When Beverly Hills, 90210 premiered in 1990, I was five years old and not allowed to watch it—which was pretty understandable. The now-iconic teen drama leaped headfirst into topics like sex, drugs and toxic familial dynamics, and the Peach Pit was a world away from my mushroom cut and stuffed animals.
Over the next decade, it became a phenomenon. And despite not knowing who the characters were or what they stood for, I embraced the series via my friends’ tie-in merchandise and encyclopedic knowledge of this incredible and infamous zip code. Through them, I learned that Brendan and Brenda were twins, that Andrea Zuckerman wore glasses and that Donna and David belonged together. But most importantly, I knew none of these people compared to Dylan McKay.
Few young men defined the nineties like 90210’s bad boy with a heart of gold. An emotionally damaged surfer who hailed from a broken home, he picked up where like James Dean left off—an association that would soon apply to the actor who portrayed him: Luke Perry, who died on March 4 after suffering a massive stroke.
Tortured, slow to trust and an old soul among a set of largely privileged baby-teens, Dylan perpetuated the belief that to be loved is to be redeemed. His relationship with Brenda became the subject of countless recess debates, and his 50s-inspired hair added to the mystique that had already made him seem so mesmerizing—and intimidating. After all, Dylan had shown that to warm up, he simply needed to be loved. And while some of us (hello) didn’t exactly know what that meant, we still understood that we wanted to be the ones who loved him.
Of course, Luke Perry wasn’t Dylan McKay. Perry was an adult, a serious actor and a person often conflated with a deceased legend whose trajectory ended when he died in a car crash. Before his death earlier this week, Perry had racked up nearly 100 acting credits and had gone from portraying a teen dream to playing the father of one as Fred Andrews on Riverdale. From all accounts, his life was full, and a far cry from Dylan’s. But as soon as news broke that he passed, the inevitable tributes immediately tied him once more to the teen who always seemed far older than his 16 years.
But is that so wrong? Luke Perry was always more than Dylan McKay—but his character making an indelible mark on the hearts and minds of millions is a testament to the actor’s ability to walk the line between vulnerable, interesting and intimidating as hell. Let’s not be dismissive; being a teen idol is an accomplishment in and of itself. But Perry also changed the way we think about fictional teen boys forever. He injected complexity and personality into a role that could’ve easily been two-dimensional and boring. He set the stage for characters like Ryan Atwood on The OC and Jess Mariano on Gilmore Girls by creating a smart, hard-nosed young man who had experienced danger, yes, but wasn’t dangerous.
Okay, he helped perpetuate the great myth that a young man’s rebellion can be reined in with true love. But while many of us learned that doesn’t necessarily happen in real life, the fact that it played out in a fictional way doesn’t negate its importance. We needed a canvas on which to project our hopes, dreams and fears so that we could understand what we wanted (and what we didn’t). And the canvas that Luke Perry created was generous.
Of course, in the end, my parents never ended up letting me watch Beverly Hills, 90210, and I spent the duration of the series’ run living off updates from friends whose parents didn’t care about a show defined by its beautiful young people and their controversies. But frankly, I can’t be bitter. Because the fact that Luke Perry was so convincing that my parents couldn’t see past the controversy surrounding the show to recognize he was acting just proves that, regardless of who was watching, he dazzled and convinced.
Ultimately, Luke Perry truly had the range.