Beverly Hills, 90210 at 30: The 25 Best Scenes
A group of friends living in Beverly Hills, California make their way through life from their school days into adulthood.
The Most Iconic Moments of Beverly Hills, 90210?
This week marks the 30th anniversary of Beverly Hills, 90210, which debuted on October 4th, 1990 on the then-fledgling Fox network. A primetime soap opera aimed specifically at teens, it ostensibly chronicled twins Brandon (Jason Priestly) and Brenda (Shannon Doherty) Walsh and their family as they adjusted to life in posh Beverly Hills after relocating from suburban Minneapolis. But even from the beginning (and well after Brenda and Brandon both became well-entrenched amongst their peers), it was also as focused on addressing topical issues as it was the tumultuous and ever-changing relationships of its main characters (to varying degrees of success and subtlety). Over the course of the show’s 10-year run (it went off the air in May 2000), characters got together and broke up and made up and got back together again, and the show tackled everything from divorce to alcoholism, AIDS, adoption, eating disorders, rape, domestic abuse, infidelity, drug usage on multiple levels, and even mob violence. Along the way, it became a ratings smash, helping put Fox on the map and making teen idols out of its decidedly-not-teen stars while triggering a conversation about the level of frankness in subject matter its young-skewing audience could handle.
In celebration of the show’s 30th anniversary and its role in TV history, here is a list, in chronological order, of 25 iconic moments from the show, moments that played a significant role either in developing the show’s narrative or its impact on the TV landscape of the time. Split in two, this first half covers moments from the show’s first four seasons.
1. The Beginning: Season 1, Episode 1, “Class of Beverly Hills”
The series’ pilot episode, like most pilots, is a little rough around the edges in terms of what’s to come: the Walsh house, the most consistent and recurring set on the show, is completely different from what viewers will come to know, Brandon’s car Mondale isn’t yet Mondale, and sideburned bad boy Dylan (Luke Perry) is nowhere to be found. But the basic DNA of the show is here. The immediate hook of Midwestern siblings trying to make a go of it in the world of big houses, fast cars, and rich kids (with Brenda and Brandon’s awe at their new surroundings speaking to then-contemporary America’s fascination with the lifestyles of the rich and famous), the burgeoning relationships between most of the central characters (aside from the not-yet-introduced Dylan, still-alive Scott, and just-a-glorified-extra-at-this-point Donna), and the show’s groundbreaking, occasionally-admirable, often ham-fisted depiction of topical issues, particularly sex, which comes up in both Brandon and Brenda’s plots in the pilot.
2. Angsty Dylan Smashes a Flower Pot: Season 1, Episode 10, “Isn’t it Romantic?”
Dylan McKay, the James Dean-esque bad boy who compared himself to Byron—”mad, bad, and dangerous to know”—in his first appearance in the show’s second episode, is one of the series’ earliest breakout characters, but he existed initially only as a friend for Brandon. He doesn’t really come to be the Dylan fans know and love until the tenth episode of the series, when Dylan, angry at his oft-absent, shady financier father, over-dramatically smashes a flower pot at Brenda’s feet (in a telling display of how this show will handle big emotions going forward: as histrionically as possible). Brenda, rather than running for the hills, falls for him even harder, and the Dylan/Brenda romance is born. It becomes the signature relationship of the series (at least in the early goings), one which will, whether in its on or off mode, provide a spine to much of the series’ narrative throughout Brenda’s tenure on the show, and lead in turn to a number of other significant and notable moments.
“Isn’t It Romantic?” also introduces the series’ relatively frank approach to sex, as a subplot in the episode involves a famous actor coming to West Beverly High to give a speech during a sex-ed class, and announces that she has AIDS. 90210 came of age in the midst of the AIDS crisis, and for all the buzz at the time over the show’s depiction of sex (and, to be clear, it definitely made the sex lives of its teenage characters into plot points), it also wasn’t shy about emphasizing the ramifications of sexual relationships, be they physical, mental, or emotional. Rather than glorifying teenage and pre-marital sex, the show really aimed to start a dialogue about sex, and those efforts began in earnest with this episode. The show wouldn’t always succeed in this goal, and more or less gave it up entirely as the characters grew and the show aged away from the years when there was very much a culture of fear surrounding sex, but at the time, it was willing to embrace subject matter from which most network TV shows were running.
3. Brenda and Dylan Have Sex For the First Time: Season 1, Episode 21, “Spring Dance”
The penultimate episode of season one, the titular spring dance proves to be a backdrop to a number of significant moments: a drunken Steve reveals that he was adopted, a development that will drive a handful of stories for the character throughout his high school and early college years; Brandon tells a recently-enamored Kelly, his date for the dance, that he thinks of her like a sister, a declaration which, in a surprising show of restraint on the parts of the writers, effectively sidelines that potential romantic pairing until the end of the fourth season; and we get our first inklings of the David/Donna romance (and the beginning of the deeper integration of Brian Austin Green’s David into the show overall), a relationship that in the later years will supplant the Brenda/Dylan romance as the on-again/off-again/on-again narrative spine of the show.
But most importantly, “Spring Dance” is the episode in which Brenda and Dylan have sex, bringing the show’s ongoing conversation about sexual relationships in the ’90s to the foreground as the virginal Brenda sleeps with her less-virginal boyfriend for the first time. Not only does this add a layer of complexity to their relationship, it also adds to the show’s dialogue about sex, suggesting that strict abstinence isn’t always the answer, a departure from the usual TV fare aimed at teens.
4. Summer Begins, Brenda and Dylan End: Season 2, Episode 1, “Beach Blanket Brandon”
The second season premiere is notable for two reasons. One, it marks the first significant break-up in the Brenda/Dylan romance, as Brenda experiences a pregnancy scare and realizes she isn’t ready for the emotional ramifications of a sexual relationship, in a scene that forever linked Brenda and Dylan breaking up with REM’s “Losing My Religion” in the minds of many fans. It’s also a strong statement about sexual relationships: “Spring Dance” may have suggested that pre-marital sex isn’t inherently bad, but this episode counters that by suggesting that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone, all the time, either.
Secondly, this episode first aired in July of 1991, a full three months before the launch of the traditional network TV season, kicking off a string of summer-themed episodes (set mostly at and around the Beverly Hills Beach Club, where Brandon gets a summer job and his well-off friends all have memberships) that constituted some of the only original primetime TV programmings over the summer. As a result, this episode marks the beginning of the show’s rating dominance, as following strong numbers for its summer outings, it continued to rise in the ratings in the fall, improving on its mediocre first season numbers to quickly become one of Fox’s biggest hits. In doing so, it also hinted at the emergence of the year-round schedule, a transition TV is in the midst of now, by suggesting that original content could find an audience (and even thrive) during the hot summer months traditionally avoided by the networks.
5. Scott Scanlon Shoots Himself: Season 2, Episode 14, “The Next 50 Years”
Following the initial string of summer episodes, 90210 found itself with a narrative structural problem: Geeky David Silver, originally paired with his pal, the equally geeky Scott Scanlon (Douglas Emerson), for much of season one, had spent the summer transitioning into the core clique of main characters. This left Scott, already bland even in comparison to David, with little narrative purpose or much of a character to build stories around. So the show took advantage of the dead-end that had become Scott Scanlon to do another “very special episode”, this one about the dangers of handguns, as Scott (who spent the summer while David was becoming cool gaining an appreciation for firearms on his uncle’s ranch in Oklahoma) accidentally kills himself with his father’s gun while showing off for David at his birthday party. The ramifications of his death are, of course, focused more on David than anyone else—fittingly, as David’s growing characterization is what led to Scott’s irrelevancy and ultimate death in the first place, and the first departure of a series regular from the show.
6. Spinoff: Season 2, Episode 28, “Wedding Bell Blues”
The second season finale is once again filled with more relationship drama. In the wake of Kelly’s mom marrying David’s dad (thus cementing David’s place within the group and making him step-brother to the girl he creepily ogled throughout most of the first season), Brenda’s father Jim (James Eckhouse) forbids Brenda from seeing Dylan following a trip to Mexico that Jim had earlier expressly forbidden, prompting Dylan to angsty race away from the wedding. But “Wedding Bell Blues” also marked the end of Grant Show’s brief tenure on the show as Jake, a carpenter acquaintance of Dylan’s and brief love interest for Kelly, a tenure that was setting up the first 90210 spin-off, where Jake would be a regular: Melrose Place. It served as an indication of just how far the show had come, becoming such a ratings juggernaut that it could be used to launch a new series, one which applies the 90210 model of social topicality and frankness to the relationships woes of attractive twenty-somethings instead of teens (and in doing so, looking an awful lot like what 90210 would become years later after the characters graduated from college).
7. “I choose you.”: Season 3, Episode 19, “Back in the High Life Again”
Following their tumultuous trip to Mexico, and a brief period of teenaged rebellion-inspired and ill-conceived co-habitation, Brenda and Dylan spent most of season three’s summer episode apart: Brenda in Paris with Donna (and a hunky American played by Dean Cain) and Dylan on the beach with Kelly, in a storyline that found Brenda’s boyfriend and her best friend developing feelings for another. Before long, 90210 had on its hands that most stalwart of soap opera plotlines, the love triangle, as Dylan was forced to choose between Brenda and Kelly. Later in the season, after milking the triangle for all it was worth, Dylan did just that, surprising fans by choosing Kelly over Brenda. In the process, the central romantic paradigm of the series was uprooted, and a new “one true pairing” was introduced, that of Dylan and Kelly, a pairing which, thanks to Shannon Doherty’s eventual departure from the series, ran even longer and became more twisty and turny (not resolving until the very end of the series, in fact) than that of Dylan and Brenda.
8. Dylan’s Dad Explodes: Season 3, Episode 21, “Dead End”
Arguably the show’s biggest cop to its soap opera roots occurred later in the third season when Dylan, long-estranged from his father Jack (Josh Taylor)—who had been jailed earlier in the series for financial crimes—is given an opportunity to reconnect with his dad thanks to early parole and a newfound desire on Jack’s part to make up for lost time. However, it turns out Jack’s release is predicated on his testifying against his old mob buddies, which leads to Dylan’s reunion with his father being tragically cut short when Jack is seemingly killed by a car bomb. It’s outlandish and over-the-top (Luke Perry literally falls to his knees in the scene, clenching his fists in sorrow and rage), but it is memorable, and the creative team wisely gives the event its due, making the act of grieving for Dylan a plot point over the course of several episodes rather than quickly blowing past it.
9. “Donna Martin graduates!”: Season 3, Episode 28, “Something in the Air”
Arguably, no moment from 90210 is more seared into the pop culture zeitgeist than “Donna Martin graduates!”. After Donna (Tori Spelling) is caught drunk at the senior prom in the previous episode, she is immediately suspended and barred from graduation due to a new no-tolerance rule that was put into effect before the dance. This incites her friends to action, who organize a protest and convince the entire senior class to walk out on finals, marching on the school board and demanding that, well, Donna Martin graduates or none of them do (their argument essentially boils down to the new rule, which was meant to stamp down on repeat offenders, simply catching the wrong person at the wrong time, that Donna is receiving too harsh a punishment for one mistake).
In the process, the episode makes both subtle and overt allusions to the protest era of the ’60s and the Vietnam War. To adults, their protest comes across as deeply ridiculous, the allusions to the protests against Vietnam only heightening that sense, as the teens’ argument essentially boils down to, “our friend knowingly broke a rule, but she’s really nice and our friend, so she doesn’t deserve to be punished” (the continued arguments for Donna’s inherent goodness in this episode is also made more eye-rolling when recalling that she’s played by series creator Aaron Spelling’s daughter), which is in no way an approximation of the issues surrounding the protests of the ’60s. But to adolescents watching at the time, chants of “Donna Martin graduates!” gave a sense of righteous indignation, cheering from home as their favorite characters stood up against the perceived oppression of the adult world.
10. Graduation: Season 3, Episodes 29 & 30, “Commencement”
Though by no means a surprise (the show had been building up to it over the course of much of the third season), “Commencement” affirms something that wasn’t necessarily a given at the time: that the characters (played by actors who, for the most part, were already well past their teen years) would continue to grow up, and that the show would leave behind the familiar trappings of West Beverly High that had served as the backdrop to much of the series thus far. In doing so, “Commencement” opens the door to more adult stories, as the characters enter college and, eventually, outright adulthood, and in the process, gradually moving the series away from its initial “teen drama” template and towards a more traditional soap opera format.
11. David Does Drugs: Season 4, Episode 16, “Crunch Time”
Prior to the show’s fourth season, drug abuse had been addressed before, but mostly off on the side: Kelly’s mother was an occasionally-relapsing alcoholic and cocaine user, while Dylan’s alcoholism was an established part of his character from the get-go that occasionally reared its head (such as when his father died). But “Crunch Time” marks the first time one of the central characters of the show gets embroiled in a drug abuse storyline head-on, as David gets hooked on crystal meth in order to keep up with his college workload. It’s the first of what would become several drug abuse storylines on the show, as everyone from Kelly (cocaine) to Dylan (cocaine and heroin) to Donna (prescription meds) would eventually get saddled with drug addictions.
12. Goodbye Brenda: Season 4, Episodes 31 & 32, “Mr. Walsh Goes to Washington”
The fourth season finale could arguably fill one-fifth of this list alone. In the two-parter, Andrea (Gabrielle Carteris) completes her transformation away from the frumpy, bookish geek pining after Brandon when she gives birth to her daughter (a plot development written in at the request of Carteris to accommodate her real-life pregnancy), David and Donna, the romantic rock of 90210 for the last several seasons, break up after David, unable to handle Donna’s insistence on waiting for marriage to have sex, cheats on her with a record company executive, Brandon, and Kelly, a romantic pairing effectively shelved since season one’s “Spring Dance”, become a couple after the latest end to Kelly and Dylan’s relationship, thus launching a new romantic relationship that would become central to the show over the next four seasons, and Dylan loses his millions-of-dollars trust fund after signing it over to a pair of con artists.
But the biggest moment of the episode is the departure of Shannon Doherty, effectively one of the show’s co-leads and one of the series’ biggest stars at the time (with Brenda being written out by leaving Beverly Hills to attend a prestigious drama school in London), marking the first significant cast departure from the series. It won’t be the last time one of the main characters leaves the show, even one as seemingly-integral to the series as Brenda (in fact, by the time the show ends, the entire Walsh family, so important to the narrative when it began, will be gone), but her exit at the time was definitely a big deal, one which left the future of the show particularly uncertain, arguably even more so than the graduation at the end of the previous season did. Could the show continue without Brenda? If so, how would it fill the void she left behind? More than anything else setup by the momentous fourth season finale, those were the questions on fans’ minds as the series entered its fifth year.
13. Valerie arrives in Beverly Hills: Season 5, Episode 1, “What I Did On My Summer Vacation and Other Stories”
With the onset of the fifth season of Beverly Hills, 90210, the producers of the show found themselves needing to fill the void left behind by Shannon Doherty’s departure. To do so, they tapped Tiffani Amber-Thiessen, fresh off her iconic role as Kelly Kapowski on Saved by the Bell (the kind of squeaky-clean, brightly-colored, no-consequences teen show that 90210, in its early existence, was actively working in contrast against) to play Valerie Malone, an old friend of the Walshes transplanted from Buffalo, NY to Beverly Hills. And for the first 50 minutes of the episode, Valerie seems like a carbon copy of season one Brenda, friendly and sincere, with an aw-shucks take on her posh new surroundings that seems designed to rehash the show’s initial “fish out of water in Beverly Hills” days. But then, in the episode’s final act, after a day of playing tourist and meeting all of Brandon’s friends, Valerie retires to Brenda’s old room to light up a joint and call a friend in Buffalo, rolling her eyes at the square people and corny household she’s found herself in, and the message is clear: Valerie isn’t the best of Brenda, she’s the worst. Valerie would proceed to spend most of her time on the show oscillating between “sympathetic villain” and “scenery-chewing vamp”, an antagonist as often as a protagonist, bringing a unique and more soapy energy to the show that defined much of its later years.
14. House Fire: Season 5, Episode 13, “Up in Flames”
As 90210 grew older and its characters aged along with it, the show became more and more soapy, as increasingly outlandish plots were used to generate buzzy storylines in place of traditional teen drama plots and “very special episodes”. One of the biggest such moments, and one that had a significant impact on the course of season five, occurs when a house in which Steve (Ian Ziering) is throwing a rave (the culmination of his season-long ambition of becoming some kind of nightclub impresario) catches fire and Kelly is trapped inside, leading to her being severely burned before rescue arrives. In the short term, the house fire effectively ends Steve’s nightclub arc and, later, plays a part at the end of Brandon and Kelly’s relationship, but more importantly, the event signifies a shift for the show, an embrace of its soapy roots as it turns more and more to big, shocking events to generate buzz and keep viewers watching.
15. The Peach Pit After Dark opens its doors: Season 5, Episode 17, “Sweating It Out”
The Peach Pit—a ’50s-style diner that served as Brandon’s place of employment and a non-school hangout for the gang during the high school years—had been a part of the series since its earliest days, with its owner/operator, Nat (Joe E. Tata), featured as a recurring guest star and non-parental authority figure for the kids (in later seasons, Tata would be made a series regular, featured in the opening credits) and even occasionally getting his own storylines (to mixed results). But in season five, with the characters well-entrenched in college, a new, more adult hangout was needed, and the Peach Pit After Dark was born, an extension of the diner transformed into an after-hours dance club in part by the fire-thwarted ambitions of Steve. Through the years, ownership and management of the After Dark would pass from character to character in increasingly laughable degrees; at one time or another, Nat, Dylan, Valerie, David, and late-season addition Noah Hunter (Vincent Young) all own or operate the place.
But more significant than its role as a new hangout for the gang was the avenue it opened up for the show’s producers: Making a night club a recurring venue for the characters meant the show could book musical guests to play on its stage, giving the marketing department another way to bring eyes to the show as it hawked appearances by musicians ranging from Barenaked Ladies to Luther Vandross to the Corrs to Christina Aguilera, and many more. As a result, the margins of 90210‘s later years serve as a kind of time capsule of popular ’90s music.
16. Kelly joins a cult: Season 5, Episode 21, “Stormy Weather”
The culmination of the aftermath of Kelly’s experience in “Up in Flames”, this episode focuses on Brandon’s efforts to free Kelly from the control of a charismatic psychology professor who has essentially created a cult from within California University. It’s another outlandish, soapy plotline for the series, but also marks the effective return of Dylan to the series (who spent most of the season thus far in an increasingly drug-induced stupor, the fallout from his having lost his fortune at the end of season four). Having sobered up and retrieved his money from the crooks who stole it, Dylan joins Brandon in his efforts to rescue Kelly and in doing so, reintegrates himself into the series as something other than a drugged-out waste for the first time since the previous season.
17. “I choose me.”: Season 5, Episode 30, “Hello Life, Goodbye Beverly Hills”
The climax of both the first Brandon/Kelly relationship cycle (they’d get back together again—and break up again—later in the series) and the latest ride on the Dylan/Kelly relationship merry-go-round, both guys come to Kelly with a proposition: Brandon, of marriage, Dylan, with a trip around the world. Essentially put in the inverse of the situation she was in when Dylan chose her over Brenda back in season three, Kelly turns both men down, saying she instead chooses herself, vowing to spend some time single to better know herself following the traumatic events of the season. A decidedly empowered decision, it nonetheless did little to please the ‘shippers in either camp and was completely undone almost immediately when, in the premiere of the following season three episodes later, the dictates of soap-operatic plotting had Kelly return from a summer of finding herself with an entirely new boyfriend.
This episode also marks the final regular appearance of Andrea, the second main original cast member to leave the series. The character, who was married with an infant daughter, had already moved so much further afield of the rest of the characters that her departure didn’t have nearly the impact on the show that Brenda did.
18. Goodbye Jim and Cindy: Season 5, Episodes 31 & 32, “PS I love You”
The fifth season finale mostly deals with the fallout of Kelly’s decision in “Hello Life, Goodbye Beverly Hills”, as well as Dylan’s quest to learn more about the man who killed his father and an escalation in the abusive relationship between Donna and Ray (Jamie Walters, a musician/actor who made the most of the After Dark’s role on the show). But it’s most significant for featuring the final regular appearance of Brandon and Brenda’s parents, Jim (James Eckhouse) and Cindy (Carol Potter) on the show. Long relegated to a supporting role (the couple headlined only one episode, early in season one) but given increasingly less screen time as the main characters left high school and went to college, both actors declined to renew their initial five-year contracts with the show. With the series becoming more and more adult, it made sense to write out the traditional authority figures (although some questionable logic allowed for Brandon and his friends to continue staying in the family house, so as to not deny the show its signature and most stable setting), but it nonetheless marks a significant moment in the show’s transformation away from a teen drama and into a more traditional soap opera.
19. Dylan leaves: Season 6, Episode 10, “One Wedding and a Funeral”
One half of the show’s most famous and popular coupling, once Brenda left, Dylan probably wasn’t long for the show. Luke Perry outlasted Shannon Doherty by a season, but by the beginning of the show’s sixth season, the process of writing him out began (the actor reportedly left the show in search of more mature roles), as Dylan met and fell in love with Toni (Rebecca Gayheart), the daughter of the man who ordered the hit on Dylan’s father back in season three. Originally planning to use Toni to get at her father, Dylan eventually buried the hatchet and tried to move on as he fell for Toni, and with Dylan’s time on the show running out fast, the two characters quickly married. But her father refused to see her with Dylan and put out a hit on him instead. In a deep soap-operatic twist, it ended up being Toni, driving Dylan’s car, who was slain by her father’s assassin, leading Dylan, awash in grief, to leave Beverly Hills behind, seemingly for good.
20. David & Donna have sex: Season 7, Episodes 31 & 32, “Graduation Day”
The finale of the seventh season marks another turning point for the show. Like “Commencement” in season three, it transitions the characters out of one status quo and into another, but given that this transition takes them out of college and into full-on adulthood, it also marks the end of any pretense on the show’s part of being anything but a straightforward primetime soap opera, all but indistinguishable in style and structure from spinoff series Melrose Place (which also chronicled the lives of attractive twenty-somethings in California). Even though the previous seasons had featured plenty of increasingly adult and soap-operatic plotlines, the show could still technically claim it was chronicling the lives of students and twenty-somethings in different situations than adults, chiefly defined by their jobs. But that pretense, however flimsy, ended with this episode.
Tied in with that evolution is the fact that this episode also features the first time the show’s now most prominent recurring couple, David and Donna, have sex, thus ending Donna’s longstanding objection to pre-marital sex. While the decision certainly made sense for Donna, by making the one character remaining with a unique perspective on sexual relationships just like everyone else, the show essentially ended its ongoing conversation about sex in the ’90s, a conversation that had defined the show thus far, both narratively and in terms of its reputation. One later-season AIDS-scare aside, the series was, from this point on, essentially done talking about sex and depicting ramifications of sexual relationships in any terms other than plot-related ones (i.e., who was sleeping with whom and why), thus stripping away one more thing that made the series both notable and unique.
21. The Last of the Walshes: Season 9, Episode 5, “Brandon Leaves”
When 90210 began, it was the story of one Midwestern family adjusting to life in posh Beverly Hills at the start of the ’90s. Then Brenda left at the end of season four, and her parents followed suit at the end of season five. Eight episodes into season nine, it was Brandon’s turn (the character left Beverly Hills to take a reporting job out east), and suddenly, the only thing left of the Walshes, the characters around whom the entire series was built, was their signature house (which, with a little hand-waving dialogue by Brandon on his way out the door, was left in the care of Steve). While the fish-out-water stories had long ago run their course (essentially by the end of the first season), the ever-diminishing-in-number Walshes remained central to the show’s narrative and the departure of the last one left a hole in the show that it would spend the remainder of its time trying to fill (to varying degrees of success).
22. The Return of Dylan: Season 9, Episode 7, “You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello”
Two episodes after Brandon left, the series reclaimed if not one of the Walshes, then arguably the show’s most popular character when Luke Perry, reportedly for financial reasons, returned to the series. Billed as a “Special Guest Star” every week, he would stick it out to the very end of the series this time. By this point, the law of diminishing returns had set in, and most of the stories the character was given were simply rehashes of earlier ones, including another round of substance abuse stories and the return of his on-again/off-again relationship with Kelly. But having Dylan around again, even in a warmed overcapacity and without Brenda, was enough to shore up the interest of longtime fans in the show’s final years.
23. Steve and Janet Get Married: Season 10, Episode 8, “Baby, You Can Drive My Car”
For most of 90210‘s run, Steve was Brandon’s horndog friend, a well-meaning doofus who nevertheless found himself making one poor decision after another: breaking into the high school to change his grades, stealing a term paper from Brandon, and passing it off as his own, transforming the newspaper he launched with Brandon into a tabloid rag. But with Brandon gone and the returned Dylan slotted back into his traditional “rebel without a cause” role, Steve more or less by default became the closest thing the show had to a traditional leading man, and nothing signifies that transformation so much as this episode, in which he marries his pregnant girlfriend, Janet (Lindsay Price). Shortly thereafter, their daughter was born and the former frat boy goof-off would spend the remainder of the series as a relatively low-key family man, one of the few characters to actually figure it all out and find lasting happiness on-screen.
24. The Return of Jack McKay: Season 10, Episode 18, “Eddie Waitkus”
As the series neared its conclusion more or less fully disconnected from anything resembling its initial premise for a good three years, there were plenty of moments along the way that could be considered “shark-jumping” moments, ones that saw the series becoming little more than a traditional soap opera: Valerie blackmailing a married man with whom she had an affair, Kelly getting shot and then developing amnesia, Noah getting kidnapped and held for ransom, Matt (Daniel Cosgrove) revealing that he’s actually married, to a woman living in a mental hospital. But easily the biggest shark-jump of all occurs when Dylan learns that his father, who seemingly blew up in season three, faked his death and entered the Witness Protection Program. The sudden return of a long-thought-dead character is a retcon that comes right out of page one of the soap opera/serialized fiction playbook, and nothing signifies the end of the show’s transformation into a full-on soap opera better than the return of Jack McKay.
25. David and Donna Get Married: Season 10, Episode 27, “Ode to Joy”
By the time 90210‘s series finale aired in May of 2000, the show was a shadow of its former self, all pretense at any level of social relevance long gone, its role in the pop culture conversation all but diminished, with the only remnants of what it once was the few remaining characters left from the show’s early years (and, of course, the Walsh house). The TV landscape, too, had changed dramatically since its debut ten years earlier (and was on the verge of changing even more radically). Shows like 90210, be they the teen drama it started out as or the more adult-focused soap opera it had become, was waning in popularity. What audience it had left was comprised mostly of diehard fans, ones who’d been with the show from the beginning, who simply wanted to see what happened to these characters whose lives they’d followed for so long.
Given the departures of Brandon and Brenda and the disruption to the Dylan/Kelly relationship caused by Luke Perry’s brief absence from the show, the central romance of the series by the time the show reached its conclusion, more or less by default, was that of David and Donna. Fittingly then, their wedding serves as the focus of the final episode, a backdrop against which the characters reflect on their lives together and the fans say goodbye to the characters. Though Brandon pops up briefly via video (Jason Priestly, though no longer acting on the show, remained an executive producer), none of the Walshes who served as the primary storytelling engine of the series appear in the finale, but the producers did their best to cram in as many old faces as they can (including Kelly’s mom, Valerie, who left the show shortly after Brandon, and inexplicably, the gang’s old high school guidance counselor, Mrs. Teasley) and in the end, Dylan and Kelly affirm their love for one another, as the episode does everything it can to seem momentous.
But the central event, for the characters and the fans, is David and Donna’s wedding, the two characters who, more or less by default (the result of a long-running series that dealt with significant cast shakeups) had become the central characters of the series’ narrative. No one watching or involved with the show when it began likely would have predicted that, by the end, one character who was positioned chiefly as an annoyance to the main characters and another who was little more than a glorified extra (albeit an extra played by the series’ creator’s daughter) would become the characters around whom the series finale would be built. That the final episode is all about David and Donna speaks volumes about the transformation the show underwent in its ten-year run, as it transitioned from a buzzy, earnest, and wildly-popular teen drama that helped put the Fox network on the map to a long-in-the-tooth soap opera limping along on the goodwill of its diehard fans, a near-afterthought to a network on the cusp of major, industry-wide changes.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.