School Is Cool in ‘Saved by the Bell’

Watching Saved by the Bell today is like eating a cheeseburger: simple, enjoyable, consistent, and with a substantial layer of cheese on top.

You’ve probably watched more reruns of Saved by The Bell than you’d like to admit. And it’s all right; Saved by the Bell isn’t a great show, but it’s an absurdly watchable one. The teen-centric sitcom had a remarkable run from 1989-1993 on NBC, but it truly became iconic thanks to countless after-school reruns on basic cable. In the ‘90s when kids got off the bus after school, reruns of Saved by the Bell were what they watched, and what they loved.

Recently, Saved by the Bell: The Complete Collection was released as a whopping 13-disc set, allowing you to relive the finest moments of Bayside High. If you’re a fan, it’ll have you singing, “I’m So Excited” or maybe Zack Attack’s “Friends Forever”. Watching these Saved by the Bell episodes today is a bit like what you’d expect a cheeseburger from The Max would be like: simple, enjoyable, consistent, and with a substantial layer of cheese on top. You don’t need to have attended Stansbury (the “Harvest of the West”) to know of Saved by the Bell’s peculiar mass appeal to tweens and teens.

The series sprang from unique origins, to say the least. On one of the DVD collection’s new featurettes, executive producer Peter Engel and former president of NBC Entertainment Warren Littlefield say they started Saved by the Bell in 1989 to reach the older kids that weren’t tuning in to Saturday morning cartoons. That’s right, their goal was just to create something more adult than, say, Muppet Babies. They never even imagined they could beat The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show in the ratings.

Instead, with Saved by the Bell, they did much more than that. Twelve-year-olds tuned in in a big way. And so did their older siblings. According to Engel, after only a few months on the air, 50 percent of American teenage girls watching television were glued to Saved by the Bell. Suddenly, network executives noticed the show had tapped into a market that hadn’t been targeted before: tweens.

No producer before Engel had made a live-action sitcom intended for Saturday mornings, and no one will probably ever make a better one. The series was technically a spin-off from the 1988 Hayley Mills vehicle Good Morning, Miss Bliss that ran for only one season on the Disney Channel. Good Morning, Miss Bliss introduced audiences to Zack Morris, Samuel “Screech” Powers, and Lisa Turtle, but Saved by the Bell made them household names.

On Saved by the Bell there was a smattering of chemistry between the core cast members (Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Zack Morris, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen as Kelly Kapowski, Mario Lopez as A.C. Slater, Dustin Diamond as Screech Powers, Elizabeth Berkley as Jessie Spano, and Lark Voorhies as Lisa Turtle.).

The group’s chemistry, combined with their impeccable timing and epic charm, worked in a way that’s hard to explain. Gosselaar created the perfect protagonist as Zack, the bleach-blonde schemer with a heart of gold. Even Diamond, who has rightfully become something of a punchline, will never receive enough credit for his comedic timing and use of physical comedy as Screech.

For proof of how brilliant the original cast really was, just try to watch an episode of the spinoff show that had a new cast of characters, Saved by the Bell: The New Class, which, despite having many of the same writers and producers as the original series, is a special kind of awful.

As far as Saved by the Bell’s storylines go, they’re simplistic, but that’s part of the idea. Even part of the appeal. It was written for especially for young viewers and it succeeds. And while the showrunners occasionally found ways to get their good-looking performers in swimsuits, there was an ever-present innocence on the sitcom that intentionally came with the Saturday morning territory. The episodes are essentially morality plays where the characters sometimes lie, cheat, and steal but always do the right thing at the end of the day. They weren’t perfect role models, but there were close.

What the sitcom managed to do, in the process, was to make a utopia out of high school life. Kids watching Saved by the Bell undoubtedly thought that was what high school would be like, a realistic blueprint for the years that would follow. You wanted Zack and Kelly to end up together, but you also believed that you’d date someone exactly like them in school. Meanwhile, the show tackled the things that mattered to teens most. It dealt with the everyday, commonplace issues that teens deal with, that seem like the world to them: prom, geometry tests, acne, crushes, detention, summer jobs, first dates, and heartbreak. Even though your friends weren’t as ridiculously attractive as Kelly or Slater, you could relate to the situations.

The focus was on the teens. Entirely. You didn’t see many adults on the show; you hardly ever even saw the main characters’ parents. It exclusively followed the daily life of young people. With rare exceptions, the adults that the high schoolers did interact with were entirely inept. Bayside’s principal Mr. Belding (Dennis Haskins) was less of a guide to the gang at Bayside and more of a bumbling fool for Zack to outsmart time and time again.

Like Zack says at the conclusion of a season one episode, when he breaks the “fourth wall” and talks to the audience, “I love school. Too bad classes get in the way.”

Unlike most sitcoms, teen-focused or otherwise, the show was usually at its best when it was the most over the top, like when an injured Lisa and Screech win Casey Kasem’s dance contest by doing “the sprain” or when Jessie has her infamous melodramatic breakdown after being addicted to caffeine pills. The series also worked as a tween soap opera of sorts, with characters falling in and out of love repeatedly.

There was also no real level of continuity from episode to episode. Zack, Slater, Screech, Lisa, Kelly, and Jessie conveniently had more extracurricular activities than humanly possible. If an episode called for the glee club, suddenly the entire cast was in the glee club. As a result, most high school clubs were represented by one (or more) of the core six: the football team, the swim team, the cheerleaders, the student council, the track team, the wrestling team, the campus radio station, even the chess club.

Maybe, in that minuscule way, it defied stereotypes.

You may remember Saved by the Bell’s fantasy sequences that were framed in a misty, dreamlike pink border (like when RoboScreech saved Lisa), but the wonderful thing about the show, in hindsight, is that the entire program was an idealistic fantasy. You probably noticed that in your high school, the popular guy, the jock, the nerd, the class president, the perky cheerleader, and the fashionista were not all best friends.

However, on Saved by the Bell, you totally bought it in the same way that audiences bought the too-good-to-be-true portrayal of small-town life on The Andy Griffith Show a few decades earlier. Plus, even though Saved by the Bell has been very much imitated, like on NBC’s own California Dreams and Hang Time, it remains by far the best of the genre, despite its apparent flaws.

A look at the DVD collection of Saved by the Bell wouldn’t be complete without mentioning what author Chuck Klosterman has called the “Tori Paradox”. Near the end of the show’s original run, NBC surprised producers with a larger order of episodes, and both Thiessen and Berkley had already decided to leave the series. As a result, midway through the final season, out of nowhere, the series introduces the leather jacket-wearing character Tori (Leanna Creel) to try to somehow replace both Jessie and Kelly. While Tori admirably melded Jessie’s outspoken nature with Kelly’s status as Zack’s love interest, the 12 “Tori” episodes are no one’s favorites.

Oddly enough, as soon as Tori shows up at Bayside, Jessie and Kelly are never mentioned again by any of the characters, as if they never existed. Then, for the series finalé, the graduation episode Thiessen and Berkley had already filmed, Tori entirely disappears and the original group is back together again for the show’s final expressive moments. As a result, the final season isn’t what you’d expect.

The biggest criticism to be had with “The Complete Collection” is that it is in no way complete. The 13 episode prequel series, Good Morning, Miss Bliss isn’t here nor is the ill-fated primetime spinoff Saved by the Bell: The College Years, which is perhaps understandable. Inexplicably missing is the TV movie Saved by the Bell: Hawaiian Style, which was chopped up into four episodes to be suitable for reruns. The forgettable TV film, Saved by the Bell: Wedding in Las Vegas is absent, too.

The episodes on the DVDs are also presented in a seemingly bizarre order, even though they are actually presented in the order they first aired. For example, the original pilot “King of the Hill” (which shows Zack’s first day of high school and A.C. Slater’s introduction to the group) appears as the 16th episode on the discs, even though it’s the logical starting point for new visitors to Bayside.

Stranger than that, the episodes set at Malibu Sands (featuring Leah Remini as Zack’s love interest) nonsensically don’t appear together. Instead of being back-to-back, they go back and forth with the ones set at Bayside. The new box set of DVDs has the same video/audio quality as other previously released sets, meaning the quality is adequate at best, appearing only slightly better than VHS.

Along with the episodes, which are obviously the selling point, two new special features starring Engel, are included on “The Complete Collection”. Ironically, on one of these brief featurettes, it’s Dustin Diamond that best explains Saved by the Bell’s appeal. Diamond sums up the dreamy series and its timeless appeal saying, “I believe that the show’s secret is that in real schools the cliques don’t hang out with one another. Bayside was a school where everybody hung out with everybody. It was like a dream school.”

RATING 7 / 10