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Flashback: When Fox Set The Simpsons and 90210 to Take Down NBC's Must See TV

The Beverly Hills, 90210 reunion recalls a cultural shake-up from 30 years ago.
  • Beverly Hills, 90210 and The Simpsons were the centerpiece of Fox's attempt to take on NBC's Thursday night dominance back in 1990..
    Beverly Hills, 90210 and The Simpsons were the centerpiece of Fox's attempt to take on NBC's Thursday night dominance back in 1990..

    There are plenty of reasons why Wednesday night's premiere of BH90210 was a big deal. The meta-revival stars almost all of the original cast  -- minus the late, greatly missed Luke Perry -- on the same series for the first time since Shannen Doherty hit the road in 1994.

    It also happens to be the sixth (!!) series in the 90210 franchise, which includes everything from Melrose Place to the cultural treasure chest known as Models Inc. That equals the number of Law & Order series that have made it on the air, so you’ve got to assume Dick Wolf is watching his back. But there’s another less-ballyhooed reason to appreciate this moment: The latest iteration of 902010 yet again proves the culture-shifting impact of Fox’s Thursday night line-up in the 1990-91 season.

    Way back then, Fox was still a mini-network struggling to prove itself as a worthy competitor to ABC, CBS, and NBC. Sure, it had 21 Jump Street and the controversial-yet-popular Married… With Children, but mostly Fox trafficked in shows like Duet, which featured a wisecracking, sexy maid.

    That all began to change when Fox debuted The Simpsons on Sunday nights in 1989. Suddenly the network had a legitimate hit on its hands, and with an underdog’s gumption, they decided to move their breakout series to Thursdays the following season. Prior to that, Fox hadn’t programmed anything on Thursday nights, but they clearly believed Bart would convince people to follow the network into uncharted territory.

    And oh yeah, that meant The Simpsons would now be in the same time slot as The Cosby Show.

    For those too young (or too old) to remember time slots, this was back in the day when we had to choose what to watch at a particular time. Since there were no DVRs or next-day streaming options to let us have our Cosby and your Simpsons too, most of us had to pick just one, and live without the other until summer reruns. By putting The Simpsons against the massively popular Cosby Show, Fox was attempting to steal viewers from the king.

    The media treated this showdown like a fight for the nation’s soul. There were think pieces about how our shifting morality would be reflected in the ratings battle between the Huxtables’ family values and the Simpsons’ dysfunction, there were interviews with Bill Cosby about whether he was worried, and there was this instantly iconic TV Guide cover.

    Obviously, there was also room for both series. The Simpsons is still airing original episodes after 30 years, and even though Bill Cosby has since been exposed as a horrifying sexual predator, The Cosby Show itself was long regarded as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. The competition narrative was less about the shows themselves, and more about the age-old fear that something “inappropriate" was taking over the culture.

    And that’s where Beverly Hills, 90210 comes in. The first season premiered in the same Thursday night block that featured The Simpsons. (We’ll politely ignore Babes, the Dolly Parton-produced sitcom that served as the meat in the initial Simpsons/90210 sandwich.) And while ratings weren’t great, and early reviews were harsh, the show stood out as an edgy teen soap that addressed drugs, virginity, and other topics of teen interest with remarkable frankness. Along with The Simpsons, it established Fox’s Thursday night as an oasis for people who wanted to watch something a little dangerous. That aura was so strong that it eventually spread to the entire network.

    It was so impactful that when The CW sought to define their brand in much the same fashion as classic Fox, they chose a familair shortcut: reboots of 90210 and Melrose Place.

    There's something poetically appropriate about the Fox network airing BH90210 this summer, as it yet again seeks to redefine itself as an independent network (after being spun-off from its 20th Century Fox mothership, post-Disney acquisition). Although it seems unlikely to have anywhere near the same impact, it's worth remembering those evenings almost 30 years ago when the Fox, Bart Simpson, and Brenda Walsh upended our expectations for Must See TV.

    People are talking about BH90210 in our forums. Join the conversation.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: BH90210, FOX, NBC, Beverly Hills, 90210, The Cosby Show, The Simpsons