HOLLYWOOD, March 9— Is “Beverly Hills 90210” worthy of serious analysis at, of all places, a fine-arts museum? Is “Hill Street Blues” comparable to Shakespeare? Are television shows like “A Different World,” “Maude” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” cultural breakthroughs?
Virtually each night in the last week, hundreds of television writers, actors, producers and, above all, fans have been surging into the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to celebrate their favorite medium and, most significant, to validate television as a significant art form.
“I guess we’ve always been treated as kind of second-class citizens in this town,” said Grant Tinker, the former chairman of the board of NBC and one of the most powerful television producers in the 1970’s and 1980’s. “Maybe it’s the size of the screen. Maybe it’s the fact that it was a movie town, then a radio town, and TV is a latecomer. Television is so familiar to everyone, and familiarity does breed a certain contempt.”
Not at the museum. To rapt audiences, its ninth annual festival, sponsored by the Museum of Television and Radio in Manhattan, is celebrating a group of disparate television shows. Virtually all the major performers, creators and directors — including some of the biggest stars in the television industry — show up to watch selected excerpts of their shows and then sit on a stage and informally answer questions. ‘Stepchild of the Arts’
“For too many years, people on television felt they had to do a film to be taken legitimately because television was really a stepchild of the arts,” said Robert M. Batscha, chairman of the Museum of Television and Radio. “Criticizing TV is second only to watching TV as an American pastime. Now, we want to give TV its day in the sun. It’s a medium that has got to be recognized.”
The shows being recognized this year include some new ones (“Beverly Hills 90210,” “Brooklyn Bridge,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Civil Wars” and “Seinfeld”), some distinguished older series (“Hill Street Blues,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Police Story”) and some classic specials. These included Nat (King) Cole at the Hollywood Palace, and the only joint appearances of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, and Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland. There were also a tribute to the mini-series “Roots” and a salute to Garry Marshall, who helped create shows like “Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley” and “Mork and Mindy.” The festival, which began March 4 and ends March 21, has been underwritten by the magazine TV Guide.
“Sometimes what we do comes and goes so quickly, and this elevates us; it validates us,” said Gary David Goldberg, creator of “Brooklyn Bridge.” “Frankly, I’m kind of teary about this. It puts you in the context of being in a community. It’s very rare for us.”
Certainly the most discussed event at the traditionally staid festival was the tribute to “Beverly Hills 90210,” the wildly popular Fox show about teen-agers. Its showings brought unusually heavy private security, several Los Angeles police cars outside the museum and appearances by cast members, including Luke Perry, Jason Priestley and Shannon Doherty, that brought shrieks from the under-20 audience. Mr. Priestley and Mr. Perry mugged, joked, punched each other affectionately and answered questions, many of them serious ones.
“I don’t see many people like me on the show,” said one black high school student.
“What do you mean, people like you?” Mr. Perry asked.
The producer Aaron Spelling, who is one of the show’s creators, said: “Everybody deserves to be represented. We apologize. You’re absolutely right.”
The show, created by Mr. Spelling and Darren Star at the request of Fox, has dealt with serious themes including divorce, sex, the use of condoms and abortion. “I wanted to create a show like ‘Thirtysomething’ for teen-agers,” Mr. Star said. But the show, which has been criticized for its glamorized, sexy vision of high school, was gently chided by members of the crowd, who asked if it would deal with unglamorous themes like academic pressures and homework.
At one point, Mr. Spelling even asked the audience whether it wanted the show’s characters to continue in high school or leave home and go to college. To Mr. Spelling’s surprise, the majority wanted the cast to go on to college.
“Please, God, make them stay home,” James Eckhouse, who plays a parent, said, only half-joking.
Mr. Spelling said the honor that the museum accorded the show was a measure of its value. Asked by a teen-ager for his advice about the television business, Mr. Spelling replied with a shrug: “We work in a dream factory. Just don’t give up. It’s all a dream. It’s all a fantasy.”
The impact of “Hill Street Blues” on other television shows was evident in the exuberant panel discussion of that show. Fred Silverman, the former network president, who was instrumental in scheduling the breakthrough Steven Bochco series, said shows like “Northern Exposure” and “I’ll Fly Away,” as well as numerous police shows, owed an enormous debt to “Hill Street Blues,” with its multiple plots. The actor Jon Cypher, who played Chief Fletcher Daniels on the show, described it simply as “Shakespeare on television.” Other cast members present agreed.
“What this honor does for all these programs is frame the excellence that flourishes within the medium that might otherwise go unnoticed simply by virtue of the sheer volume,” Mr. Bochco said in an interview just before the festival. “It’s very easy for real gems to get lost in the avalanche. And these are real gems. This gives us a sense, really, of our own historical importance.”