Beverly Hills 90210: Something in the Air

"Something in the Air," the 28th episode of Beverly Hills 90210's 3rd season, aired on May 12, 1993. It's better known as:

It's astonishing the shelf life this episode has had. Even in 2014 if you yell out "Donna Martin Graduates!" at a bar, baseball game, bar mitzvah, or at the microphone, there's a good chance someone is going to answer you with one of these:

What is it about Donna Martin's brief uncertainty over whether or not she's going to get to graduate with her friends that has resonated with audiences so loudly and for so long? I don't think anyone planned for it to have this kind of staying power. Beverly Hills in general, sure - like The Brady Bunch, it's hard to pinpoint why it became a cultural reference point in the first place. But "Donna Martin Graduates" was hardly an original concept for high school TV melodrama. Every series that ever dealt with high school characters had an episode where one of them suddenly might not graduate. What does "Something in the Air" have that others don't?

I mean, she just wants to graduate with her friends! Mom.
Hold up a second.
Let's say you have never watched an episode of Beverly Hills 90210 or that you've an aversion to teeny-bopper TV that precludes your knowing the first thing about Donna Martin, her commencement or otherwise. You've likely still come across "Donna Martin Graduates" just as part of the pop media ether, the same way people use or recognize another idiomatic phrase "Jump the Shark" without necessarily a working knowledge of Happy Days.

Now, by most (but certainly not all) definitions, "Something in the Air" is not a great work of art, and I'm not here to convince you otherwise. I watched 90210 almost all of the ten years it was on, but it wasn't something you watched-watched, it was something you watched with friends. (Weirdly, this did not mean you never watched it by yourself.) No one watched it for authentic drama or lived experience; right down to the haircuts, its distance from reality and from profundity was the whole attraction. 

If none of this makes sense, it simply means you belong to a saner demographic than I.
I saw this when it originally aired - I want to say it was at the old Lambda Chi Alpha house on Old North Road in Kingston, RI, but it might have been in the dorms (at URI.) My circle of friends at the time had a weekly meet-up for Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place, a movable feast of smoking and drinking that I recreated with as many different groups of friends as I could until the show went off the air in 2000. (Side-note: I never took to Melrose, then or now, when not-paired with 90210.)

Itself a spin-off of 90210. Lest we forget!
Anyway, I've watched with some bemusement how "Donna Martin Graduates" has evolved into one of the "Marcia Marcia Marcia!"s of its era. For those of you who are far too sensible to not have the plot details memorized, here's what happens in this episode:

Donna was caught drinking at Prom and faces suspension, putting her attendance at commencement in jeopardy.
Sure enough, she's suspended. She's not going to be able to walk across the stage in cap and gown with her friends.

Brandon and Andrea are berated by their younger colleagues at the student paper for their selective concern over Donna's fate but not the dress code which oppresses their own (junior) class. "In a sick way, what's happening to Donna Martin is an appropriate epitaph for the dead spirit of the entire class of 1993."

Kelly and Dylan make out.
Soon, the gang's all called to the office. They think Donna's sold them out. After all, they were all drinking at Prom as well. I know! Drinking. At PROM.
Turns out, though, the Vice President (Mrs. Teasley) is just giving them a heads-up that Donna's family is appealing her suspension and that they can write letters on her behalf. "You do want to help Donna, don't you?"

Dylan reminds everyone that Donna would do anything for a friend... Anything.
Brandon's junior colleague's admonishments continue to burn in his ears. When he complains to Andrea about how his generation never does anything, he's taken out into the hall by Mr. X their teacher/ the student paper adviser.

"Donna's being railroaded... this school board is a kangaroo court."
Brandon seeks the advice of his Dad, who fondly recalls marching against Vietnam in Grant Park, Chicago in the '60s. Brandon's heard enough. "Someone's got to stand up for Donna, Dad."

"Just do me one favor, son -"
"don't get arrested." (Implied high five.)
Mr. and Mrs. Walsh's role on the show is to be unreasonably supportive (but benevolently firm) of every whim of their son's. And to a lesser extent, their daughter's. And Dylan's. And later, adopted strays like Tiffani Amber-Thiessen. Jim and Cindy were retired after the 5th season. (Eventually, all the Walshes were off the show, but their home was conveniently enough sold to Steve.) 

When Brandon leads the students of West Beverly to march on Donna's appeal hearing, Mrs. W hears the tumult outside. "What's that?" she asks.

"Sounds like a revolution." Jim Walsh: sage and succinct.
Brandon assembles the gang at the Peach Put and lays out his plan: tomorrow, they ride.
At first Dylan's all, Nah, count me out, bro.
Then he remembers his own dialogue from earlier in the episode and it's all good.
Their gamble works:
The End. So I ask again, what is it about the above that separates it from any garden-
variety storyline of any high school show? Is it the absurdity of how seriously everyone takes Donna's "predicament?"

At one juncture, Dylan makes the obvious point that what's at stake here is not all that serious: she's still going to graduate, for fuck's sake, just in August. He is immediately shunned. 

As always, it's a sad day when Dylan McKay is the voice of reason.
As we saw, though, Dylan surrenders and joins the resistance. And it's not just Donna's friends and family (none of which I screencapped, but holy moley the various extended scenes of the parents discussing the issue and apportioning blame and responsibility are so somber) that treat the question of whether or not there is graduation in Donna's future as if it's a nuclear countdown hostage situation. As we saw above, it's the teachers, the advisors, the juniors, the downtrodden,

Mrs. Teasley, the VP, and
and the superintendent and board members.
Donna's pain is theirs; their struggle is hers. There isn't a soul in the 90210 zip code that doesn't carry some of the burden.

Donna struggles heroically throughout, conveying through tear-blotched eyes and body language (and over-the-top dialogue) how sad she is, how much she regrets it, how unfairly she's been targeted, and how badly she just wants to graduate with her friends.

Adolescence and high school are such intense rites of American passage that we can sometimes take for granted the media industry around the subject, especially things like 90210 or its ancestor The Brady Bunch, which so successfully portray an inoffensive, affluent, imaginary American reality. I don't know if it's the truth or just my own projection on things - and of course I'm hardly an unobjective observer - but my generation (say, the graduating classes of 1990 through 1995) seemed to have an easier relationship with ironic appreciation. (As skewered brilliantly in The Simpsons Hullabalooza episode.) Sure, we were slackers and we "Yeah, whatever"ed a lot of things - too many maybe - but it's not like reality has cleaned up its act any since the 90s. Things are snortworthier than ever. Hell, "Donna Martin Graduates" would be taken up as a hashtag campaign slogan nowadays, absolutely without irony, and you'd see people weepy or crazy trains about it all over social media. Perspective and context have been obliterated.

I digress. But maybe that's something this episode actually called correctly. If half the news you heard or read last year was dubbed over with "Donna Martin Graduates," would we even tell the difference?

"Something in the Air" was

The TV Tomb of Mystery is an ongoing attempt to stave off  acquisition of any more impulse-buy DVDs by taking better inventory of the ones already in hand.


  1. "Let's say you have never watched an episode of Beverly Hills 90210 or that you've an aversion to teeny-bopper TV that precludes your knowing the first thing about Donna Martin, her commencement or otherwise."

    Well, you've got a good test subject in me, because I fit that set of criteria to a T. (Side-note: I have no earthly idea what "fitting something to a T" means.) And I have to confess that I have never heard the phrase "Donna Martin graduates" before now.

    That said, your thoughts about it would, in 2015, be an unavoidable viral sensation ring absolutely true to me. For example, I know there is such a thing as a Left Shark. And I kinda even know what that means; it's got to do with dancing sharks at Katy Perry's Super Bowl show. I don't know the particulars beyond that, but I know it's a thing.

    TV has always been pretty good at constructing those sort of touchstone moments for us. I don't know nothin' 'bout Donna Martin's uncertain graduation, but to this day, I know for certain I could use the phrases "I'm out!" (Seinfeld) or "I'll be in my bunk" (Firefly) around certain friends and have them guffaw. Assuming I'd chosen the proper context, of course.

    The hashtag phenomenon annoys me, but if I'm being objective I have to admit that it's nothing but the same sort of thing writ large. This, to me, is proof that technology isn't really changing us all that much; it's merely changing some of the particulars about HOW we do what we do. It's not changing WHAT we do.

    That's a whole 'nother topic, though.

    Does somebody actually use the phrase "kangaroo court" in this episode? If so, I'm tempted to track it down and watch it, because how could anything this ridiculous which takes itself this seriously fail to be a good time?

    Looking at the screencaps, I continue to marvel that anybody ever took Jason Priestley or Luke Perry seriously in even the vaguest fashion. Or maybe nobody did, but everyone agreed to pretend for a while. If so, that might help explain their subsequent careers.

    This was an enjoyable read. Thanks!

    1. It pleases me greatly to hear you enjoyed this post despite no familiarity with or interest in the show.

      Indeed, the teacher does use the phrase "kangaroo court" in reference to the School Board in whose coarse hands rest Donna Martin's delicate graduation dreams. I would say this ep is definitely a good time - the seriousness with which everyone treats the situation builds to such an absurd crescendo that you get swept up in the ridiculousness.

      Jason Priestley seems like a cool enough guy in real life. Maybe Luke is, too, though he seems much more like his Dylan persona than is perhaps advisable. Seth Rogen did an interview where he talked about working with Zac Efron vs. working with Justin Beiber. He gave the former props because he realized Seth was older and would not be impressed with the fame / status he'd accrued with his High School Musical work, whereas the Beib kept treating Seth as if Seth would be honored/ fascinated just to be in the same room with him, which, of course, was the case. Nor would it be for anyone over, say, 20. (Unless, apparently, you're Miranda Kerr. Shame on you, Miranda!) I see something similar with Priestley and Perry, though who knows.

      I so wish Sharknado was a 90210 reunion. I just pretended it was when I watched that (and the sequel.)


    2. That last line there should be read in a "HIS NAME WAS ROBERT PAULSON" cadence, methinks.

      That's a fascinating anecdote about Rogen/etc. Can you imagine the sort of ignorant hubris it would take for anyone to simply assume -- and not consciously, but reflexively and without any sort of thought -- that everyone you encounter must be honored and enchanted to be in your presence? And yet, I have zero doubt that Justin Bieber probably is (or, at the very least, was) just like that. I suspect he's not alone, either; any number of Kardashians probably feel the same way. It's an amazing thing to contemplate.