"That was my worst f---ing nightmare," says Jason Priestley. Priestley isn't referring to the thought of Brenda returning from London, but rather to life as an eternal teen idol. Working his way through the last cigarette in his pack with his stubby fingers, Priestley, 25 whose soft face and perfectly shaped hair and eyebrows recall the blander Elvis of the mid-' 60s is more than happy that his mug is no longer plastered in junior-high lockers the land over. "There's a stigma attached to that," he continues. "It's like a cancer. It's unbelievable! It's like having a big cancerous lesion on your shoulder. Because people are fickle, man."
No one on 90210 needs to be reminded of thatthe series was far from a hit when it debuted in October 1990. Within a year, though, episodes in which the characters lost their virginity, debated condom use, and developed drinking problems were making headlines. Priestley now calls the constant autograph hounds and mob crushes "terrifying"; Tori Spelling, 21, who plays more-than- like-a-virgin Donna Martin, remembers it with a gentle sigh as "a phenomenon I don't think I'll ever experience again."
As with any product for adolescents, 90210 has cooled. "90210 is out of the teen-heartthrob-making business," asserts Rosin. In fact, the decision was made for him: In Sassy's January 1994 readers' poll, it was voted "suckiest show," and Perry won "least favorite TV actor" by a landslide. ("Anyone who , would say 'suckiest,' I don't care whether they're fans of the show or not," shoots back Priestley.) Teen Beat once received hundreds of letters a week about the show; now, the magazine's 90210 mail bag is virtually empty. "I have kids, and they watch Models and Melrose," says Nancy Fernandez, who plays a Peach Pit waitress.
Of course, it has been a long time since most of the cast attended anything close to a real prom. Perry and Garth have both married, Ziering is engaged, and Carteris has a 4-month-old daughter, Kelsey Rose. Doherty's dressing room is now a nursery for Carteris' baby, a cast in-joke given that the two actresses didn't get along ("She's going through a rough time, and I'm sympathetic, but I don't have to live it," says Carteris, 33). Still, it must be frustrating when, on a recent Good Morning America, Charlie Gibson (during an interview with My So-Called Life's Claire Danes, 15) cracks that the 90210 actors look like they could be "in old-age homes now."
"He said that?" Rosin asks, with some exasperation. Then, in a comment seemingly directed back at My So-Called Life, he says, "(Some) people do this for art and vision. We do it for people."
"Enough about stupid parties at school," says Garth. "People watch our show for a reason-they like to see us dealing with issues. When we're doing stuff in the Peach Pit, my heart isn't in it sometimes."
New competition notwithstanding, 90210 has moved on-on this sun-drenched mid-August day, to Occidental College, the liberal-arts institution near Pasadena that guest-stars as the cast's current school, California University. In oppressive 100-degree heat, Tori Spelling is filming a scene with another of the new actors: Jamie Walters, 25, whose working-class-joe rock musician Ray Pruit will have a fling with Donna.
That's just one part of the show's plan to make the public forget Brenda, a scheme based upon a time-honored formula: sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Recovering alcoholic Dylan, who recently lost his fortune in a scam, has leapt off the wagon again, and will be aided and abetted in his vices by Thiessen's vamp, Valerie Malone. "They said Shannen was a bad girl off stage, and I'm the bad girl on the show," offers Thiessen, Green's real-life squeeze, regarding her role.
Bumped up to full-time employment is Kathleen Robertson, 21, as a less nymphomaniacal version of Clare Arnold, the chancellor's daughter. (In her denim cut-offs, striped shirt, sneakers, and nail polish, Clare is a Rodeo Drive version of a Smashing Pumpkins fan.) Giving up on Brandon, Clare will now pursue Green's David Silver, free since Donna left him after catching him in a nicely sleazy limousine fling during last season's finale. Kelly, formerly with Steve, then with Dylan, is now coupled with Brandon. And, adds Rosin, "We're planning an episode called 'The Dreams of Dylan McKay,' which will be as David Lynch as we're going to get."
Of course, it wouldn't be 90210 without a few somber messages slipped in between the bedsheets. This year, a Farrakhan-type leader will visit the campus for an episode on racism; in another, inspired by Amnesty International, CU is visited by the president of a fictitious country whose government reportedly indulges in torture. ("Tor-ture?" asks Aaron Spelling with genuine surprise when asked about this episode. "What's next-S&M?")
In this way, the show hopes to continue to distinguish itself from Melrose Place; though 90210's 1994 season finale drew a million more viewers than Melrose's, Melrose draws a bigger share of the coveted 18- to 34-year-old female market. Yet, according to Tom Frank, vice president of TV programming for ad agency Leo Burnett, 90210 remains more attractive to certain advertisers because "there is still a moral core to the characters." Or, as Ziering puts it, Melrose is "a tits-and-ass kind of thing."
How ironic that 90210 is now considered safe, wholesome entertainment- despite the attention it has paid, as Aaron Spelling notes, to "bulimia, anorexia, drunk driving, drugs, rape. Uh, abuse. Suicide. What kids go through today is amazing. When you can get shot in the mall at Pacific Palisades, you realize it doesn't all take place in South Central. It's a strange world out there, and it's gonna get stranger."
Some things, however, will remain the same: "Donna will be a virgin until she's 67," says Spelling with a chortle and a puff on his pipe. "Did he mean me or the character?" asks his daughter later. "He wishes."