Cover Story

90210 What Becomes A Legend Most?

With Shannen Doherty gone and Luke Perry and Jason Priestly likely to follow, will the teen-soap phenom end up a hit or a has-been?

''It's kind of a weird day here,'' says Luke Perry, scanning the set with his familiar squint and the faintest of smiles. ''The vibe is a little...weird.''

Sporting unmoussed hair and just enough facial scruff to let us know that his character, Dylan McKay, is bummed, Perry is hanging out between takes in one of the three nondescript white warehouses in the San Fernando Valley where Beverly Hills, 90210 is filmed. And no sooner does he return to his mark — to continue filming the fifth episode of the show's fifth season — than his take on the day becomes tangibly accurate.

Perry feels it first: Asked to redo for the fifth time a scene in which he simply walks into the Peach Pit, the actor gently pounds his head on the counter of the fake diner. An hour later, another scene crashes to a halt, literally. Newcomer Tiffani-Amber Thiessen is supposed to toss a french fry into the mouth of Ian Ziering (playing amiably lunkheaded Steve Sanders); instead, it lands in his eye. It must have been one crispy spud: Ziering trashes their table and storms off, with director David Semel in quick pursuit. ''Sometimes things in a scene don't work for an actor,'' says Semel. The scene is eventually reshot.

''It's the Peach Pit,'' explains Jennie Garth, 22, who plays loose-rich-girl- made-good Kelly Taylor. ''We have all our major conflicts there. I just realized that. Today was nothing.''

It may be little more than blowing off the steam of four years at the same job. Then again, maybe the 90210 cast just isn't accustomed to outside observers. For most of the past three seasons, the set has been closed to the media, for a reason no one will state on the record but which is fairly obvious: departed cast member and tabloid regular Shannen Doherty, whose antics on and off the show brought all the wrong sorts of publicity. The attention to Doherty, however, was also testament to her allure, and the question of whether Thiessen, 20, can fill her halter tops as the designated Shannen Replacement has yet to be answered.

Beyond Doherty's exit, the fifth season of ''the show you love to hate'' (as a recent America Online posting put it) is pivotal for other reasons. It's the last contracted season of the original cast-Perry, Ziering, Garth, Jason Priestley, Tori Spelling, Brian Austin Green, and Gabrielle Carteris—who must soon decide if they want to re-up or test the outside waters, which have been particularly rough for Perry and Priestley (the combined grosses of Perry's 8 Seconds and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Priestley's Calendar Girl equal about two weeks of Forrest Gump receipts). To make the vibe just a bit weirder, 90210's trashier offshoot, Melrose Place, has overtaken it as the water-cooler show of the moment.

''People stop me and say, 'Hey, you're the guy from Melrose, aren't you?''' says another newly installed regular, Mark D. Espinoza, 29 (who plays Jesse Vasquez, husband of new mom Andrea Zuckerman, played by Carteris), with a what-are-you-gonna-do chuckle. ''Happens all the time.''

Part beach-blanket-go-go fantasy, part after-school special, 90210 has always been socially conscious TV junk, whose creators pride themselves on confronting the big questions of teen life. So, in that tradition, here's one: In the grunge '90s, where does a show about a bunch of tanned, spoiled kids- er, young adults-fit in? 90210 is still viable-its Sept. 7 season premiere, with more than 21 million viewers, tied the 1993 graduation episode for the show's highest ratings ever. But somehow, it doesn't seem as relevant as it / once was, especially compared with hipper series like ABC's acclaimed (if low- rated) My So-Called Life and MTV's The Real World.

''Luke, need anything?'' asks an assistant as Perry plops himself in front of the Peach Pit counter. ''A $30 million action film, that's all,'' Perry responds, in such a deadpan rasp that he may or may not be joking.

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