In Depth

Column: '90210' Exceeds CW's No Expectations

What do "90210" and Sarah Palin have in common? Both seem poised to score surprise victories in the media expectations game.

By having so much "dirt" emerge before her Wednesday acceptance speech, the GOP vice presidential pick may only need to show she's semi-smart and not some sort of right-wing wacko in order to emerge successfully from her first big test in front of a mass audience. It's a point Time magazine's TV guru makes much better here.

Likewise, the CW and Paramount Network TV publicity team made a genius decision by opting not to send out screeners of the new "90210." Critics whined, but they also smelled a bomb. No way the little C-Dub network would opt against free PR unless their new show was a stinker, right?

Wrong. The early reviews are out, and so far, initial buzz ranges from indifferent to positive. Given the train wreck/stink bomb/disaster of epic, "Seaquest" proportions some were predicting, that could be enough to allow "90210" to emerge with post-premiere hype as loud and excited as the pre-show build-up.

"90210" isn't just a winner compared to expectations. My take? It's pretty decent television. Not Emmy-winning material, of course. And not breakthrough pop culture classic, like the CW's own "Gossip Girl."

But as a building block for the CW's ratings-challenged schedule, "90210" looks like a good fit. And as guilty pleasures go, I'll describe it the same way I described Fox's "Models Inc.": It's instantly addictive. I'm already hooked.

CW and CBS Paramount Network Television executives were wise to recruit Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah as showrunners. Anybody who watched their under appreciated ABC series "Life as We Know It"—that would be me and five other folks, by the way—know that these two aren't hacks. They're not paint-by-number producers willing to settle for a couple corny jokes sandwiched between daytime-level melodrama (sorry, soap opera writers).

Mr. Sachs and Mr. Judah worked overtime to infuse "90210" with something key to any modern teen drama: Humor. That's what made "Buffy" work and why so many people fondly remember "Veronica Mars". It's why "Gossip Girl" isn't just a soap opera.

The new "90210" doesn't yet come close to matching the quality of any of those shows, but it's already far more sophisticated than any episode of "Beverly Hills, 90210" I can remember. Within the first half-hour, a teacher mocks one of the teen "students" reading the news on the school's closed-circuit TV. "What is she, 30?" he asks. It's a knowing nod to the fact that the casts of both "90210" series, past and present, appear to be far older than the parts they're playing.

During the first two hours, we also got sly mentions of Cheetah Girls, "bitch lips" and a few words I won't mention here. But basically, this didn't feel like a show produced by committee. It felt like writers trying their best to produce something that felt familiar and yet was its own show.

On the downside, some of the cultural references felt a bit desperate. McLovin? Sorry, but "Superbad" is so 2007. And using Coldplay's "Vida la Vida" as the opening track? That's fine if you're on CBS, but not the CW months after the song was released.

The opener also made regular use of one character's mean-spirited blog posts in order to drive plots. A bit too predictable, but hey, at least there wasn't a Facebook mention (unless I missed it).

It's also still far too soon to say whether "90210" will blossom into the sort of megahit the CW needs so much. Even if premiere ratings are good—and I'll foolishly go out on a limb and predict CW-best numbers—it's far from a given the new Zip will continue to interest younger viewers already well-fed by "Gossip Girl," "One Tree Hill," "Greek" and "The Secret Life of the American Teenager."

What's more, the already overexposed veteran "90210" cast members got precious little screen time. That's understandable, given the need for the show to establish a voice distinct from its predecessor. But will Gen X women stick with a show that offers just tiny doses of Brenda and Kelly?

The good news is that, as with "Gossip" and a few other shows, CW executives have once again proven they know how to produce TV well-suited for their target audience. Whether those viewers will keep tuning in remains an even bigger mystery than why any self-respecting teenager would hang out at a place called the Peach Pit.