All of Luke Perry’s obituaries have the word heartthrob right there in the headline. It’s a weird word, fusing a noun and a verb with two stuttering little Ts bridging the space between thing and action. It’s our hearts Perry caused to throb, but he’s the one who was the heartthrob. He’s the thing that moves us to action.
The word throb itself is very rarely used outside romance novels, and unless we’re calling someone a heartthrob, is very rarely used to describe anything other than the rush of blood to sex organs. When I was a child, my grandma kept books beside her bed with covers full of women in off-the-shoulder dresses cleaving themselves to the rippling torsos of men whose shirts had no buttons. I read the books when she wasn’t around and learned that genitalia throbs with desire, and that desire feels like burning, but that flame of desire can only really burn if something is forbidden. It’s throbbing math: the amount of time a heartthrob remains forbidden is directly proportional to the frequency and intensity of the throbbing it inspires.
When Beverly Hills 90210 first aired in 1990, producers miscalculated. They thought Brandon Walsh was going to be our heartthrob. It was an easy mistake to make: Jason Priestley had eyes like the sea, capped with a gossamer mane you just wanted to reach up and push back. The problem wasn’t Priestley. It was Brandon.
Brandon Walsh plays basketball and might have to be home early to study for his trig final. He had a paper route back in Minnesota, where he worked hard to earn the money for a secondhand Buick that he washes and vacuums without fail every Saturday. Brandon can proofread your English essay because he works on the school paper, and while he’s got thoughts on the Oxford comma, understands why it may be necessary in certain contexts. Your dad doesn’t want you having sex, but Brandon is from a good family and is going to college and his parents love him. If you’re going to have dick in you, your father would rather it were Brandon’s.
No one but Andrea Zuckerman throbs for Brandon Walsh.
Luke Perry’s first appearance on the show comes 10 minutes in to the third episode of Season 1. He tells a couple of feather-haired bullies who look like Eric and Donald Trump Jr. in ’90s cosplay that “The tragedy of this country is that cretins like you end up running it.” He has trouble making eye contact. He barely speaks above a whisper.
Dylan McKay doesn’t like bullies because his dad is a bully. The vintage Porsche he drives needs to be washed but runs like a dream because when he’s not moping in high school staircases, barely able to keep his eyes open against all this pointless drama, he’s getting his hands dirty fingering the secret innards of the quirky car he saw the beauty in even if no one else did. His mother abandoned him, but he doesn’t want to talk about it. He might have gotten a girl pregnant in Paris last year. Sometimes school is too boring, and he has to spend the day shooting pool and bantering with a bartender because none of it matters anyway. Dylan didn’t mean to leave you standing alone outside the Marx Brothers Film Festival. It’s just that he had to help his abusive father flee the country.
“He just gets to me. He always gets to me,” Dylan tells you, weeping, right before your first kiss. You’re the only one who’s ever seen him like this. Your dad doesn’t want any dick in you, but he especially doesn’t want this dick in you.
“I don’t want to make you feel terrible anymore,” Dylan says, thoughtfully. He’s always avoid eye contact, but he looks at you.
In a 1992 interview with Today, Luke Perry told Maria Shriver that he was uncomfortable with James Dean comparisons. Dean was a heartthrob who died at 24. Perry was 25 at the time, but playing a 17-year-old on TV. We remember Dean mostly as a beautiful sad boy in a white t-shirt pleading, “You’re tearing me apart.” By the time the first round of 1950s nostalgia hit pop culture like a wave of nausea in the 1970s, the beautifully vulnerable pretty boy greaser was remade into the wisecracking womanizer in a black leather jacket, Arthur Fonzarelli (zero throb) or dimwitted but lovable Danny Zuko (shame-filled throb).
“I think when I can no longer fulfill that James Dean fantasy for them, they’ll look and get it from someone else,” Perry told Shiver. He seemed to understand that heartthrobs only act as verb for as long as they are forbidden. Too much access diminishes the throbbing, and we need a steady supply of fresh bad boys to keep the blood moving. In a clip from the interview, Perry winces as he gets out of a car and is immediately greeted with shrieks from a tangle of teenaged throbbers. It might be the noise, but it might also be the idea that if James Dean had lived long enough to age out of the beautiful sad boy role, it would probably be easier to forget him.
In 1994, My So-Called Life would introduce the world to the way Jordan Catalano leaned against a locker. With the top half of his flannel shirt pressed against the industrial metal of a public high school, Jordan was always holding a blink so long it seemed like the whole world was painfully boring, which made him a little bit sad. “He’s always closing his eyes,” Angela Chase, the show’s protagonist, notes. “Like it hurts to look at things.”
My So-Called Life, a show that is nearly perfect, probably wouldn’t exist without the unprecedented of success of Beverly Hills 90210, a show that is far from perfect in nearly every way. Jordan Catalano is also a nearly perfect heartthrob. Beautiful, quiet, unavailable, and so dumb you can project nearly any bad-boy redemption fantasy onto him then watch it play out like a movie on a white wall.
While Perry constantly fielded James Dean comparisons, I’ve never read or seen anyone ask Jared Leto if he’d ever watched 90210. Yet Dylan McKay was the originator of the bored ’90s lean. In the early episodes, he was always brooding in stairwells or skulking around lockers, whispering his critiques of high school politics like an adult who is watching the show at home. “Shut up, Kelly,” he mumbles at some smart-alec teenage dig when he shows up to school drunk. He hasn’t yelled and mostly sounds tired. Kelly shuts up.
It’s hard to say whether it’s Dylan McKay the bad boy who’s bored of all this or Luke Perry the actor. The transposition makes Dylan McKay more interesting to watch than the actors who are playing to teenage type. Shannen Doherty dutifully yells when it’s time to tell her parents she’s not a little girl and will fuck when she’s ready. Ian Ziering slurs and stumbles and screams when it’s time to drunkenly confess that he’s adopted. But Perry says lines like “Until I’m numb. Until I forget where I am and why I came here in the first place,” completely apathetically. That not giving a shit, whether it came from the character or the actor, made him throb-inducing where the others were simply pretty people yelling things. In scenes that required a normal tone of voice, he almost whispers, sort of like he’s trying to quietly, thoughtfully write himself out of his own scenes. But the quietude against the others relying on acting-class hysterics makes him compelling. When he talks, you can’t help but lean toward the screen, trying to get close enough to understand.
Not everyone is down to throb. My sister, as a matter of fact, preferred reliable Brandon to might-fall-off-the-wagon at any moment Dylan. With 90210, the dynamic of choice between the pretty good boy and the dangerous sad boy became a Betty or Veronica for teenagers theoretically interested in fucking dudes. Dylan or Brandon. Pacey or Dawson. Logan or Duncan. Jordan or Brian (okay that was never a competition). To throb or not to throb. But ultimately, Pacey gets Joey. Logan weeps for his dead mother while realizing he’s fallen for Veronica.
“You wanna go somewhere? Your mom says it’s okay,” Jordan Catalano tells Angela Chase before driving her away in his red convertible, leaving Brian Krakow behind on his bicycle, forever pedaling circles in the gloomy light of the streetlamp.
Meanwhile, that world forgot about Dylan, and unfortunately forgot about Perry. The success of 90210, much of which rests with a certain type of teen being thirsty for Dylan McKay, translated to a couple of unremarkable film roles and then television parts I forgot about until I looked at his IMDB page. “Oh right, he was on Oz,” I remembered as I scrolled down. “Yeah, he was the rare hot gay nerd on Will and Grace,” that was funny.
Maybe that’s why I was so excited to see him back in the world of high school drama on Riverdale as Archie’s father, Fred Andrews. In the world of Riverdale, Archie is the Brandon. He plays the guitar when he’s not winning letters for his school jacket. He punches through a frozen river to save a drowning girl, barely noticing his bleeding hand until they’ve pulled her to safety. Archie is from a decent family and is going to college and his parents love him. If you’re going to have dick in you, your father would rather it were Archie’s.
And Fred Andrews is the hardworking father who loves him. When he was young and in teenage heartthrob mode, Perry could have chosen to turn Dylan McKay into a strutting, shouting caricature of the rebel without a cause more Tommy Wiseau than James Dean, but Perry made him a quiet introvert who didn’t want to be so hot and rich. Likewise, Perry makes Fred Andrews more than the moralistic father blathering about the right thing. In 90210, Jim Walsh seemed overwhelmed and horrified by the realities of raising teenagers, always giving sanctimonious speeches that were as boring to listen to as real-life adults speaking But Fred Andrews has more of Dylan McKay’s attitude about high school than Jim Walsh’s attitude about parenting: equal parts bored, tired, and amused. He’s still quiet, and nearly thirty years later, I’m still leaning in when he speaks, still wanting to get close enough to understand.
And on a show like Riverdale, which is wonderful in the fact that it relishes being terrible, that classic Perry detachment is right at home. He seems to be both taking the role incredibly seriously and not giving a shit about it at all, making his conflict over being back in the world of heartthrobs as sexy and compelling as it ever was:
“The other thing I really loved is, I don’t need to be in every episode,” Perry told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017. “I don’t need to be the frontman of the show.”