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‘90210’ looks to win back viewers lost to ‘Idol’

Teen drama will move to 9 p.m. Tuesdays

Los Angeles Times

It seemed like a surefire recipe: Take the No. 1 teen drama in TV history, update it, stoke the publicity fires with news of returning favorite characters from the original, and The CW would land a huge hit.

But “90210” is suffering a serious case of adolescent angst. Instead of becoming prime time’s cocky homecoming king, the series developed more like the shy, insecure kid with no date to the dance.

Then, to make matters worse, there has been that mean girl “American Idol” to contend with. Running Tuesdays at 8 p.m., opposite the most popular show on television, has cost “90210” a sizable chunk of its audience.

Looking to woo those viewers back, The CW will move the show to 9 p.m. – out of “Idol’s” destructive path – after a six-week hiatus beginning next week.

Even before it had to compete with “Idol,” “90210” was struggling to get out of “Gossip Girl’s” shadow, especially with initial reviews that were lukewarm at best. It settled into just-acceptable ratings after debuting to the largest premiere audience in CW history.

Throughout the fall, the series made news only when “Beverly Hills, 90210” stars Jennie Garth and Shannen Doherty were due on set – or when one of the actors in the new cast acted out.

The latter headlines have focused primarily on 19-year-old actress Shenae Grimes, who plays good girl Annie, the show’s lead character. The New York Post reported that Grimes often was rude on set and was once overheard saying, “This is my show – everyone else is riding my coattails.”

At a recent “90210” party, Grimes said she didn’t pay attention to the negative press, “because you’d go nuts if you did.”

But some of her co-stars and producers say the intense coverage hurt the young cast – especially a recent US Weekly cover story about the thinness of Grimes and co-stars Jessica Stroup and AnnaLynne McCord, and what kind of example that set for the show’s young viewers.

The nostalgia hook also is proving problematic. Doherty’s Brenda announced she was ready to become a mom in her last appearance, but the actress has not signed on for more episodes.

Garth’s Kelly, now a guidance counselor at West Beverly High, is slated for just one more, and Tori Spelling’s Donna Martin will be back for a limited run.

“The show got so much attention for being a ‘90210’ update that it’s really taken some time to explain to the teens that this is their ‘90210,’ too,” says CW Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff.

But arriving at what a show is, exactly, is a bigger challenge when it changes hands three times.

The CW last April brought aboard Rob Thomas of “Veronica Mars” fame, but he left after his first draft because of a commitment with ABC.

The network then recruited Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah, known for mining the anxieties of working-class teens in “Life as We Know It” and “Freaks and Geeks.”

The CW wanted “90210” to have a female perspective and focus more on money and glitz, like “Gossip Girl.” But Judah and Sachs were more comfortable writing for men, so they stopped writing and turned to production duties.

The tension was not lost on the cast. Dustin Milligan, 23, plays Ethan Ward, a character who was initially written as a star athlete/outsider with an autistic brother, but who has morphed solely into Annie’s love interest – a romance that hasn’t lighted viewers’ fires.

“I don’t think the network knew exactly what they wanted,” Milligan says. “I know Gabe and Jeff were working really hard and doing a really good job with bringing in the quirky moments and the humor and the realism – but a lot of that never quite made it into the episodes. We were all pretty upset about it.”

With Judah and Sachs out of the writers room, The CW hired Rebecca Rand Kirshner Sinclair, who built a reputation working on the beloved teen shows “Gilmore Girls” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Among Kirshner Sinclair’s biggest tasks is figuring out what to do with Annie, the girl with the charmed life.

“Annie is probably closer to who I was in high school,” she says. “So if (the writers and I) could just dig more, I think we could do some genuine things with her.”

What would be best for Annie, it appears, would be for Kirshner Sinclair to stay. A decision will be made soon about her role for “90210’s” second season, which is a sure bet at this point.

For now, she’s feeling optimistic. This season’s remaining episodes will bring Spelling’s return (and, yes, Donna’s still married to David Silver), the arrival of Dixon’s (Tristan Wilds) estranged mother, Adrianna’s (Jessica Lowndes) baby drama, and the much-needed addition of a Dylan McKay bad-boy type (Matt Lanter).

“Before, working on the show was pretty frantic, like solving puzzles,” Kirshner Sinclair says. “But by the end of this season, I think we’ll have the right tone down. It’s finally getting exciting.”

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