Early in the 1990s, I graduated from high school with my best friends. Well, one of them, Donna Martin, almost didn't graduate because she got drunk at prom, but thanks to all of us pulling together and protesting outside the school board building, they came down easier on her. In fact, I didn't go to West Beverly, the high school on Beverly Hills, 90210, the first incarnation of the teen soap that ran from 1990-2000. I couldn't; like Andrea Zuckerman, I was a Jewish girl zoned outside Beverly Hills. Far outside, actually—I was stuck in an all-girls yeshiva in Queens with no prom to speak of, and not too many real-life friends.
I approach Janet, 55, an ardent feminist and author who watches Gossip Girl. Why do you watch? “The characters, the storylines, the CLOTHES.” She signs her email, xoxo.
That's why, in high school, the show meant something to me. Trapped in a religious vortex devoid of flirtation or the good hygiene that comes with the prospect of seeing boys every day, I yearned for any sign of a real teenage experience. I was convinced that I'd have been beautiful, popular, and skinny if only I weren't stuck… here. TV was where I went to imagine that. I was hooked, addicted to what I understood to be real life, a life that awaited me outside my yeshiva walls. A life I had to be prepared for the minute I busted out.
So it makes perfect sense why I was watching Beverly Hills, 90210 in 1990. What doesn't make sense is why I am sitting here in 2010, at age 34, tapping my fingers, waiting for the long hours until 90210 finally returns from hiatus tonight to resume its second season.
To be fair, part of this is by the show's design. In the CW's rebooted version, now called just 90210, the first season was populated by characters from the original—sprinkled throughout the new teen cast—specifically for people like me who had watched the show's first run. And it was gratifying at first: Dylan's the father of Kelly's baby! Brenda and Kelly still hate each other! Donna's still a terrible actress!
But 90210 wasn't the first teen soap to tempt me in recent years. No, that would be Gossip Girl, which tends to heavily promote another CW show, One Tree Hill. The commercials for One Tree Hill were alluring: More often than not, a squinty-eyed jock would try to make sense of what seemed to be a terrible relationship with a dumb-looking half-brother, also a jock. They rotated through the same three girls. Each time they ended up with one of these three revolving girls, they'd say something like, "Don't you know it's always been you?" I couldn't look away. My CW addiction became full-blown.
Was I the only one trying to squeeze myself into a demographic that didn't really want me? A look at the ratings tells me that maybe I'm wrong; maybe they don't just want me, they need me. The median age for viewers of the CW is 33.6, just a year younger than I am, and at the upper end of the 18-to-34 demographic that the network's advertisers target. Further breakdown reveals that per show, the average number of 12 to 17 year olds viewing is a mere 165,000, whereas the network regularly snags 1,053,000 18 to 49 year olds.
So it's not just me. That's a relief. But it still doesn't make sense to me why we're watching. I put out a call on Facebook to investigate. " 90210! I love it!" writes one friend. "I watch One Tree Hill!" says another. "You know I love Gossip Girl," writes still another.
These are people in their 30s (and beyond) watching shows that are by no means meant for them. I write back to these people, asking them to really think. I remind them of the amount of hours in the day, their obligations, their kids, their jobs. Still nothing. "I love the clothes!" "I can't wait to see what happens next!"
Through the grapevine I hear of Dick, a 35-year old attorney in Los Angeles. Dick and his wife, Laura, have three kids and are respected members of their community. Now, why would a guy like Dick watch 90210?
"We are constantly surrounded by people," he says. "But we live with so many barriers between us and the rest of the world—socio-economic, gender, sexual, educational—that it is hard to connect personally with others. In the world of 90210, [the characters] may constantly disappoint one another and have moments of failure and of redemption, but at the end of the day, they matter to one another. If Dixon breaks up with Silver, it matters to Teddy because Silver might now be the love of his life. If Adrianna becomes a junkie again, it impacts the whole crew."
Now, if a fancy lawyer like Dick can be contemplative and genuine about his love for the CW, why can't we all be? Were my other interviewees just lying to me, to themselves, about why they watch?
Hoping for similar gravitas, I approach Janet, 55, an ardent feminist and author who watches Gossip Girl. I am sure she is going to say that she is watching as a cultural anthropologist, eager to learn how women and teenagers are being subjugated. So I write Janet an email: Why do you watch?
"The characters, the storylines, the CLOTHES." She signs her email, xoxo.
Really? I ask. There's no other reason, like maybe you wish you weren't a feminist and could just play along? Or maybe you wish you could just wear nice clothes and have money and not think? Maybe you wish you were Jenny, rising from the ranks of Brooklyn all the way up to the Met stairs…
Janet gives me this: "I also have teens and enjoy using some of the situations as moments to talk about priorities and values, money, class, parenting."
I guess that's something.
Finally, I come upon Mary, 34, a passionate fan of One Tree Hill and Vampire Diaries. "I wish I had been that cute in high school. I wish I had had a cute boyfriend who adored me. I wish I had a rocking teenage body. By watching One Tree Hill, I get to relive a little of that life when everything was possible, before the disappointments and regrets set in."
Mary goes on: "The plot lines of teen versus adult focused soapy dramas are the same—who gets the guy, problems with parents, finding new friends, fighting with old. I wonder if part of our watching this stuff has something to do with high school not having worked out the way we wanted to. I was miserable and fat in high school, and I feel like if I get to be someone like Brooke Davis, it makes my own experience a little better."
Finally we're getting somewhere. Yet, as much as I want us all to find a deep-down truth to why we watch the CW, I can't ignore the data: Of the 44 people I polled, only three of them said something other than the fact that they love the hair, the clothes, the plots, as cheesy and unlikely as they are.
Is it possible that those who gave me contemplative answers were lying? Is it possible that the people who said they simply enjoy the show are more at-ease with themselves and don't feel the need to justify their nightly escape?
Or all we all just nostalgic? Vampire Diaries and Supernatural (both ratings hits for the CW) fill a void that was left by Buffy the Vampire Slayer; One Tree Hill is not unlike Dawson's Creek or even Everwood, in the sense that it's a rural town-based drama about friends and relationships. And 90210 is, well, 90210, right down to Erin Silver, all grown up. Perhaps just like the new parents of today are marketed the toys from their youth (Easy Bake Ovens and Strawberry Shortcakes and Transformers), we are marketed Life Unexpected, for those of us who miss Party of Five. And when we wear out our DVD collection of The O.C., we can catch all the great clothing, snobbishness, and banter we crave by tuning into Gossip Girl.
But maybe the reason I watch is even more obvious, if somehow more pathetic. When my CW dependence began, I had left my job and was in the process of preparing for a huge life change. For the first time in my life, I wouldn't work, and was exchanging my identity as an ambitious career person for something more nebulous, something unknown to me. Maybe I was seeking emotional catharsis through the safe prism of time and distance. When last we left our friends in Beverly Hills, Naomi had apologized to Annie for making her year hell. The gang banded together to help Adrianna. Every time there's an apology, every time there is forgiveness, maybe a little part of me and the Marys of the world feel vindicated. When we're back in high school, righting all those wrongs, that means we're not here, dealing with the very grownup world we somehow awoke in.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner has written for the Los Angeles Times, Salon, and Self, among other publications. She lives with her husband, Claude, and her son, Ezra, in Los Angeles.