I was in junior high when the original Beverly Hills, 90210 started airing on FOX in 1990. Like many of the older Millennials and the younger Gen Xers, I had a thing for bad boys. Jordan Catalano on My So-Called Life? Check. Angel on Buffy? Hell yes. And Dylan McKay, with the mysterious eyebrow gash and don’t-give-a-fuck attitude on 90210? Swoon. To you, he may just be Archie’s dad on Riverdale (this generation’s 90210, arguably). For me, he was one of many ill-advised teenage crushes.
Dylan was the guy between two female archetypes that most of the teen girls who watched 90210 sided with: Brenda Walsh (Shannen Doherty), the bad girl brunette and Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth) the California girl next door with a past. If that sounds familiar, it is — it’s the Betty vs. Veronica story. He bounced between them, causing havoc in their friendship from story arc to story arc. He was an orphan, which was the teen dream of freedom realized...and a little bit scary. He was misunderstood, the swarthy surfer with a heart of gold. All you had to do was love him unconditionally, and teach him some emotional intelligence.
Luke Perry, the actor behind the iconic character, was the bad boy of the cast, too. Jason Priestley (Brendan Walsh) was too nice (and Canadian) to be bad. Ian Ziering (Steve Sanders) was just happy to be there and seemed as fame hungry as his character. And Brian Austin Green (David Silver) ...come on, he wouldn’t bloom from dork to hunk until several seasons into the show. A big part of the criticism of the show was that the cast didn’t believably look like teenagers — with Perry and Gabrielle Carteris (Andrea Zuckerman), who were the oldest cast members, taking the brunt of it. But that was part of what made Luke/Dylan so attractive. In real life and on the show, he seemed worldly, experienced, and most definitely not a guy your parents would want you around.
His character wasn’t the first pop culture bad boy, of course. Dylan (his hair included) was modeled, to some extent, on James Dean from Rebel Without a Cause — both California teens fighting, often just because, against the arbitrary rules made by adults. He smoldered and was the guy Brenda gave her virginity to on prom night, which was a huge deal. It was my formative crushes on guys like Dylan that eventually taught me not to have crushes on guys like Dylan. I feel lucky that I got to experience some of that misdirected teenage rebellion thanks to the antics of the 90210 crew, and get the Dylans, Jordans, and Angels out of my system with no major harm done.
And now, he’s gone. I never met him and didn’t know him, but I spent years with him. He was 52 when he died. Now, that feels awfully young.