At the 61st Monte-Carlo Television Festival, Jason Priestley looked back at the success of ’90s teen soap “Beverly Hills, 90210,” and explained why the 2019 reboot “BH90210” got canceled by Fox after one season.
“BH90210” was described by The Hamden Journal as a “soapy parody” that gave “the actors behind our favorite characters the space to play versions of themselves while poking fun at the public personas, rabid fans and roles that made them famous.” It saw original series cast members Priestley, Jennie Garth, Ian Ziering, Gabrielle Carteris, Brian Austin Green, Tori Spelling and Shannen Doherty playing heightened versions of themselves, rather than their original characters. But it was a high stakes gamble that ultimately didn’t pay off, said the North Vancouver native.
“We tried something with that show. It was a risky premise to build a show around. It was a real high-wire act to pull that show off, if we were going to be able to pull it off,” he said.
“I thought that the concept itself that we constructed was interesting enough to get us all there. And we thought maybe this could be interesting, and maybe we could have some fun with this.
“And I feel like we all took a lot of time to create the story that was going to be the pilot, and there wasn’t a lot of thought put in beyond that, and what shape the show was going to take beyond that,” Priestley said.
The six-episode summer event series was the highest rated scripted broadcast show of the summer, averaging a 1.4 rating among adults 18-49 after three days of delayed viewing, and around 3.5 million total viewers per episode.
“BH90210” came flying out of the ratings gates with a 1.52 in Live+Same Day, but saw a substantial 38% drop-off to episode two, and another 18% fall to episode three, before leveling off.
The series also went through some behind-the-scenes drama during production which resulted in then showrunner Patrick Sean Smith and multiple senior-level writers quitting the show, as The Hamden Journal reported exclusively. According to one source, the exodus was prompted by interference from two of the show’s lead actresses, while another noted at the time that the writers were unhappy with one of the executives overseeing the project.
“BH90210” was produced by CBS Television Studios and Fox Entertainment. Paul Sciarrotta was the showrunner and exec produced alongside creators Chris Alberghini and Mike Chessler. Carteris, Garth, Green, Priestley, Spelling, Doherty, and Ziering were all executive producers.
“Once we actually got into production, too many people thought they were running the show,” said Priestley in Monte-Carlo. “The network thought they were running the show, the studio thought they were running the show, the writers’ room in L.A. thought they were running the show, the executive producers we had in Vancouver thought they were running the show. Like, everybody thought they were running the show, and therefore nobody was running the show.
“And a concept like that, that was that difficult to pull off, we really needed somebody with a super firm hand and a super clear vision of what the show was going to be to guide that show. And I think that, unfortunately, there were just too many people who had too much input on the show. And that’s why it didn’t work.
“And at the end of the day, I feel like audiences, although they turned up initially to the show, as the show floundered and didn’t really have a clear vision of what it was going to be, ended up just leaving the show, and Fox didn’t pick the show up because it just didn’t have the viewership that it needed to have.”
Priestley directed an episode of the reboot, and also directed multiple episodes of the original series. How did they differ?
“It was not different. The filmmaking process is the filmmaking process. Right? But it was different in the fact that the rebooted show had a way bigger budget than the original version of the show. And so, as a director, I had way more toys and a bigger visual effects budget. I had way more things at my disposal to create that episode than I ever had on the original show,” he said. “The original show we made on a shoestring budget every week, but on the reboot, we had all the time and money in the world, seemingly. So it was different in that sense.”
Although the original version of the show aired decades ago, he doesn’t get fed up with people asking him about it.
“No, I mean, that show was a very iconic show. And that show was a very important show to a lot of people, and at a very big time in their lives when they were growing up. Like it was a very big show for a lot of people. And that show was a global phenomenon, back at a time when there weren’t as many channels, there weren’t as many options, and there were still watercooler shows. So it was an incredible experience for me to be a part of a show like that. I don’t know if I’ll ever be a part of a show like that again. So, I don’t mind talking about it.”
He conceded that “Beverly Hills, 90210” is “very dated” for his daughter’s generation — no smartphone, no texting — but he feels that it still addressed issues that are relevant to teenagers. “What ‘Euphoria’ is doing now, we kind of did that back in 1992. Right? They’re doing the modern day version of it now, 30 years later, which is talking to young people, talking about the issues of this time, which our young people are facing, but they’re just doing it in a much cooler, much more slick, sexy way than we were able to do on network television.”
Would he take a role in “Euphoria” if he was a young actor now? “Yeah, of course. That’s the kind of storytelling that you look for, that would excite you, right? Because it’s visceral, right? And it feels real and that’s exciting.”
Priestley, who was 21 when he started on “Beverly Hills, 90210” and 30 when he left, admits that he had feared his career may not last beyond the show’s life, so he considers himself lucky to have stayed active in the business for so long.
“When you go into the entertainment business, working in front of the camera, you hope you can carve out a career for yourself that lasts 20, 30, 40 years, if you’re that lucky. And being on a show that has had this meteoric success, you fear that your career is going to flame out when that show flames out. And so I was somewhat worried about that. But I’ve been able to continue to carve out my career and have had two other hit TV shows since then, and I’ve been successful in lots of other endeavors within the business, which has been wonderful for me.”
As well as “BH90210,” another recent show that didn’t go quite as well as Priestley might have hoped was crime-solving procedural “Private Eyes.” Priestley played ex-pro athlete Matt Shade who teams up with fierce private investigators Angie Everett, played by Cindy Sampson, to solve crimes in Toronto. In its first season it ranked as Canada’s highest-rated new series for spring/summer 2016, after premiering on Global Television to 1.4 million viewers. Entertainment One sold the show to more than 110 territories worldwide. It was then picked up for an additional 18 episodes. But at the end of season two, Global cancelled it. Was he surprised by that?
“I was, yes. I was surprised by it. The other producers were, we all were, as witnessed by the final scene in the show, you know, it was obvious that we were not prepared for that to be the last scene of the series. Cancellation came as a great surprise to all of us. At the time we were that network’s number one TV show. So I can’t remember the last time I heard of a network cancelling their number one show. So it was a big surprise to all of us.”
Priestley is mostly focused on directing now. He has spent the past 18 months directing a documentary on Harold Ballard, “who was this crazy guy that owned [ice hockey team] the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1972 to 1989, and single handedly destroyed that franchise, which is a very Canadian story. If you’re not Canadian, you won’t know the story. And if you’re not an ice hockey fan, you won’t care about the story,” he said. He expects to complete it in about six weeks or so.
Coming up next for Priestley is a trip to Calgary, Canada, to direct an episode on new Netflix series “My Life With the Walter Boys.” He is also set to helm suspense thriller movie “Projekt M,” which is likely to shoot this fall in Barcelona. The financing is together for “Projekt M,” Priestley said. “We’re just waiting for one piece of talent to fall into place for us. Actor availability is the one thing that seems to be holding us up.”
He had hoped to direct comedy “Keeper of the Cup,” but that movie fell apart. It was about three Maple Leaf fans who are tired of waiting for their team to win the Stanley Cup, so they decide to steal it. William Shatner, Dan Aykroyd and Priestley were going to star. “It was a super funny premise, great script,” Priestley said. “Unfortunately, we were two days away from going to the floor and our financing fell apart. So I don’t know if that film is ever going to see the light of day again.”
He added: “We prepped for five weeks, and we were on location and ready to start shooting, and ultimately that financing fell apart. I mean, I haven’t had that happen since the 80s. It was a shock to me and to the rest of us. Like we were there ready to start shooting and we all got sent home.”
Priestley is a motor racing enthusiast, and used to race professionally prior to a horrific accident in 2003 that required facial reconstruction. Will he race again? “No, no, no. That’s a young man’s game,” he said.
But might he make a racing movie? “I’ve explored all that stuff, but it gets very difficult with that type of material just because of sponsorship and licensing, and all that stuff. It becomes very, very laborious getting into all the legalities of that stuff. And so many of those companies don’t want to license their images and their names and their likeness. And so it becomes very difficult to actually navigate those waters.”