Wednesday, August 14, 2019

TV: The Prolonged Puberty of Teen Idols

Last Wednesday, the highest rated network show was CBS' long running BIG BROTHER series.  The only real surprise was that, nipping at its heels, was the debut of FOX's new series BH90210.  A few more viewers (.12 million) and it would have beat BIG BROTHER.  What may be most amazing about Wednesday night is that 14 million people were watching the broadcast networks on a summer night -- that's because they are programming for summer finally.


When we started reviewing here nearly 15 years ago (15 in January), we would talk about how the networks were giving away viewers.  Not bleeding them mind you, but giving them away.  Basic cable stations like USA were programming shows in the summer -- IN PLAIN SIGHT, for example.  And the broadcast networks were largely sleeping on the job.

July 31st, VARIETY quoted FOX ENTERTAINMENT president Michael Thorn stating a new reality, "You will see a variety of order patterns in comedy and drama. It's a 52-week business, and we are really looking at our schedule and looking for ways to be more opportunistic about the way we launch shows."

It's certainly taken them long enough to voice that reality.

Last Wednesday, ABC, CBS, THE CW, NBC and FOX had two hours of new programming -- CBS, ABC and NBC had three.  The most competitive was the second hour where BH90210 debuted.

What is BH90210?  Many were hoping it was the return of Brenda, Kelly, Donna, David, Steve, etc.  It wasn't.   What Jenny Garth and Tori Spelling had sold the distributor on was that they and other original 90210 castmates would play spoofs of themselves in a faux reality show (though aren't all 'reality' shows pretty much faux reality?).

Along the way to filming, Luke Perry died.  He'd played Dylan.  Promotion for the show included stressing that he would be remembered in the first episode.  That may have helped ratings.  It may not.  What everyone is pretty much watching for is the return of Shannen Doherty.  Shannen played Brenda on the original series and she and Luke Perry were the show's super couple (Brenda and Dylan) and the show's biggest stars.

Shannen left in season four.  Her father was ill and she was on a phased out schedule but then wanted to remain with the show.  The producers didn't want that.  Was she that out of control?  Apparently not.  There were shooting delays but nothing like what Bruce Willis pulled on the set of MOONLIGHTING, for example.  Episodes were finished on time.

It was popular to hate her and many did.  Many also liked her.

Her co-stars could have saved her but didn't want to.

Why?  Maybe jealousy.  If you're the beautiful Jenny Garth wondering why your character isn't the most popular, maybe you don't see Shannen off the show as a bad thing.  If you're the ridiculous Jason Priestley, maybe you're eager to see her go as well.

Shannen can act.  And people want to see what happens when she acts opposite these old cast mates.

Which is why episode two (tonight) will do well in the ratings.  How episodes after (it's a six episode run) will fair will be the real test to determine whether or not BH90210 has a second season.

In the first episode, everyone gushed over Luke Perry.

Which is how you knew the show was full of s**t.  Luke never met a moment he couldn't work the word "f*g" into and he started that while he was first appearing on the show.  For his homophobia on full display, read the 1992 VANITY FAIR cover story and note how he is the injured party -- not any person who is gay and struggling in a homophobic world.

Luke couldn't act.  That's reality.  He could pose.  But he couldn't act.  We were kind when he died.  We didn't write about how hard we laughed when idiots on Twitter started saying he was the James Dean of his generation.  We laughed.  But we kept it to ourselves since the wounds were still fresh for so many.

But he's dead and the loss of another homophobe is no real loss at all.

From the VANITY FAIR article, let's Luke speak for himself:

Especially in show business: it’s a fag-o-rama! The gay people who bother me are the ones who are offended that you take notice that they are gay. To me, it should be as open to conversation as anything else. But because I’m the handsome leading man, everybody wants to get in my closet and find out I’ve been a fag. ... I can understand why Tom Selleck sued the Globe. Because that’s business. People think Tom Selleck’s gay, then they’re not going to be showing up to see his movies. They just took a lot of money out of his pocket.

Again, the loss of another homophobe is no real loss at all.

Luke thought he'd have a career after 90210.  He really didn't.  He worked from time to time but nothing memorable.  In 2006's "TV Review: Windfallen Perry and Gedrick," we noted the bomb that was WINDFALL:

There's the fact that he's married, the fact that she's married. Too many facts and, frankly, not enough heat to justify the tears she works up over the whole non-tragedy.

You'd be crying too if you were caught in a lose-lose triangle with Gedrick and Luke Perry. Perry plays Nina's husband Peter. Perry hasn't ballooned the way Gedrick has. He more or less looks the same. Even his "hair" more or less looks the same. (We feel like we may be spoiling Christmas for a few die hards, but it does require comment.)

Some might argue he's "still the same." He does do exactly the same thing in this role that he did in the one that brought him to national attention -- which is sad not only because the two characters have different names but also because they have very different life experiences.

When he shot to fame, Perry was bad boy Dylan on 90210. He (wisely) left the show when he got tired of too many "Let me explain the moral" storylines. He (unwisely) returned to the show. Here he (unwisely) uses the same squint, pursed lips and head tilt. The three externals are pulled out of mothballs but he's never thought of exploring the interior which is why his performance is as hollow as a chocolate Easter bunny.

It's not the role of a young man beginning a journey but Perry plays it as though it is. It wasn't all that convincing on 90210 but, for the first seasons, the pull-her-pigtails-and-smirk non-performance benefitted from his co-star Shannen Doherty who brought a lot more to the scenes than she was ever given credit for. "We work together," Perry once infamously replied when asked what his relationship with Doherty was like. And did he like her? "We work together," he repeated.

Parrilla is who he works with now and there's nothing but dialogue between them onscreen. It's a bit hard to get worked up over Nina's 'conflict' of whether she should leave her boring husband for a boring ex-boyfriend but the editing may distract some. When Perry begins slamming fists and doing his earnest, slow, loud voice, water cooler critics may hail it as "acting" and start humming "Papa Has A Brand New Bag," but the reality is that Felix has the same bag but far less tricks.

But Luke was treated like God in the reverent response the cast gave at the mention of his name.  They're meeting up at a reunion for the fans.  And Luke's not there.  Nor is Shannen.  She's saving animals.  But she does appear via the internet and, when she speaks, it's hard not to notice how much hatred Jason Priestly and the ridiculous Gabrielle Carteris pour into that scene.  Is that really how Carteris, the current president of SAG-AFTRA wants to be seen?

Let's talk about some good things you see.  Jenny and Tori planned well for themselves.  They can carry this concept and do.  They are delightful.  The same is true of Brian Austin Green and Ivan Sergei (he's playing Tori's husband Nate).  They are wonderful.  We can even find nice things to say about Ian Ziering's acting.

But that's really where the traffic stops.

Who are we leaving out?

Jason Priestly.

In a photo that's outlived any of his performances -- and is also more memorable than his acting -- Jason stood next to Luke.  Both were shirtless, both wore Vietnamese conical bamboo hats, both had cigarettes in their mouths, both had their blue jeans pulled down around their ankles and both were wearing boxers.

The takeaway from the photo was that Luke was a man -- leg hair, chest hair, pit hair, bulge in the front of his underwear -- while Jason was a Ken doll -- smooth all over, a hairless terrier who packed nothing in the front of his shorts.

The years since passed slowly but between his butt scenes in CALENDAR GIRL and later films COLD BLOODED and LOVE AND DEATH ON LONG ISLAND, Jason finally began to sprout big-boy hairs.  More likely, he'd just stopped shaving them.  There's something very sad about a 21-year-old 'man' playing a 15-year-old boy (which was what he did on 90210).

Though he finally sprouted big boy hairs, he never learned what to do with a big boy body.

Watching the first episode of BH90210, that was so obvious.

Though he was given more storyline than any other character on the spoof (he's now a director, he punches out actors he directs, his wife is his publicist, he thinks he loves her but he sleeps with Jenny at the reunion -- not because he loves Jenny . . .).  Dostoevsky didn't provide that much backstory for Sonya and Rodion combined in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT.

He had so much to play but, being Jason Priestly, he couldn't play any of it.

Teen idols -- especially pre-teen ones which is what Jason once was -- have a hard time in real life.  They're loved for being chaste.  Little girls and little boys not yet having sex watch these vapid, paper dolls and fall in love with the idea of love.  When they grow up a little, they're ready for boys who will do the nasty.  These boys are a step above the teen idols but they're preaching chastity, as ROLLING STONE once observed, their message is "the beastie is there but we'll keep it on a leash."

Jason excelled at Brandon because Brandon was nothing back then.  Now that he's expected to have had a life and experience, Jason can't convincingly act the role.

He honestly reminds us of another teen idol a friend directed a few years ago.  It was a play and the actor had been a teen idol on TV.  He'd been cast -- for what his name once was -- in a juicy part but it was the lead and he had all these ideas about what he shouldn't do.

He couldn't let down his fans, he explained over and over.

The director tried everything to get a performance out of him.  Nothing worked.  He tried brainstorming and he even invited the actor to dinner with us where we could all brainstorm.  To every suggestion -- even something as mild as 'act from the crotch' -- he would give a reason why his fans wouldn't want to see him do that.  He stuck to his guns and gave a text book example of a bad performance.  The critics that did bother to review it were not kind.

Fade out.

Fade in four years later and we're leaving a party and waiting for the car when he walks over (he was actually working parking -- is it too harsh to add "not very convincingly"?).  How are we?  How is he?  Pleasantries quickly dispensed with, he's been thinking recently, he says, about that performance and all the suggestions so many people made for him to develop and discover the character.

"If I had it to do over now," he told us, "I'd probably do at least half of those suggestions."

But that's the thing about these teen idols.  There are no do overs.

There's only the moment that they're given a chance.  Instead of seizing the moment, they're paralyzed by the thought of doing anything new and trapped in the prolonged puberty that first brought them to fame.

That's Jason Priestly.  No amount of behind the scenes work by Tori and Jenny is ever going to change that.

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