September 9, 2008
Pandering to the Gilded Age Television
By Alessandra Stanley
In the past 18 years the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has widened and the middle class has grown ever smaller and more squeezed.And that's just the teenagers.
The new incarnation of "Beverly Hills 90210" made its splashy two- hour debut last week adjusted for inflation. As in MTV's "Hills" and the CW network's "Gossip Girl" and "Privileged," the conceit of CW's "90210" isn't fish out of water so much as fish moving into an even bigger swimming pool.
On the first season of "Beverly Hills 90210," in 1990, an average Midwestern family, the Walshes, moved to California from Minnesota, and the kids had to confront - and assimilate - Beverly Hills privilege and snobbery.
The 2.0 versions of the 90210 family, the Wilsons, come from Kansas, but they are hardly outsiders. The father, Harry (Rob Estes), is the son of a wealthy, hard-tippling former actress, Tabitha (Jessica Walter). He is a prodigal Beverly Hills prince who returns to his old high school as the new principal and moves right back into the family mansion, a Renaissance-style villa.
The wealthy on television are now really, really wealthy, and anyone who doesn't have a beach house and a butler might as well be on welfare. Class tensions divide not just the haves and have-nots, but the haves and have-mores: upper-middle-class heroes contending with classmates whose financial resources and social connections are fabulous and endless.
When the Wilsons' teenage daughter Annie (Shenae Grimes) is asked out by a handsome schoolmate, she is dazzled not by his sports car, but by the private jet he uses to whisk her to an after-school date in San Francisco. "That's what kids here do," Annie tells her mother.
"They have planes. And they go places, and they don't tell their parents because it's no big deal."
The mom, Debbie (Lori Loughlin), is appalled that Annie didn't clear the trip with her, but not by the date itself - perhaps because she too has made a shift, hers into a glamorous career in fashion photography.
The Wilsons' adopted son, Dixon (Tristan Wilds, "The Wire"), is African-American and blends in even more seamlessly than his sister.
George Orwell described his family as "lower upper middle" to capture the niggling class differences of prewar Britain. Post- Reagan America has a similar pecking order; what passes for middle class on some of the more popular teen dramas is actually lower upper middle.
Dan and Jenny, the supposedly average kids who serve as social foils to the ultrarich of "Gossip Girl," are not Wal-Mart shoppers. They live in fashionable Brooklyn, and their father is a former rock musician and art-gallery owner.
Megan (JoAnna Garcia) is a world-class journalist and the heroine of "Privileged," which was to make its debut on Tuesday. She is too classy to work for a tabloid and ends up a private tutor to spoiled, willful teenage twins, the granddaughters of an art-collecting cosmetics mogul in Palm Beach, Florida. Megan is more Baby Jane Holzer than Jane Eyre; she's a lovely, refined Yale graduate who was raised in nearby Fort Lauderdale but seems quite at ease in high society.
It's quite a change from the days of Ozzie and Harriet and even the Huxtables of "The Cosby Show," back when the most notable young people on television belonged to an amorphous but comfortable middle class. Upper-class kids were rare, marginal characters who furthered a story line by being snooty or pathetic - poor little rich girls.
After the Reagan revolution restored Gilded Age values, plutocratic wealth became fashionable on prime-time soaps like "Dynasty" and "Falcon Crest." And though "Beverly Hills 90210" was the first to put teenagers in Mercedes and Gucci, that flame was passed to shows like "The OC,""The Hills" and, more recently, "Gossip Girl."
They don't require subtitles. Even the most humble viewers, tutored by television, magazines and Web sites about heiresses and rap stars, are cozily familiar with the iconography of wealth and allusions to the Hotel du Cap, the Hamptons and Tuscany.
It could be that adolescents, like their parents, simply do not want to identify with ordinary folk. The economy is bad, but it's still an aspirational age. Some economists argue that many lower- income Americans, young and old, vote against their own financial interests - opposing tax increases on the wealthy or a national health-insurance plan - because they identify with people who have more money and hope and even assume that someday they too will reach those lofty tax brackets.
Teenagers are known for having eating disorders caused in part by body-image distortion. Increasingly some seem to suffer from income dysmorphia. Sex and beauty could also be to blame; sex sells, but it is oversold on prime-time television. Money has more elusive allure.
"Here, it's the dress you loved from Maxfield," the "90210" school queen bee says, handing Annie a big shopping bag from a fancy clothing store on Melrose Avenue. "I bought it for you anyway because that's what friends do."
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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