TV has felt more like a pity party than a celebratory pastime this week, but sharing it — on social media especially — seems to be bringing us together and inspiring important conversations, even if emotions are mixed. The death of a beloved Gen-X–era TV star and the debut of a shocking documentary about an already departed icon have left a lot of us feeling somber and conflicted, maybe even questioning the way we think about pop culture forever. And while Luke Perry and Michael Jackson had nothing in common other than rabid fan bases, the gut-punch of watching Leaving Neverland on HBO — then digesting what we all learned and deciding how we feel about the revelations and the King of Pop afterward — seemed more amplified and acute when we learned of Perry’s death just afterward, especially since, unlike many celebrities who inspired bona fide mania during the height of their fame, Perry was by all accounts an incredibly sweet, humble and respectful dude. MJ, on the other hand, apparently was a very sick individual.
There have been almost as many think pieces out there about Dylan McKay’s significance as there have been about Jackson’s pedophilia this week, and we’re not sure that’s actually warranted. Beverly Hills, 90210 was a fun show and I watched every week, but it was also super-dorky and the situations were clichéd as hell. One could never tell if the stereotyping of Los Angeles’ rich bitches (Kelly Taylor), douchebag bros (Steve Sanders) and Beverly Hills residents in general was so self-aware that the writers (and actors) were in on the joke, or if everybody involved actually took what they presented to us every week seriously. At some point it didn’t really matter; the teen soap was enjoyable, the actors were good at developing their individual characters and most of the angst was relatable.
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But this must be stated: Dylan was sexy and he was cool, but recent accounts since Perry’s passing are revising history a bit. Dylan was no saint. He betrayed his girlfriend, Brenda (Shannen Doherty), with her best friend, and that is the ultimate betrayal, one that many of us can never forgive. As a viewer, I sure didn’t, and even though 90210 was supposedly only on “ironically” in my stoner roommate–packed apartment, I was more invested than I cared to admit. Watching it today with my daughter, I realize how silly that was.
The same can be said for today’s tweens, teens and 20-somethings who live and breath Riverdale, the Archie Comics–based CW drama that has more than a little in common with the tangled love affairs seen on 90120, though it’s set in a small town not the big city. Cleverly, all of the parents on Riverdale are former stars of the Gen-X era, which makes those of us who watch this show with our kids (my 12-year-old is obsessed) feel very old. Perry played Archie’s dad in a subdued way that only mildly recalled Dylan’s chill charm. With facial hair and a time-weathered face, his pretty-boy days were behind him, but he seemed to relish that, playing the father figure in a strong but imperfect way that seemed real and sort of anchored all the other characters. His ex-wife/Archie’s mom is played in a similarly on-the-nose and likable way by Molly Ringwald, but she only popped in from time to time. Betty, Veronica and Jughead’s parents, played by Twin Peaks alum Mädchen Amick, Kelly Ripa’s soap-star hubby Mark Consuelos and Scream hunk Skeet Ulrich, respectively, are all pretty messed up, so Perry was the rock of the show. He’ll be missed not only by fans but by the cast (the show halted production when his death was announced and hasn’t set a time to resume yet).
Michael Jackson and Wade Robson in Leaving Neverland
But back to Leaving Neverland. As we stated when we wrote about Surviving R. Kelly, Lorena and Abducted at Plain Sight in a recent TV Party column, there’s something a little problematic about the excitement that surrounds these sicko-/abuser-driven documentaries. Much like “torture porn” horror movies, we have to ask ourselves why we even want to watch and/or hear about such atrocities on film. And in the case of documentaries, there’s the added layer of reality. Leaving Neverland, which shares extremely graphic accounts from two now-grown men (Wade Robson and James Safechuck) about Michael Jackson’s twisted and persistent sexual abuse, is polarizing pop culture junkies and music fans right now: Some think the men are lying and trying to get money from their claims, and others (most) believe the victims and are coming to terms with the fact that the music we’ve all treasured for most of our lives has been tainted.
No matter what any of us think happened, there’s been too much revealed, too many times. Sadly, the songs that gave us joy now make a lot of us feel guilt and disgust. Those who haven’t yet watched the doc should prepare to feel these icky feelings and so much more when they do.