Lifetime’s Silly ‘90210’ Movie Built an Alternate ’90s TV Universe

Towards the end of Lifetime’s The Unauthorized Beverly Hills, 90210 StoryShannen Doherty (Samantha Munro) is out. She has been voted off the island — err, the show — by her fellow cast members for her bad-girl ways, and they need a replacement. In walks sweet, unassuming Tiffani Thiessen, played by Alyssa Lynch, the very same actress who portrayed Thiessen in the recent Saved by the Bell Lifetime movie. Hooray! Things are looking up at the Max — err, the Peach Pit. And as the curtain falls on this successful TV show and its creators plot their next move, it’s clear that Dan Castellaneta, the Simpsons voice actor who stars as TV mega-producer Aaron Spelling with odd but compelling gusto, is coming back for The Unauthorized Melrose Place Story, along with Adam Korson, who plays the creator of both shows, Darren Star.

That’s when you realize this could keep going forever and ever, expanding like the Marvel Universe. Lifetime is recreating the entire ’90s television landscape, one crappy made-for-TV movie at a time. Will Lifetime just keep cashing in on nostalgia’s enduring value, and linger two decades behind the current culture? Imagine in 20 years, a much older Lynch is still playing Thiessen as she launches her own comeback cooking show, Dinner at Tiffani’s, and an older Max Lloyd Jones, the guy who plays Jason Priestley, comes over for dinner in one of that show’s episodes. A made-for-TV movie about a food reality show featuring ’90s sitcom stars? In a Lifetime future, anything is possible.

In the meantime, let a former fan of 90210 (I tuned in during the Claire years but caught up on the first few seasons thanks to after-school reruns) give a brief evaluation of the 90210 film. Words cannot quite express just how hot a mess Lifetime’s The Unauthorized Beverly Hills, 90210 Story is, but let’s try to sum it up by saying that when the actresses playing Jennie Garth and Shannen Doherty finally had their fistfight in the studio parking lot, I was deeply, deeply disappointed that no blood was drawn.

The movie is a poorly scripted, poorly acted attempt at a film that oscillates between goofy parody and scandalous tell-all. And yet, as Pilot Viruet noted in her piece about Lifetime’s new “unauthorized” ’90s TV niche, it did effectively lead me down a Wikipedia rabbit hole. Why did Brenda leave? When did they bring back Dylan? Who lost their virginity when? Which cast members dated? Did Tori Spelling really tell her dad whom to cast while being served by the maid, Marianna, and whining about how his typical scripts are all about “old people”?

The movie mixes random trivia like the fact that, yes, Tori Spelling encouraged her dad to cast Jason Priestly and Shannen Doherty, while Luke Perry (Jesy McKinney) was working construction and about to give up on acting. “Luke, I’m countin’ on you,” says his boss, which is our clue that he’s about to get hired away from that job. These tidbits are topped with the salacious stuff we’re craving, which can all be summed up in two words: “Shannen Doherty.” Doherty totals Ian Zering’s car! She keeps everyone waiting on set! She jumps a douchebag at a club! It’s sort of bizarre, given that in today’s oversaturated celebrity world, Doherty’s antics would barely make tabloid headlines. A young actress getting in a few fights and car wrecks, and showing up late to set as the major focus of dramatic tension feels as dated as some of 90210‘s weirder plot points. (Remember when Dylan’s fiancée’s dad was in the mob and tried to kill him, but killed her instead, or something like that?)

Yet that’s the only source material that The Unauthorized Beverly Hills, 90210 Story really has to build on, except the show’s initial ratings struggles, which led to danger of cancellation and then ultimate triumph. This was partly thanks to the first Gulf War (thanks, Gulf War!), which convinced network brass not to cancel 90210 yet, because the public needed counter-programming to the destruction we were dealing out in the oilfields of Kuwait.

There are some clever and interesting moments that showcase Castellaneta’s extremely hammy performance as Spelling, as well as TV’s complicated relationship with difficult women. When the audience freaks out at seeing Brenda lose her virginity to Dylan and show no regrets, executives interfere, forcing the writers to add compunction to Brenda’s storyline. “A teenage girl can lose her virginity on TV, she just can’t enjoy it,” Spelling explains. And when someone says, “Everyone hates Shannen,” he corrects them: “No, everyone loves to hate Shannen.”

Other than these few bright moments, the movie mostly trades in the very same gender stereotypes it highlights. The boys sit together and talk about how being famous is a trip and how they have to dodge their voracious female fans, while the girls fight viciously over who gets to wear the red dress to the photo shoot. Everyone might love to hate bad girls, but if the Alternate TV Universe Lifetime is creating turns our favorite crappy ’90s shows into warmed-over episodes of The Bad Girls Club, I’ll pass.