It was a good joke. Dylan, a character who managed to seem simultaneously deep and above it all, was supremely self-aware. Perry, the actor who gave him life—the actor who died of a stroke, on Monday, at age 52—made him that way. In the cauldron of intense self-consciousness that was West Beverly Hills High School, Dylan simply did not care what other people thought. And Perry, in his portrayal of Dylan, managed to convey the notion that the detachment was not the result of self-absorption, but rather its opposite: Dylan felt. He hurt. He longed. He loved poetry. He was the cliché about still waters running deep made manifest. The magic of Perry’s performance of his most iconic character was his way of insisting that Dylan, a paragon of coolness, was in fact made of more heated stuff. In a burst of emotion, reeling from the inattention of his absentee father, Dylan once threw a ceramic planter off a ledge. The explosion of the hard vessel as it hit the even harder ground lives on as both a work of subtle camp and, also, as a metaphor.
90210 was dizzyingly melodramatic and often clunkily written and even more often clunkily acted. It did the thing, however, that the best high-school soap operas will: It took the lives of young people seriously. It acknowledged what being a teenager feels like, how fraught and freighted it is to navigate the space between childhood and adulthood. The show telegraphed the conflicted attitudes American culture nurtures, still, about adolescents—the imperious demands it often places on them both to grow up and to stay young at the same time. One of the running jokes about 90210 was that it assembled a cast of young adults to play teenagers; the emotional upshot of that production decision, however, was the show-by-show suggestion that the lines between the teen years and the later ones are not as bright as people had been led to believe.
No one embodied that idea more resonantly than Dylan McKay, who was introduced in the show’s second episode as an agent of youthful gravitas, and who, indeed, radiated a “beyond his years” kind of melancholy: He was an emancipated minor. He largely lived on his own. He was in recovery for alcohol addiction. As Perry played him, Dylan was both much too old and much too young for everything that would happen to him. Dylan was sometimes described as a “bad boy,” but he wasn’t, really; he was too good for that. He was merely coping, just as every teenager will have to. It was that fact—Perry’s portrayal of Dylan as the fusion of hard edges and a molten core—that helped turn him into a romantic hero. (The eyes whose expression was permanently set on “Smolder” didn’t hurt the cause, either.)
Perry could have coasted on Dylan for the rest of his career. He could have capitalized on the camp and the nostalgia and the character-revivifying affordances of reboot culture. What he did instead was to keep working, keep going, keep trying on new roles, keep proving his immense versatility. The cameo in Will & Grace was accompanied by similar appearances in Spin City, and Clone High, and Family Guy, and Raising Hope, and Community, and What I Like About You, and The Simpsons (he played Krusty the Clown’s brother, Sideshow Luke Perry, and Krusty fantasized about shooting his absurdly handsome sibling out of a cannon). There were many others. He made an appearance on Pound Puppies as a character named Fang—a coyote with “a bad attitude”—in an episode titled “Rebel Without a Collar.”