Mourning the man who gave us Dylan McKay on “Beverly Hills, 90210.”
Everyone knew not to call me when “Beverly Hills, 90210”was on. In the early 1990s this was sacred time for me, and I was not cool with distractions. Occasionally I would let a friend call me during a commercial, with the understanding that we would hang up on each other once the show came back on. When I watched the show with my brothers and my mother, and later with my high school friends and then my college roommates, everyone knew there was no talking allowed.
If, heaven forbid, I was going to be away from my television while “90210” was airing, I would set my VCR to record the episode. Inevitably I would watch that recording over and over again, so that even if what I had taped was a lesser episode of the show, it would become burned into my brain. “Beverly Hills, 90210” started when I was in sixth grade and ended when I was a senior in college. It followed the teen melodrama of children of privilege in the ZIP code it made nationally famous — they had problems too! — and at its height it was the No. 1 show among teenagers in the country.I felt I’d grown up along with the kids on the show, and they had been there for me as appointment TV for a decade. Of course, there was one character in particular who was worthy of my obsession: Dylan McKay.
Luke Perry, the actor who became a teen idol playing Dylan, died yesterday, but for an entire generation of ’90s teenagers, he’ll live forever in our hearts.
“Mad, bad and dangerous to know. That was him and that was me.” This is Dylan McKay describing himself and Lord Byron. Yes, the coolest guy at West Beverly High School, on the show, in the world, read Romantic poetry. He was bookish but he didn’t wear chunky glasses; he was more about motorcycle jackets and beautifully sculpted hair and sideburns.
He was, at least in the world of “90210,” an intellectual — he loved literature and classic movies, and he did well in the classes he cared about in school. But Dylan had nerdy tendencies before we’d learned to find nerds sexy as a culture, before Buddy Holly retroactively became just as dreamy as James Dean. So Dylan evoked the latter, a beautiful bad boy in the early 1990s when nostalgia for the 1950s was in the air, when 1950s-style diners, including the beloved Peach Pit on “90210,” were popping up all over suburbia.
Dylan McKay was the ’90s version of a “Rebel Without a Cause,” but he had a zillion causes. He had daddy issues and mommy issues, having been abandoned by both as a young teenager. He brooded about his problems quite often, and oh how he could brood! He brooded as if he just might feel things more than the rest of us ordinary humans, that his artistic, sensitive soul (and his nice pecs) put him on a different emotional plane than the rest of us.
Charismatic in a way your dad could never understand, Dylan was pretentious and troubled, but he was also open to being vulnerable, to being wise beyond his years, to being goofy, to being a mensch to his friends. Yes, he was poor little rich boy riding around town on his motorcycle or in his black Porsche, grappling with alcohol and drug addiction and other dark things we could only imagine, but he had a heart of gold. Others might have found that Luke Perry looked unconvincingly old to be playing a teenager, but in my mind I thought maybe that’s just what high school students looked like.
When I was a kid, nothing was more glamorous to me than heartache. I aspired to be the star of my own breakup-cliché montage: to sit on a couch in filthy pajamas surrounded by empty ice cream tubs, snot-filled tissues and whiskey bottles. To cry in the street and have screaming matches on the phone with a boy who evoked too much passion in me to be reasonable. To forsake bathing entirely and to fling myself around dramatically, too overwhelmed by emotion to bother with cleanliness or balance. Dylan and his first love, the incomparable Brenda Walsh, were the perfect models of that messy kind of devotion. I lived for their drama.
Years later, I discovered that although I enjoyed the performance of romantic disaster, the actual experience was not satisfying at all. Constant screaming and crying were signs that a relationship was dysfunctional, not steamy. Living for drama was overrated. We’ve also collectively learned the perils of putting too much stock in troubled bad boys. Which is why Luke Perry’s death feels particularly poignant, because it took me back to a time before I knew how toxic these things were, when bad boys were good.
A few years ago I appeared on a podcast that revisited “Beverly Hills, 90210” episode by episode. It was only then, as a woman in my 30s, that I realized that people who didn’t grow up with the series, those who discovered it on DVD or through streaming services, found the show to be ridiculous. It was full of clichés, it was much too morally conservative, it featured ridiculous clothing and cloying dialogue.
At the time I originally watched it, I took it as seriously as I did my grades in school, my roles in musical theater and my health, which was bumpy at the time. “Beverly Hills, 90210”was not a show that was meant for critical thinking — it was about emotions above all. Dylan McKay was my first ideal of what a sharp, sensitive, literary, sideburned prince might be, and that was more than enough for me.