When Darren Star sat down to write the pilot for Beverly Hills, 90210, he had never written for television before
But he was eager to bring an honest, teen-focused drama to the medium that, he believed, hadn’t been as successful at them as the movies. He loosely based his story — of a middle-class family facing culture shock upon moving to Beverly Hills — on his own life.
“I grew up in Washington, D.C., and went to school at UCLA, so in a sense I had that experience,” he says. “Brandon [Jason Priestly] was the character I most identified with, and Brenda [Shannen Doherty] was very much like my sister.”
The show became a phenom for the young Fox network, running for 10 seasons (1990–2000) and pulling in some 20 million viewers at its height. “It was a word-of-mouth success,” Star recalls.
“Something like 80 percent of all teenage girls watching television were watching Beverly Hills, 90210, which was huge. At the end of the first season, Luke Perry [who played high-school loner Dylan] made an appearance at a shopping mall and got mobbed. When that happened, the show suddenly got on the map in a really big way.”
Star’s pilot marked the start of a prolific career of creating, writing, directing, and producing television — and a résumé that also includes Fox’s Melrose Place, HBO’s Sex and the City and the current TV Land hit Younger, among many other credits.
As an executive producer of Sex and the City, he took home an Emmy in 2001 for outstanding comedy series, following nominations the two previous years. Star was interviewed for the Television Academy Foundation in October 2015 by Adrienne Faillace, a producer for the foundation; the following is an edited excerpt of that discussion. The entire interview may be viewed at TelevisionAcademy.com/Archive.
Q: Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up?
A: I was a film geek and obsessed with Steven Spielberg’s career. I had a Super 8 camera and made films — I’m sure my parents thought it was a hobby that I would grow out of. But when I went to California for college, I realized it was something I’d wanted to do from a really young age.
Q: What was your first job in the industry?
A: I was a waiter at Hamburger Hamlet in Brentwood. Coming out of college, I had this fantasy that I would be waiting tables at night and writing during the day. One day I realized I had to find a job in the industry.
There was a posting at UCLA for an assistant at an entertainment PR firm, Guttman & Pam — this was around 1984. I interviewed with Susan Geller, who became my boss. I credit her in a big way, because she was instrumental in starting my career.
Q: How did she help you?
A: While I was working there, I was writing TV pilots and screenplays. She passed on my work to Andy Licht and Jeff Mueller, who had a producing deal at Warner Bros. They engaged me to develop a treatment with them, which we then sold to Warner Bros. as a feature [Doin’ Time on Planet Earth].
Q: How did Beverly Hills, 90210 come about?
A: I had written a script at Tri-Star for Paul Stupin, who then left the studio. But he called and said he’d become head of drama at Fox, this new network. He asked if I was interested in developing a series about a high school in Beverly Hills.
They mistakenly thought they owned the rights to Beverly Hills High, but they didn’t, which is why we were never able to refer to the school that way. It was always West Beverly. We had to do a lot of gyrations for legal reasons to make sure that the audience understood we were not doing the show about Beverly Hills High.
Q: When did you meet Aaron Spelling?
A: Aaron was attached to produce the pilot. I remember meeting him in his living room, and he was wearing a tracksuit. He had seen Doin’ Time on Planet Earth, which didn’t turn out the way I had expected, but he had liked it. We had our meeting, and he approved me to write the pilot script.
Q: What was your impression of him?
A: Aaron was a charming man and a legend. A marvelous storyteller — he had a really strong sense of the audience and how to tell a story. So it was amazing to be able to sit with him and bounce off ideas. I think he enjoyed the experience, and I certainly was enjoying writing the pilot. I didn’t realize that it’s not a typical experience that you write a pilot and it gets made. It was a two-hour pilot, and I had written it like a movie.
Q: Why did you choose to write it that way?
A: I had written a number of teen-oriented movies. I felt that the movies were capturing an honest teen experience, but television wasn’t. So when I talked to the executives at Fox, I said I wanted this to be like thirtysomething for teenagers — 90210 would be about anything that mattered to them. It would not be about parents solving teenagers’ problems; it would be about teens solving their own problems.
Q: Did you get pushback from the network on any storylines?
A: Absolutely. At the time, stories about teenagers and sex were tough to do. And those were the stories you wanted to do. When Brenda slept with Dylan at the spring dance, the affiliates went nuts. Network television was still stuck in a 1950s mentality.
Q: Was there any fallout from that episode?
A: Yes, a lot. I wrote and directed the episode — it was the first thing I’d ever directed. I was writing these storylines, thinking they weren’t such a big deal. Brenda sleeps with Dylan, and everyone’s congratulating her. It was a big deal that she was losing her virginity, but it was a happy experience for her.
Fox had a lot of complaints — the affiliates were freaking out that this high school girl had sex with her boyfriend, enjoyed it and there were no repercussions. So that led to an episode the next season where she had a pregnancy scare.
I wanted to write it in a way that, hopefully, felt not too much like a 1950s horror tale about the perils of sex. But there was this idea that Brenda had to experience consequences of having had sex with Dylan.
Q: While still working on 90210, you created Melrose Place ….
A: Melrose Place was inspired by an apartment building in West Hollywood where I lived, a courtyard complex with a pool. Everybody who lived there was in their 20s. The idea was to explore the time between graduating from college and learning to become an adult. That was my pitch for Melrose Place, but I think it suffered from being a spinoff of 90210, because it really had nothing to do with 90210.
Q: How do you think it suffered?
A: Our storytelling at the beginning of Melrose Place was very influenced by 90210 — we were telling close-knit stories, kind of morality plays. I was a little gun shy about the amount of sex that the characters could have on Melrose Place, because it was a traumatic experience dealing with sex on 90210.
At one point, a Fox executive said, “It’s okay, those characters can have as much sex as they want.” When I heard that, I was like, “Okay! Now we can have fun.”
Q: After a rocky start, what turned the ratings tide for the show?
A: Late in the first season, when the show was flailing in the ratings, I thought, “I just have to have fun with this and write a show that people are not going to be able to stop watching.” At that point we had Heather Locklear involved, and that gave me permission to go into a soapier direction. I wanted to write these shows in a way that people couldn’t turn away, almost like watching a car accident every week.
Q: Did you ever deal with censorship on the show?
A: The censorship issues on Melrose Place had to do with having a gay character. I’m gay, and I thought, “You can’t do a show about West Hollywood and not have a gay character.” I wanted to have a character whose sexuality didn’t completely define who he was, and tell stories about dating and AIDS and discrimination.
There was a lot of pushback from the network on anything to do with Matt (Doug Savant) in terms of dating guys. There was an episode in which we tried to show a kiss, but the network cut it.
Q: Perhaps the most talked-about moment on Melrose Place was when Kimberly (Marcia Cross) takes off her wig.
A: Marcia’s character was having an affair with Michael (Thomas Calabro). There was an episode where they were driving back from dinner — he’d given her a ring and she was so excited — and they end up driving off a cliff.
I remember watching that stunt, which was fantastic — we drove the car off a cliff! Then I thought, “Oh, my God! We killed Kimberly! We’re really going to miss her.”
We were just starting to think about the show in a very outrageous way, so I said to the writers, “Let’s have her go away for a long time, but then come back. She hasn’t died and comes back with a vengeance. She’s a little crazy, but we don’t find that out right away.”
And we reveal that when she has sex with Michael, then goes in the bathroom and looks in the mirror, she pulls off her wig and we see this awful, gigantic, disgusting scar.
Q: Did you think the scene would get the kind of response that it did?
A: With Melrose Place, whenever we were roaring with laughter in the writers’ room over an idea, we’d be like, “Yes!” And this was one of those times when we thought, “Let’s go all the way out on the ledge and hope it works.” During those moments — when you’re thinking, “This is too crazy,” or “Are we really going to do this?” — you learn to trust your gut.
Q: What were your thoughts as you were creating Sex and the City?
A: I was spending time in New York and thinking that I wanted to do a show that was closer to the lives of people I knew. I knew Candace Bushnell, who had a column [in the New York Observer] called “Sex and the City.”
I loved the idea of using the character of a writer who was writing about her life, but the story would also be about her. I was able to create a character that I felt could be almost like a Holly Golightly (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) for the late ’90s.
Q: Did you ever consider this as a broadcast-network show?
A: I wanted to do the anti-television show. I didn’t want to bring it to a network. ABC was interested in it, and I remember asking, “Can you even call the show Sex and the City?” I loved The Larry Sanders Show and HBO, which wasn’t known for series at that time, but they were interested. So I brought it to them with the idea that it would sort of be the equivalent of an independent film.
A lot of my career has been about trying to push the boundaries of television. I thought, “Let’s do a show that’s honest about sexuality, and it’s not about showing skin or showing breasts.” Everybody can see pornography — it’s not about that. But how do you do a show that’s honest about sex and relationships in a relevant and humorous way? I never thought Sex and the City was going to be a hit.
Q: Did you get a full order right away? Or did you have to make a pilot and see if it would get picked up?
A: I made a pilot. I was a big fan of Sarah Jessica Parker and she was, for me, the perfect actress who could bring the right amount of intelligence and humor to the role of Carrie. She could carry off this character.
The idea was that a woman could be free and open about her sexuality — and was having a lot of sex — and the audience would not think she was a bitch. That was a fine line, especially then. But Sarah has incredible likability — she could do all that and you still loved her. So she was the first big piece of the puzzle for me, in terms of putting it together.
Q: Did you always want Carrie to end up with Mr. Big (Chris Noth)?
A: I wasn’t ever thinking of an ending for Sex and the City. For me, the show was about the fact that women don’t need to be defined by men or by marriage. It breaks the romantic comedy mold in Hollywood — ultimately the strongest relationships that these women have are with one another. Not that they can’t have relationships with men, but they’re not going to be defined by men or by marriage.
Q: What was the genesis for your current show, Younger?
A: Younger is based on a book I found a number of years ago (by Pamela Redmond Satran), about a woman who has to lie about her age to get back in the workforce. She’s 40 and newly divorced, she hasn’t worked for 12 years and because of the big gap on her résumé, she can’t get a job.
The series answers a question that I always ask when I create a show, which is, “Why does this show need to exist and what is it saying?” I thought Younger was saying something relevant — something that a lot of my friends, especially female friends, deal with.
Smart, successful women who take time off to have kids decide they want to go back to work — but they find that nobody wants them. At 40 years old, they’re put out to pasture.
Q: And there’s a twist to the story….
A: This character (Liza, played by Sutton Foster) goes to outrageous lengths because she needs the money. She lies about her age on her résumé, and because she looks really young, she gets a job as a 26-year-old assistant — and lives a double life as a 26-year-old!
The timing felt right, because the show’s also very much about the generation gap between people in their 40s and those in their 20s. I felt like that gap has never been as pronounced as it is right now, with social media and the technological revolution. I thought that would create a great story engine.
Q: What do you like most about writing?
A: I think I write best when I’m entertaining myself and I’m completely invested in the characters. I fall in love with my characters, and I begin to love to write for them. When that happens, I think I get the same sense of enjoyment out of writing a show as the audience does watching it. But when it doesn’t go well, it’s torture.
Q: What advice would you offer an aspiring writer?
A: Follow your own voice. Don’t try to do something just because you think it will be successful. When I started in television, it was like a little box in terms of what you could write about. I broke out of that box by creating Sex and the City, and I like to think that it created opportunities for other people to do the same. Now television is kaleidoscopic — anybody’s voice can work on television. And that’s really cool.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2016