Brenda Walsh lost her virginity exactly one week before I lost mine.
Sure, the sex variables between a fictional character and me differed slightly from one another. Brenda got laid for the first time in a five-star hotel room with a gorgeous guy who looked about thirty-seven years old on the night of her Winter Dance. I reached that milestone in my friend’s bed with a rather handsome boy who looked seventeen. In fact, he had just turned seventeen. It was both of our first times and it was his birthday – and I still maintain it was the single finest birthday gift I’ve ever given to anyone.
Besides the concurrent loss of a hymen, Brenda Walsh and I didn’t really have all that much in common. We were both brunettes and we both went through an unfortunate stage where we showed up at school wearing hats for a while, but that was really it. I didn’t harbor a bile-stinging envy of my friends like Brenda did and each of my eyes was exactly the same size as the other. I didn’t have a gorgeous twin brother and I never absconded to Mexico with a guy my parents had forbidden me to so much as glance at and I didn’t have a conflicted relationship with my father because mine died before he ever had to deal with things like my breasts developing. I didn’t live in a hacienda-style house on the west coast and I never gobbled down U4EA at a club. I never once single-handedly saved a girl’s life by talking her down from committing suicide on a prevention hotline, though I did lose a boy I once thought I truly loved to a friend I believed would never ever betray me in much the same way Kelly Taylor betrayed Brenda with Dylan. But on the positive side, at least I never had to eat a mega-burger while some guy named Nat stared at me and called me “sweetheart.”
I watched Beverly Hills, 90210 every single week during the time I was supposed to watch it, which means I tuned in to their high school years and through most of their college days. I held on to the show for a long time, even when it began to lose its way by thrusting Kelly into first a fire and then into a cult. I felt a loyalty to the show that was likely forged due to the fact that the characters and I grew up together. 90210 was a collective sort of obsession, one that seemed to impact boys as well as girls. During the night the show was on, you could've heard a pin drop in my co-ed dorm. I remember walking down the hallway and hearing the revving of Steve Sanders’ Porsche from behind every single doorway and perhaps we should’ve all piled into one room and watched the show together, but oneness was not really the goal. Lusting over the scar in Luke Perry’s eyebrow or debating what the fuck it was about Shannen Doherty’s eye size that was so bizarre was the real task at hand.
Back when I was in high school and the show first started to skyrocket in popularity over that dusky summer when FOX brilliantly aired new episodes while the rest of the networks kept pumping out reruns, my friends and I discussed the characters like they were real people. I remember Carrie and I standing in front of the pizza place on Main Street in the harbor town that we grew up in discussing whether or not Brenda should have broken up with Dylan just because of a minor pregnancy scare before we stopped and looked at one another and burst out laughing because we were acting as though Brenda was real and actually a part of our lives and I guess that's what that show did so well back then. It beckoned us to buy into the characters and their issues and the idea that wearing Lycra to school might in fact be a very good idea.
Other than the wafting presence of CK One or Calyx in the air, very little hurtles me back to the days of my adolescence like an episode of 90210. Nostalgia has probably always been the easiest thing to sell. We see an image or hear a second of a sound byte that connotes the days of the past – a past that feels so much softer in retrospect than it did in the actual moment – and so we grab onto that feeling with both hands. It is clearly with that understanding in mind that Lifetime has become the single biggest seller of nostalgia on television today. How else can movie events like The Unauthorized Story of Saved By the Bell and Full House and 90210 and Melrose Place be explained? What you have with these “movies” are cheaply produced entertainment populated by mediocre actors who vaguely look or sound like the person they’re playing and a marketing campaign that basically runs without batteries. The commercials promise secrets that will be revealed about a show a part of you still feels emotionally-tied to while the revelations that are brandished for hungry eyes are often the kinds of things we already learned decades ago so we all enjoy that feeling of I knew that! and our collective brilliance can once again be agreed upon, even silently.
The thing is, I never cared at all about Saved By the Bell or Full House. I think it was the blatant stupidity of Saved By the Bell that I recognized even in my early years that caused me to keep my distance – plus, I have never been able to see the appeal of a guy decked out in pleated pants and aquamarine-colored tank tops like Slater used to wear. I had standards, even then. As for Full House, it was consumable – like plain and stale crackers – but it was the kind of thing that wasn’t really good for you. I guess the kids on the show were cute and I know that John Stamos was mildly dreamy even though he rocked a mullet that waved in the wind, but I had a tough time with the studio scoring that bubbled up at the end of every episode as an important life lesson was revealed to the characters and to the show’s pre-adolescent viewers. It felt cheap to me – easy – and so I turned on shows like Dynasty to watch what I deemed more refined entertainment.
Since I had no real tie to the shows Lifetime first took on, I didn’t even consider watching either movie. And when I heard they’d be tackling 90210 next, I had no desire to watch that one either because I’d read the reviews of Lifetime’s other unauthorized masterpieces and I walked away with the belief that watching static might prove more enjoyable and certainly more edifying. But then this weekend I found myself in a constant horizontal position due to a pinched nerve I got in my neck from engaging in the irresponsible act of sleeping on too many pillows and moving or sitting up (or breathing) began to seem tremendously unlikely. I took fistfuls of Advil and applied heating pads to a body part that has never before caused me any pain and tried to chant away the agony as I held my remote in one hand so I would never have to turn my head to the side to look for it because to do so could be traumatic – and that’s when I saw that The Unauthorized Story of Beverly Hills, 90210 was about to air and maybe it was a mild overdose of ibuprofen careening through my system that did it, but I willingly turned to the channel and settled in to learn some secrets.
What did I learn? Well, I learned that there's somebody out there who looks so similar to Jennie Garth that it's impossible that one of Garth’s parents doesn't have a deep dark secret involving a very clandestine affair that produced a doppelganger offspring. But other than the fact that there might be some kind of science laboratory where icons from the early 90s can be brought back to life for questionable casting purposes, I didn’t really learn anything from a movie that promised to reveal all kinds of scandalous secrets, though I’m guessing that someone out there must have one – and it’s gotta be a big one – because something went down to get the guy who voices Homer Simpson to show up and play Aaron Spelling and the only thing that explains such a bizarre choice is that the casting director was drunk, high, or lost some massive bet along the way and this is the way the whole thing got settled.
The movie was shot in less than a month but looks like it was shot during one all-night bender after the alcohol and the drugs ran out and the strippers had to go home to care for their children. The sets appeared so cheap that I’m positive that the materials used came from a dollar store where all of the items were then marked down due to the fact that they might be flammable. Easily half of the action revolved around the fact that Shannen Doherty was an unprofessional asshole who arrived on the set late and liked to push blonde girls onto the hoods of cars with force before retreating with a small smile on her cockeyed face, but none of that is actually groundbreaking news since it’s was already reported ad nauseam more than a decade and a half ago. The movie asked us to believe that Luke Perry showed up for his audition with dirt caking his face while he glared at the casting agents and that Aaron Spelling all but got on his knees to check that nobody was hiding in a stall when his head writer threw a fit in a bathroom. We were also asked to accept that Kelly Taylor wore a red dress and Brenda wore a black one to the Winter Dance when we all know full fucking well that they both wore the same dress and it was a black sheath with a humongous white bow along the off-the-shoulder neckline and to pretend that it was anything else is pure bullshit.
But nothing – not even the voice of Homer Simpson talking about the network’s mandate that a female character must regret the loss of her virginity – could be bigger and smellier bullshit than the hour of television that aired immediately after the movie ended. Remember that scene in the movie Pretty in Pink when the older woman who plays Andie’s friend tries to convince her to go to the prom by telling her the story of how one of her friends has moments every now and then where she feels a sense of gripping panic take over? The friend counts her kids and attempts to figure out what must be missing before realizing that nothing is missing and the periods of emotional instability she experiences must be an offshoot of skipping her high school prom. I too have experienced a similar feeling recently, but since I went to my prom, I couldn’t figure out just what it is that’s been missing in my life and it wasn’t until Tori Spelling’s foundation-caked face appeared on my television in the kind of extreme close-up that she has grounds to sue over that it all made sense. I have been struggling with Spelling Withdrawal – and I only hope that there’s a pill for that.
Had I known the evening would turn into a theme night, I would have put on some Color Me Badd and danced around for a while in a babydoll dress with little tee underneath and some white bunchy socks with my combat boots, but when Tori Spelling: Celebrity Lie Detector began, I thought it was quite possible that I was hallucinating before remembering that all I’d taken was Advil and this shit had to be for real. Now, I’ve written about Tori Spelling before. I confessed with a deep sense of shame that I’ve read her books (all of them) and that I watched her fizzy and fun reality shows before watching her descend pride-first into the televised pit of stinking despair that was True Tori, a show that followed her and her cheating husband and their children, who will one day surely sue the fuck out of their parents for the televised emotional distress that occurred during their formative years. The show was about a collapsing family attempting to put itself back together and it was all done on camera. We watched Tori become a hoarder and hold a dying piglet while her husband Dean gripped the sides of his head in despair each and every time he was about to be held accountable for being an asshole. We learned that Tori’s name is tattooed over her husband’s dick and that there are some therapists so questionable that they are willing to appear on camera in a Lifetime docuseries. We heard time and time again that Tori believed with her whole and pure heart that brandishing her agony to the world was the best thing she could possibly do because she finally – after writing four autobiographies – felt like she had a voice and it didn’t matter that her closest friends and her husband were literally begging her (on camera) to turn the fucking cameras off. True Tori was revolting television and I was drawn to it every week because in some ways it served as a barometer for a social experiment I didn’t know had been launched, one that posed the question of exactly how low could one possibly go for money, fame, or infamy.
It turns out that there’s a subterranean level of awful and Tori Spelling has burrowed her way there and helpfully brought a camera crew along with her, as well as a makeup artist who needs to immediately be fired. Look, it would be one thing if this Celebrity Lie Detector thing was just a joke done with some very questionable taste, but the stories are abounding that Spelling is flat broke and so appearing on this travesty just feels pathetic. I sincerely hope that I’m the only person home with neck pain who ended up watching this nonsense – because otherwise there’s bound to be a sequel – so allow me to walk you through it.
It all begins with some footage of Tori being hooked up to a lie detector machine in a room made out of cinderblocks, though if you look closely, I’m pretty sure it was actually foam painted grey. We hear a voiceover gravely explain that Tori was hooked up to the machine for eight hours and was asked question after question and we get to see some beyond extreme close-ups of Tori’s mouth and eyes as she says the words “yes” or “no” and girlfriend needs a facial but fast because her skin is a mess. (I just started using Dr. Brandt’s Oxygen Facial and it fucking rules. If she can stand the tingles and the bubbles of the foam, Tori might want to give it a go. Hopefully after delving into the artistic abyss by willingly appearing on this horseshit, she will be able to afford a small bottle of the stuff at her nearby Sephora.)
The terror begins with a “host” I have never heard of named Louise Roe announcing that Tori Spelling will soon be gracing us with her presence to reveal all of the secrets we never even thought to wonder about for a show that ended fifteen years ago. Onto a stark set that’s barren save for two chairs facing one another like an interrogation room where two six year olds are playing Police, Tori walks out with a nervous smile and sits down with the kind of trepidation one would have when questioned about the ten person massacre she recently committed before heading out for a life on the lam.
“Why are you doing this?” asks the host and I swear that I would actually respect Spelling if she looked straight into the camera and spat back, “For money.” We’ve all had tough times. She’s written about being almost broke, so embrace the shit out of your relative poverty and own it, Tori! Instead, she takes a deep breath and offers a ridiculous response about how taking a lie detector test is really the only possible way for fans to know if celebrities are telling the truth, as though that's the sort of thing someone should care about in the slightest. I realize that I might be the exception here, but I've rarely lost sleep wondering if Al Pacino truly liked Sidney Lumet when they shot Dog Day Afternoon, but I guess it's sweet that the greatest actress of our time wants to assuage our collective insomnia by answering our questions about a show that’s barely even aired in syndication anymore.
The host – and I’m wondering how one even gets such a job short of sleeping with someone who has dirt on her – tells us that Tori will be asked twenty questions, ones she already answered with the lie detector forty-eight hours ago, which means that the woman allegedly sat hooked up to a machine for eight hours and we’re only going to delve into twenty questions. There’s really very little time to think about any of those pesky logistics though; it is far more essential to focus on the fact that Tori wears a brave smile on her over-glossed lips like she’s about to give an oral history on just how it was that she overcame rickets. She breathes deeps sighs as though she is being asked questions she wasn’t asked just two days ago – like anything is going to be a surprise – and she closes her eyes slowly like all of it is too painful to so much as glance at, though it’s very possible that her eyes keep closing due to the terrible false lashes that are glued to her lids that flutter like a dirty feather duster.
The scenario is this: the host asks a question, Tori answers the question, and then – after a dramatic eight second delay – a computerized voice reveals whether or not Tori is lying or telling the truth. Want to hear some truth?
· Tori knows full well that she was hired for 90210 because her father was the show’s producer, not because she is in fact the modern incarnation of Sarah Bernhardt.
· Tori and her good friend Jennie Garth got into a huge fight about who got to wear a red dress in a photo shoot. They both wore red – and the world did not implode.
· Tori did not lose her virginity to a guy on the show, but she was wearing a black dress with flowers all over it on the night she gave it up to her first boyfriend and she got vagina blood all over the garment. Like Monica Lewinsky, Tori kept a dress covered in bodily fluids for posterity. I suppose that's sweet in a vile sort of way. I mean, I wrote about my first time in a journal. Perhaps I didn't commit to the experience quite as profoundly or I would have wrapped my journal in the lubrication of the condom we used. Oh, and a quick fun fact: Shannon Doherty wore the bloody dress for a photo shoot a few years later.
· Aaron Spelling was worth over $500 million but willed only $800,000 to his daughter. Though she never contested anything, she still feels somewhat stunned and here I can somewhat agree with the woman. Can somebody toss her a paltry $5,000,000 and call it a day? With a quivering and brave smile she says that perhaps her father always wanted her to be self-sufficient – and now she is. She’s in fact so self-sufficient that she's willing to pimp her entire family out on reality show after reality show while appearing on Celebrity Lie Detector in her off time. Tori’s a survivor, people.
· She might have been virginity-personified on the show, but Tori banged two original cast members of 90210. One of those guys was Brian Austin Green, he of the questionable rap skills who one day inexplicably ended up with Megan Fox, one of the hottest women to ever grace this stratosphere. (Turns out they’re divorcing now, but David Silver had a good run.) The fact that Tori Spelling was with Brian Austin Green is not really news; it was clearly laid out in one of Spelling’s books, but the way the host reacts, it’s like she’s just heard language being discovered. She clamps her hand over her mouth as though in shock and widens her eyes so her pupils glisten on camera while I sat at home – still in the throes of tremendous neck pain – wondering if maybe I was the only one who actually knew that real-life Donna Martin fucked real-life David Silver and maybe Tori and I were once close friends before I banished her from my life for my own protection.
It took a while to get to the good stuff, but we finally landed there with a skidding thud the moment it was revealed that Tori also had sex with Jason Priestley. I know! That little tidbit had never been revealed before and it’s pretty decent gossip that I’m willing to say mildly surprised me. Still, it didn’t surprise me as much as Tori’s reaction to answering the question did. She looked like she was in shock to be asked the question even though the same one was posed to her two days ago. She whispered her response as though she wasn’t attached to a microphone. She looked pained to be forced to reveal this information, as though she was bound and gagged and then dragged to the set and forced to be a participant on Celebrity Lie Detector because after Judi Dench got sick, they needed a back-up and Tori Spelling is and will always remain everybody’s perpetual second choice.
With the heavy stuff about banging Brandon Walsh out of the way, it became time to talk fashion. I’ll admit that I looked to 90210 back in the day for some inspiration and I clearly remember feeling incredibly cool on the day that I sauntered into my high school wearing black leggings covered with sunflowers. I kept adjusting the matching headband all day long and the guy I ended up adoring just one year later told leaned over during our Theatre class to tell me that I’d never looked cuter. I don’t think I looked to Donna Martin as my fashion inspiration, but according to the lie detector, Tori got to choose her own wardrobe for the show. Not only that, but one of those dresses – a black one with colored lips all over it that appeared very vagina-like to me today – was gifted to her by one of her fans who once bought it in an auction and the dress was right there in the studio! Tori brought it with her! And she’s going to put it on! And she hasn’t even tried it on at all – and that’s where I call bullshit. This woman expects us to believe for even a second that she brought the dress with her and, with the possibility that it might not fit, she didn’t try it on first? Come on. I’d sooner buy that Tori is now subsidizing her income by teaching acting lessons to Oscar winners. Now, I’m not at all surprised that the dress she wore when she was eighteen still fits her because a wonderful side-effect of being cheated on and becoming a rampant hypochondriac is staying rail-thin and maintaining one’s girlish figure, but in light of the fact that this show is billing itself as truth, that little fib drove me batshit crazy. I was soothed somewhat by knowing that eventually Meryl Streep will appear on this show and finally tell the truth about how she really felt about that wig she needed to wear for A Cry in the Dark.
The last segment of a show that managed to make the preceding schlock movie appear a masterpiece was the host delving into True Tori. The host described the show as groundbreaking and brave; I have described the very same show as the reason all of her children will require round the clock therapy for the next century, but then again, I suppose we are all permitted our own opinions. (Psst: mine’s the correct opinion here.) To illustrate her point, Tori and the host watch a clip from the show, one where she and her husband wail on their bed in emotional agony. It is the very same clip that made me want to start a movement for the emancipation of toddlers when I saw it for the first time. Tori watches the clip looking very solemn, looking like she has grown from it all, and then she insists that watching her televised misery makes her happy on some level because they’ve come so far in their marriage. Apparently, the very moment the cameras ceased filming what went down in their bedroom was the exact moment their lives became idyllic and that either means that maybe filming your every breakdown isn’t all that helpful or that true magic does exist.
It’s about time for the show to grind its way to a blessed close and the host thanks Spelling and tells her that she’s a beautiful person and she appreciates how Tori just opened her heart and hopes that none of it was too painful. Tori gives a little wave with her hand to indicate that she’s tough and she got through it, but I wasn’t paying too much attention to her little gesture because what really caught my eye was some writing on the bottom of the screen. Turns out that one of the executive producers of this groundbreaking bit of television is none other than the brave and beautiful Tori Spelling! With that proven, let's not for even one second believe that she did not have total control over the questions that would be asked of her, the order in which they would be asked, and even what that stark set would look like. Let’s also not pretend that she wasn’t paid as both a participant and a producer or that this woman is not as shameless as they come.
I can only pray that next week’s guest is Sir Ian McKellen so we can finally get to the bottom of all he’s been trying to hide beneath his talent and we can ascertain for good if he’s been telling the truth this entire time and his favorite color really is light blue or if he’s full of shit and it’s really a marigold-tinged yellow. In the meantime, I will be doing neck rolls and stretches because I hear that next week The Unauthorized Story of Melrose Place is going to air and I fear for my sanity if I were to so much as tune in for the theme song.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.