If you were in your teens during the early 90’s chances are you probably watched Saved By The Bell. The main reason almost everybody from that generation has watched this show is simple: there was simply nothing else. I don’t mean that in a negative way actually. Saved By The Bell was simply the first live-action TV series aimed at teenagers on Saturday mornings. All of the other shows were mostly aimed at kids and often solely created to sell toys. Saved By The Bell filled a void and paved the way for every live action TV shows aimed at young teenagers today like iCarly and Kenan & Kel. There are probably dozens of others, but as you can probably imagine, I’m not really the target audience anymore and therefor not really familiar with what is out there today. After watching the Life-Time movie “The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story” I decided to re-watch the entire original series. After 86 episodes and the Hawaiian Style TV-movie it’s time for me to look back on Saved By The Bell.
The biggest thing Saved By The Bell has going for it is nostalgia. Being a product of the early 90’s almost all of the sets are filled with either prime or fluorescent colors. Just take a look at The Max: the restaurant where all the kids hung out. The door entry is salmon pink combined with turquoise green with a purple glow coming through the blurred windows. The school hall has bright red lockers, a pink-ish floor and always a couple of big handwritten posters on the wall often related to this week’s plot. And if the sets weren’t colorful enough there was always the wardrobe of Screech to make up for it.
If young people were to watch it today, my guess is they will also be watching it for nostalgic reasons, just as I watched several shows from my parent’s youth because they hold up for nostalgic reasons. While they were made before I was born I was raised on shows like M.A.S.H., Happy Days and the 60’s Batman TV show.
Aside from the nostalgia, Saved By The Bell also has some things goings for it even after 20 years. To my surprise I caught myself laughing at some of the jokes even though this show is considered to be a cheesy sitcom. I can’t argue with that label. Most of the jokes do feel stale and fall flat, but especially during the first two seasons some of them actually were funny. These funny moments were often created by the wide variety of teachers at Bayside, each with their own quirks. I specially liked Mr. Dewey: the human equivalent of Droopy who always spoke with a rather suicidal tone.
Being a 90’s sitcom, Saved By The Bell also has a lot of flaws. There are a lot of small ones, mostly due to the low budget this show had. During the first two seasons you often see the boom-mike hanging over the cast’s heads. There are only a few sets and they don’t even have establishing shots. All we ever see from places like Bayside, The Max or characters’ houses are a select amount of rooms. Bayside seems to consist of just a class-room, a hallway, Mr. Belding’s office and a gym. I can’t blame the producers really, this being a sitcom and all. Still, other sitcoms did at least establish the outsides of locations. Saved By The Bell did went outside at certain moments as there were a couple of episodes situated at the Malibu Sands beach resort, two at a hotel and the TV-movie was set in in Hawaii. These are just minor remarks, but there are three big problems this show has that I want to address more in depth:
Watching Saved By The Bell and trying to make sense of the ongoing story-line is difficult, if not impossible. Like with most sitcoms the weekly episodes are all fairly self contained. That most certainly applies to guest stars who might be the center of all attention one week, only to be never heard of again. This is a typical sitcom trope, but Saved By The Bell has had multiple episodes that revolved around a new character being introduced in such a way that it would seem he or she will be a recurring character from now on. The most notable example being the introduction of Jessie’s step-brother Eric. He was introduced to us in a two-part episode and after the gang finally embraced him he mentions he’s staying around only never to be heard of or seen from again. They never even mention him anymore. Being absent from the show without being mentioned even applies to Kelly and Jessie during the 4th season where they were replaced by a character named Tori. I’ll get to her later.
Most of the continuity problems deal with the relationship between both Jessie and Slater and Zack and Kelly. In broad strokes the continuity is as followed: In season 1 both Slater and Zack fight for the affection of Kelly. In season 2 Zack and Kelly become a couple, as do Slater and Jessie. In season 3 they all break up again, Kelly because she falls in love with her employer and Slater and Jessie decide they should have something of an open relationship. In season 4 both couples are reunited again, but Zack also has a thing with Tori during this season. I’ll get to her, I promise.
Now this should be easy for the writers to keep up, but back in the day the airing schedule didn’t always follow the order of writing and production. This is evident in the first season as the 15th episode that aired was actually the pilot and introduced us to A.C. Slater. A character who was already in the 14 previously aired episodes. In the case of Saved By The Bell episodes were sometimes even aired out of season meaning that one week you could be watching an episode with an almost adult cast, the next week an episode they still had laying around with every one still in their sophomore year. Since some of these characters changed notably over these 4 years it makes for a strange viewing.
And then there’s Tori…
The name Tori will probably not ring a bell with most people. Not surprisingly since she only appeared in 10 of the 86 episodes. Those are only a few more episodes than other recurring characters starred in like Stacey Carosi who was the love interest of Zack during the six Palm Beach episodes and Violet Bickerstaff who was the love interest of Screech in three episodes. Yes, Screech had a love interest.
During the 4th and final season the producers wanted more episodes, but at that point both Tiffani Thiessen (Kelly) and Elizabeth Berkley (Jessie) were off to bigger and better things like becoming a stripper in Las Vegas. The other cast members were eager to return, but the gap left by these two girls had to be filled. Enter Tori: a girl who was supposed to be somewhat of a mash-up of Kelly and Jessie. Pretty, but also a bit butch since she drives a motorcycle and all. The Tori episodes made no mention of Jessie and Kelly at all and were inserted randomly between the episodes the had already shot with Jessie and Kelly. Since the Tori character simply didn’t exist when these episodes were shot they make no mention of her. Not only makes this for some confusing viewing as key characters are missing almost every other week, but at one point Zack and Tori start to go steady one week, while the next week he’s back together with Kelly. Since they already shot the episode where the students graduate before Tori was created the final episode has Kelly and Jessie in it with no mention of Tori. Surely they could have added some shots of Tori, making it feel more complete. It wouldn’t have been too hard to have Tori at least mentioned by Mr. bending when he’s giving out diploma’s.
The fourth season is by far the most confusing one concerning continuity and not only due to Tori. There are also five out-of-season episodes included, some of them originating from the first season. There are also three clip shows, which consist of flashbacks to earlier episodes. Of the 26 episodes there were only eight full episodes made for this season starring the original cast.
This being a sitcom with little regard for continuity, the characters tend to lack depth. Even though they do grow up over the course of the show, almost all of them hardly go through any development. Whether they are in a relationship or not, the dynamic of the cast never changes. The biggest change these teens go through is that after the first season Zack and Slater stop their rivalry over Kelly and become best friends paving the way for Screech to become the most annoying character of the show.
The rest stays the same throughout all four seasons: Zack is the schemer who often even pimps out his friends only to be forgiven at the end of the episode. No wonder he never learns how to treat his friends right. A.C. Slater is the jock who is captain of whatever sports team the episode requires. Kelly’s only character trait is that she’s the hot girl who also happens to be nice. Jessie is more outspoken as she’s the ultra-left feminist activist girl who is constantly protesting shit like beauty pageants and the use of plastics. Lisa is probably the most shallow of all the characters as her two traits are being a fashion obsessed girl who loves shopping and constantly bitching on Screech. These characters never really change and while I understand that this is a sitcom, people do make some of the biggest changes in their entire life when they start to go to high school.
The character of Screech has become synonymous with Saved By The Bell. He’s probably the first character to come to people’s mind when mentioning this show. Together with Steve Urkel from Family Matters he has become one of the most famous nerd characters ever to be featured on a TV show. It’s obvious why: he was in almost every episode and often played a pivotal role in Zack’s schemes. I don’t remember how much I liked the character back in the day, but watching this show today he’s the weakest link in my addition. The problem I have with Screech is that he’s written poorly. To be fair, none of the other characters have been given much depth, but the character of Screech is full of inconsistencies. He is also the only character to have actually devolved over time. In the first season he obviously was Zack’s best friend, albeit somewhat dorky. But compared to the rest of the characters he was fleshed out fairly decent. He wasn’t really annoying and while he could be considered to be a nerd, he wasn’t a stereotypical one.
That changed over the course of the show as Screech became this slapstick character who always fouled up, said the wrong things at the wrong time and even got tics that made him resemble someone with cerebral palsy. I’m not sure, but I got the feeling he was mimicking Jim Carrey (badly) at certain moments. Despite being a huge annoying dork who bumbles again and again, these cool kids kept hanging out with him. In real life this would have never happened.
Being a nerd, Screech has been noted to be really intelligent. He constantly receives good grades and even ends up with the highest score during senior year. yet the writers have him appear to be dumb at every other moment. Whenever the gang is talking about something he misinterprets the things they’re talking about, often taking things literal. Now this might sound as if he has a form of autism, but if that is what the writers are trying to portray with this character, they have never met someone with actual autism.
Since Screech was a part of the entire Saved By The Bell series including the spin-offs and its predecessor Good Morning, Miss Bliss he has become the face of the series, but at the same time he was also the most annoying character in the show.
A very special episode
As shown in “The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story” Elizabeth Berkley saw how the show reached young Americans and went to the producers with the idea of developing stories that had a message. They apparently thought this was a good idea because there have been several episodes that revolved around more serious issues like homelessness, alcohol abuse, a parent being fired, the environment and of course drugs. This has resulted in one of the most (in)famous scenes ever as Jessie has a breakdown after getting hooked on caffeine pills. Just watch:
This has been parodied to death by now and the cast even makes fun of this scene nowadays as they showed in a reunion sketch with Jimmy Fallon.
These very special episodes, as they are called, are often way too moralizing. Being made in the early 90’s, when the war on drugs was in full effect, they are of course against all drugs and make no exception between hard and soft drugs. Jessie’s song was about a freaking caffeine pill addiction! Kids today chug down more cans of Red Bull on an average day, than Jessie was popping legally available pills. They even have a heavier handed episode called “No Hope With Dope” which revolved around a famous movie star shooting an anti drug P.S.A. on Bayside. But the cast finds out this guy is doing drugs himself. You might be imagining that he was snorting cocaine off Kelly’s perky breasts or mainlining heroin in the school men’s room. None of that. Johnny Dakota, as he’s named, had the nerve of offering Kelly a joint. Yes, Johnny is a hypocrite according to the gang because he smokes some weed. Weed, as you probably all know, is a gateway drug and will have you smoking Crystal Meth within in a short span. Oh how times have changed as recreational marijuana use is being legalized in more and more U.S. states.
There is however one subject that is very much a part of a teen’s life, yet they never address. Not even in a “very special” episode:
This is always a touchy subject, especially in the U.S. where people under 18 are never to be associated with sex on TV unless it’s in an episode of “To Catch A Predator” or a sexual abuse victim in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I can remember the controversy surrounding the episode of Beverly Hills 90210 where Brenda loses her virginity after the prom and it having no consequences. Not even a teen pregnancy or an S.T.D. Back then teens were usually scared into abstinence with sex horror stories in P.S.A.’s.
So it’s not surprising that there was never any episode that acknowledged Zack and Kelly having sex even though they were dating for an entire school year and both obviously had a case of raging hormones. They didn’t even do an episode where Kelly might think she’s pregnant or something like that. In Saved By The Bell it never went further than holding hands and a kiss on the lips. No, they didn’t even slip in a little tongue!
I really think they missed an opportunity here and the way they handled these more “controversial” parts of a teenager’s life really date the show as we look at these thing completely different nowadays. Weed being the most obvious example.
Since I only watched the original series I’m ignoring the follow up shows since, aside from one season of The College Years, they don’t feature the original cast except for Screech and Belding. Apparently the follow up was even more successful than the original as Saved by the Bell: The New Class ran for seven seasons. I have never seen an episode and I have never seen it referenced in other TV-shows. Whenever people talk about Saved By The Bell, they always talk about the original series.
Looking back at Saved By The Bell it’s still a fun show to watch, though mostly for nostalgic reasons. While not the greatest actor Mark-Paul Gosselaar did create a fun and memorable character with his portrayal of master schemer Zack Morris. It was great looking at Tiffany Amber-Thiessen’s Kelly Kapowski walking around in cheerleader outfits and even in a swim suit on several occasions. It was even refreshing to see the character of Screech before he got annoying. The greatest feat Saved By The Bell managed to pull off was becoming a pop culture icon. 25 years later this show is still food for articles like this one. There are multiple websites dedicated to this show and like I mentioned earlier, the cast even got back together in character for a reunion on Jimmy Fallon. Not to bad for a low budget show shown on Saturday mornings.