. What it does care about is taking all the ridiculous nonsense that transpired in the creation of one of the most iconic TV shows from the ’90s and packaging it into an irony-soaked good time. Make no mistake: Anyone not well-acquainted with the original series, or the actors who populated it, will find little to appreciate about this hammy endeavor. But for those who fondly remember all the time spent hanging out at The Peach Pit, Lifetime’s latest made-for-TV movie equivalent of Behind The Music will find a shameless treat, aimed straight at their nostalgia nerve centers.
Dan Castellaneta (yep, Homer Simpson) stars as Aaron Spelling, Hollywood uber-producer who finds himself losing his place as a top dog in Tinseltown at the end of the ’80s. In an office set that looks like it doubles as a casting-couch porn shoot, he fumes about needing a new hit. Enter his daughter Tori (Abby Ross), who tells him teenagers are where it’s at, and sorts through his pile of potential show scripts until she uncovers Beverly Hills, 90210. From there, it’s the whirlwind of casting, table reads, and production, as showrunner Darren Star (Adam Korsen) creates the pop-culture juggernaut, sending its various actors rocketing to teenybopper stardom and onset intrigue. Wisely ending right as the show fires Doherty and replaces her with Tiffani-Amber Thiesson, the movie retreats before overstaying its trashy, low-rent welcome.
Director Vanessa Parise seems to have learned the lesson from Perfect High, her last Lifetime movie, that fun comes first—with dramatic stakes, a quality look, strong characterization, good lighting, and everything else all tying for 42nd place in order of importance. Whereas the Saved By The Bell Lifetime movie suffered from relying on the skewed perspective of its worst personality, there’s no mistaking this for any one person’s point of view. Doherty was so universally disliked, both by her cast and crew and the viewing audience (Tori Spelling was apparently the sole exception), that it makes for a simple equation. Everyone else is largely likable, and giving the story a clear villain makes all the backstage antics and silly day-to-day of the cast’s lifestyles go down smoothly.
And the emphasis is definitely on silly. There’s no cornball trick so low that this film won’t stoop to it. When the actors first lay eyes on the ramshackle studio that will serve as their production headquarters and main set, there’s literally a sad trombone on the score to cue their disappointment. When Standards And Practices sits down with the cast to go over why they’re not allowed to touch the girls’ breasts or have hands go below the waist onscreen, jaunty oompah music plays underneath the dialogue. The dialogue, in large part, veers between comically banal and deliciously overwrought, with the script missing no opportunity to get stupidly meta. (Ian Ziering, explaining to Doherty the havoc she’s causing on the show: “You’re like a cross between a shark and a tornado.” Spelling, grumbling about his bosses: “Would it kill Fox to get a news division?”) It’s dumb as all get-out, but the self-awareness doesn’t devolve into the kind of clumsy wink to the camera that sinks so many Syfy original films.
With the exception of Castellaneta and some of the other studio execs, the cast is impressively (and surprisingly) solid, though perhaps the dopey and amiable nature of the characters and the skill set of these actors just happen to overlap perfectly. Max Lloyd-Jones’ Jason Priestley is almost uncannily spot-on, and leads the gang much the way his real-life counterpart supposedly did. (Plus, finding out that Priestley was roommates with Brad Pitt offers a real “Keyser Soze is who?!” moment.) The rest of the cast run the gamut from still-pretty-close (Abbie Cobb’s Jennie Garth) to we-just-need-a-curly-blond-thanks (Lennon’s Ziering). Everyone gets some blunt character traits, presumably along with a script note to dial that trait up to 11. Jesy McKinney’s Luke Perry, to wit, is essentially a squint and smoke factory.
And oh, the montages. Not since “Donna Martin graduates!” have there been such sequences of 90210-related teens (and adults playing teens) marching in various directions with puffed-up purpose. A scene of each cast member trying on their character’s respective styles nails it so hard, it’s almost surprising when the show’s theme song doesn’t fire up behind them. Also, several scenes are actually clever in their evocation of the era in which the show reigned, from references to the all-too-real I Hate Brenda newsletter to the marginalization of poor Gabrielle Carteris. When Carteris learns the studio is licensing dolls of the other actors but not her, her brave-face utterance of “Little girls aren’t lining up for the Gabrielle doll?” triggers sympathy along with relief someone finally acknowledged her perpetually odd place in the lineup out loud.
The most notorious anecdotes are included, from Doherty’s assault of a guy in The Roxbury to the time Priestley and Perry met Ronald Reagan. And, much like your memories of the show, everything noteworthy happened in the first couple of years. A winking “where are they now?” closes out the film, but much like the later seasons of the show, you probably already mentally checked out. But The Unauthorized Beverly Hills, 90210 Story shines, for much the same reason as the original series: Inexplicably, all this stupid crap is a lot of fun to watch.