The cover of Vanity Fair in July 1992, inevitably shared online a lot Monday, featured a picture of a ludicrously sexy, shirtless Luke Perry, sitting slouchily in dirty jeans and dirty boots, a gun in his lap (this, a time when guns could be used non-controversially as accessories on magazine covers).
“Is Luke a Fluke?” the Vanity Fair headline asked.
Well, yes and no. The phenomenon of sudden stardom is a fluke; but then you look at Luke Perry, and you think: Of course it had to happen. He was the right guy in the right TV show at the right cultural moment.
In July 1992, Perry was not just a pin-up for teens, but for anyone else who watched Beverly Hills, 90210, and that is why Perry’s death at 52 is so piercing. “Too young,” goes the refrain at the moment of such an untimely death and particularly so for all those Gen X-ers who still feel young (or at least not yet old) and who saw Perry still handsome and vital in Riverdale.
The early '90s are not so far away, and suddenly one of Gen X’s brightest and sexiest has been transported over the Styx. Original 90210 fans are sad about Perry, and also alarmed at a more general knock of too-early-thanks mortality.
The show was revived once nearly a decade ago, and a third iteration is rumored, and so the significance of the original 90210 may need to be re-emphasized. When it premiered in 1990, Beverly Hills 90210 was a soap opera that bridged the sexiness and plots of adult prime-time soaps like Dynasty with late teenage-world, and the not-small issues of losing of one’s virginity, drug addiction, and college—all traumas magically rounded out with a milkshake and basket of fries at the Peach Pit.
It wasn’t Saved By The Bell, it wasn’t Dallas, but it lived in a strange and vibrant hinterland between the two. It took teenage life seriously, but it had the prime-time glamor the likes of Degrassi, Grange Hill, and Neighbours lacked. It was set in Beverly Hills. The first episode saw the kids getting their cars valet-parked at West Beverly High. It became an international hit show. From it, we can trace a line through shows including Dawson's Creek, The O.C., One Tree Hill, Buffy, and all those reality shows with young people acting way older than they should, like The Hills.
As the original 90210 cast got older, so the characters left school, got jobs and even crazier story lines—but still they were a gang and stayed a gang, cast changes notwithstanding, to the end of the tenth and final season in 2000.
This was show creator Darren Star’s first big TV hit, and the addictive recipes of 90210 went on to be even further refined in Melrose Place and later Sex and The City.
The pose on that Vanity Fair cover said everything about Perry’s sudden ubiquity; he photographed as the modern reincarnation of the rebel without a cause. With those sideburns, quiff, and yearning doe eyes, he even looked like James Dean.
Star and the casting directors of the original 90210 saw in Perry exactly what that photograph captured. They made Dylan McKay, Perry’s character, the outsider, the slightly more adult one hitting the waves on his surfboard, a diamond and a bit of rough. The others were in school, but Dylan was in the school of life; and his clean-cut-though-forbidden fruit vibe made him catnip for the show's heterosexual female characters.
By 1992 the show was about to start its third season, and its soap opera elements were beginning to throb, prime among them the love triangle of Brenda, Dylan, and Kelly. Even now, this fan remembers that love triangle, and how long and tortuously it rumbled throughout my university career.
Nearly 30 years later, I discovered this afternoon, via a TV Line poll published last year, this love triangle is still hotly debated. Are you Team Brenda or Team Kelly, a survey asks me.
Wow. That’s a question, a declare-yourself Hillary or Bernie choice for 90210 fans.
Because soap operas depend on certain source loyalties and original couplings, my mind first goes back to Brenda and Dylan, of course. That romance seemed at first like opposites attract, Shannen Doherty’s character from Minnesota, family freshly landed in Lalaland, and goggle-eyed over sexy, dangerous Dylan the first moment she saw him.
The Brenda and Dylan relationship was a riot even before Kelly (Jennie Garth) was written in as a complicating element. Brenda lost her virginity to him, worried she might be pregnant by him, ran away to Mexico with him, and even moved in with him, each twist inducing her protective father Jim (hot-dad James Eckhouse) to near apoplexy. Bad boys may be sexy to sensible girls, but they are devils incarnate to protective fathers.
There was an added off-screen knot: the reputation of Shannon Doherty as an unprofessional, demanding diva, which birthed the infamous, pre-internet tattle-tale “I Hate Brenda” newsletter. And so Brenda acquired an edge, started wearing black, and then—fatefully—was sent by her frustrated parents to Paris.
Now, Paris may seem a strange choice of punishment, because while Dylan may not have been there, theees is a city full of brooding, floppy-haired men who smoke cigarettes and ride on motorcycles.
But Paris was a necessary plot ruse to get Dylan together with Kelly. Before this, both being worldly wise West Coasters, the characters had merely served to socialize the Middle American Walshes into the party-on ways of Beverly Hills. But soon, they were fighting an attraction they could no longer… and, well, you can guess the rest.
There was the terrible moment when Brenda found out in season three, the, like, total, like, sense of, like, betrayal she felt of boyfriend and best friend.
But Brenda wasn’t done, and all through season 4, Dylan and Kelly and Brenda were involved in their own kind of complicated do-si-do, until Doherty left the show. Kelly was frustrated every time Dylan went rushing to help Brenda. Brenda was cheerful just to cause trouble. Dylan rightly called the situation “a Bermuda triangle.”
Perry left the show in the middle of season 6, after Dylan's shady father had been killed (later in the show he would be returned to life!); and after he had fallen in love with Toni, the daughter of the man who he had thought had killed his father. Kelly fell in love with Brandon (Jason Priestley), Brenda’s brother, and then—faced with a choice between Dylan and Brandon—said, “I choose me.”
Are you as exhausted as a 90210 fan yet?
When Dylan returned in season 9, the writers continued to toy with us, putting him and Kelly together and then not, just as she was finding happiness with another character, Matt. He also revealed he had been with Brenda for the last two years. He acquired a heroin and cocaine dependency. There was a new love triangle, with Gina (Vanessa Marcil) and Kelly. And then, finally, in the last episode of the show, Kelly and Dylan were romantically reunited.
Then, sigh, in the 2008 reboot, Kelly revealed she and Dylan were estranged and shared a young son named Sammy. Brenda returned, with both women remembering they were still Dylan devotees; and so we were back to where we began, this time absent Dylan.
Note that this “Bermuda triangle” never really resolved itself. When all its players were on the stage, right up until the end of season four, the show—like the audience—couldn’t make up its mind. Kelly and Dylan only made sense in the original show’s finale with Brenda very much not there. Eight years later, Dylan was still the disruptive ghost when Brenda and Kelly were reunited as friends.
Often, ultimately, love triangles are resolved by soap operas. They have to be. The audience requires it. So you make one of the participants a villain, or you pair a character off with a new love interest. But sometimes, good writers and producers recognize that the triangle itself is the drama, a both-sides, equally weighted, shifting-audience-loyalties love story. That is where Beverly Hills, 90210 ultimately left Brenda, Dylan, and Kelly.
If Luke Perry had lived, and if he had taken part in the third 90210 (he was into the idea when asked in 2017; and if now indeed it happens), would we have been tired to see that triangle be reborn again, 26 years after its first go-around? Never.
The Brenda-Dylan-Kelly triangle was its own romance, eternally strange and unfinished, as much about tangled friendship as it was about tangled love. That triangle will outlive Perry, indeed all of us. Like the best TV, and like the best plots on TV and like memories of Perry himself, it occupies its own cherished afterlife.
Oh, the poll I took was a clear win for Brenda—64.88 per cent to Kelly’s 35.12.
I voted Kelly.