When Beverly Hills, 90210 premiered, in 1990, I was in fourth grade, and, you have to understand, nothing like it existed. There was no Gossip Girl, no The O.C., no Riverdale, no Dawson’s Creek, no Pretty Little Liars. We’d been living on a diet of Full House, Growing Pains, and Doogie Howser, M.D, and into our lives walked Luke Perry, with his perfectly “up” hair (there’s really no other way to describe it) and his alluringly premature forehead wrinkles. Sorry, Doogie; we were done for.
90210 was insane, amazing, revolutionary. Our moms were somehow duped into allowing us to watch this pretty risqué teen soap opera—after homework was done on Wednesday evenings—and we’d talk about it the next day in the playground during recess. Could you believe what Kelly said? Could you believe what Brenda did? What’s date rape? What’s cocaine? Why is everyone always breaking up and getting back together?
The overarching plot of 90210 revolved around Brenda and Brandon Walsh (Shannen Doherty and Jason Priestly), who’d moved from Minneapolis to Beverly Hills. (Why am I even telling you this? How old are you??) Brenda, along with the rest of America, immediately fell for Perry’s Dylan McKay, the aloof, sensitive rebel. Their friend group included the pretty, popular Kelly Taylor and her goofy sidekick Donna Martin, as well as the uber-douche Steve Sanders and puppy dog school DJ David Silver. There was also the nerdy Andrea Zuckerman (played by the actual-adult Gabrielle Carteris), who forever pined for Brandon, Dylan’s sweet, moral, foil.
Dylan McKay was an archetype, of course, a brooding, James Dean-like figure with a flakey mother and a father who went to jail. Dylan drank too much and got too angry and Brenda’s dad hated him, which made her love him even more. He called her “Bren” in this very endearing way, and she lost her virginity to him—with no repercussions!—at the Spring Dance (parents, at that point, started paying attention to the show). I can remember sitting in front of our big box TV watching Brenda and Dylan slow dance, french kiss, happily head up to the hotel-room-of-sex, and thinking: I get to do that someday? Life is great! Their relationship shattered when Brenda went to Paris for the summer and Dylan and Kelly got together, resulting in one of the most epic love triangles of our time.
Perry was so great in the role—with his soft voice, perfect eyebrow scar, and the way he could effortless jump into his convertible Porsche (oh, yeah, most of these kids were rich, which was part of the show’s appeal). His character penetrated our impressionable brains, teaching my generation to love the bad boys you thought you could change, the ones who really wanted to be good, who really tried, but often failed. Who cared about Brandon, dutifully editing the school newspaper, when someone like Dylan existed, zooming around town in dark sunglasses, soulfully telling you that only you could fix him.
We all went through a Dylan McKay phase. Mine came blessedly early, in high school, when I became infatuated with an older boy who wore a leather jacket, could shotgun like 10 beers in a row, and refused to acknowledge me in public. In private, though, he was doting. We’d hang out in his bedroom, his bookcase pulled in front of his door to prevent his mom from walking in, and he’d hold my hand and tell me he’d never felt this way before. He was just out of reach, always getting in trouble, a terrible student with very attractive hair. (We did go to one dance together, and I was, shockingly, not stupid enough to lose my virginity to him, even though he asked. No thanks to Brenda!) He dumped me in a smoky basement at a graduation party for his grade. Well, he didn’t really “dump” me, he just refused to look at me when I came in, and so I knew our days of secretly making out at the Abercrombie in our mall were over. I was lucky to get my Dylan McKay out of my system quickly, as many of my friends continued to chase unsavable rebels well into our adulthood.
It’s not like loving bad boys is specific to those of us who grew up on 90210, but there’s something to be said for that repeated exposure to a powerfully enticing character at such a young age. Dylan slunk into our homes every week, mysterious and handsome, two beautiful girls fighting to the death over him. His popularity gave rise to Jordan Catalano, Ben Covington, Ryan Atwood, Tim Riggins (Oh, God, Tim Riggins), and many more current TV heartthrobs that I’m too old and tired to care about at this point.
When we got the news that Luke Perry had died, my high school group text was legitimately devastated. “I still can’t listen to the song ‘Losing my Religion’ because Dylan and Brenda broke up to it,” said my friend Lauren. “I know, I’m so crushed by this,” said my friend Natalie. “This is awful,” said Susannah. (“It must be drugs,” said our friend David, a provocateur from birth, who also chimed in that his favorite 90210 episode was the one when “Kelly’s mom was super coked up at the fashion show.”) We went on for the next couple of hours reminiscing about Dylan McKay, 90210, and the idiot guys we all used to date. My friends and I are all married to Brandons now. But Dylan was our first true love.