By J. Walker
In keeping with This Was Television’s theme of love and romance this month, I decided to do something a little different with my feature. This time around, I’m not discussing a show that lost a powerful creative voice, or a franchise that evolved and shifted as its longtime taskmaster moved on. No, our show this month never underwent any massive current shifts in the writers’ room that I’m aware of; in fact, the entire series seems to have been written by the same five or six people. But they did experiment with their style, once, and in the process created a pair of episodes that showed the very best their show could be…while at the same time showing the very worst their show could be. We’re talking about Saved by the Bell, and what happened when Zack and Kelly broke up. Get your tissues and/or vomit bags.
Saved by the Bell was never supposed to be the show it became. It was intended to be Good Morning, Miss Bliss, a Welcome Back Kotter-esque show about a high school teacher and her relationships with her wacky students and colleagues. But Disney aired it for only one season before dumping it, and NBC—who had developed the original pilot—scooped it back up and performed a massive retooling, excising the main character and replacing half the main cast with wackier replacements. (The original Miss Bliss season would get slapped onto the syndication package in later years, with an additional intro explaining that these were flashbacks, now retconned as junior high. These intros failed to explain why said flashbacks were taking place in Indiana instead of California, like the rest of the new series, but continuity errors were pretty much Saved by the Bell‘s stock in trade.) The new show redirected its focus on Zack Morris (the endlessly mugging Mark-Paul Gosselaar, doing a C-grade impression of Matthew Broderick) and his incredibly archetypal friends: Slater, the jock; Screech, the nerd; Lisa, the rich girl; Jessie, the feminist; and Kelly, the cheerleader. This formula proved to be the success Miss Bliss hadn’t been, and NBC used it as the lynchpin of a teen-based Saturday morning block for several years, before spinning it off twice, with Saved by the Bell: The College Years (in prime time!) and Saved by the Bell: The New Class.
Though its original run left the air in 1993, Saved by the Bell continues to live in syndication to this day, and it still holds an oddly powerful grasp over many of my generation. This is in spite of—and, perhaps to a great degree, because of—the fact that it’s almost uniformly awful. Where Miss Bliss had at least considered a down-to-earth perspective, Saved by the Bell snagged the lunacy ball and ran with it. Over the course of the series, the Bell writers subjected us to plots about brainwashing, robots, evil Russian chessmasters, oil deposits found beneath the football field, and a story in which Screech gained the ability to see the future after taking a lightning bolt to the head. And, since this was a Saturday morning kids’ show, these wacky tales would almost always be immediately followed by a Very Special Episode concerning drugs, or women’s rights, or drunk driving, or the homeless epidemic in America, or drugs. (They did two of those.) The bizarre and unpredictable tone was supported by some of the shoddiest production values imaginable, with an entire school built from a single classroom and a stairway, and a revolving cast of teachers who seemed to stand guard over a student body of no more than twelve or thirteen kids. The dialogue consisted entirely of pipe-laying exposition and the very worst kinds of hacky jokes, horribly overwritten insults and put-downs that never failed to elicit a roar from the overheated laugh track. The score was the same eleven seconds of saxophony late-eighties FM radio rock, repeated at every act break.
And yet…and yet, the thing was a huge hit, and it still, to this day, remains a topic of fascination for many, many people (myself included). But why? What about this cheap, practically incompetent teen sitcom made it resonate with its audience, who (even at the time) couldn’t have possibly taken it at all seriously? I think part of the answer can be found at the top of the third season,* with one of the show’s infrequent stabs at serialized storytelling.
*That’s the third season as Saved by the Bell; it’s the fourth if you count Miss Bliss as the first, and perhaps the fifth if you’re considering the “Malibu Sands” mini-season, which aired concurrently with season three but was produced beforehand and…yeah, it gets confusing. Don’t even get me started on the Tori Paradox.
By the gang’s junior year, the romantic hijinks of early episodes gave way to a pair of power couples, Kelly with Zack and Jessie with Slater. This gave the writers a solid foundation to coast on, but also limited the wacky stories they could tell. So, they made the decision to break Zack and Kelly up. But they were walking a fine line: they had to end the relationship, but not without ending the friendship, since they couldn’t crack the sextet at the center of the series; they also had to find a way to put neither side at fault, lest the audience turn against one or the other. The result: “The Last Dance” and “The Aftermath,” two of the most famous episodes the show produced.
In “The Last Dance,” Zack gets excited for an upcoming costume ball, where he and Kelly will dress up as Romeo and Juliet and be crowned King and Queen. But Kelly’s cash-strapped family can’t afford her outfit, so she takes a part-time job at the Max, the burger joint that served as the kids’ primary hangout. She rakes in big tips, but gets scheduled to work the night of the ball. Zack pulls some strings and gets her the night off, but is blind to the bigger problem: Kelly’s boss, college sophomore Jeff, has taken an interest in her that goes well beyond the employer/employee boundary. Worse, Kelly feels the same about him. After closing one night at the Max, they share a kiss (cue the “WOOOOOOOO!” from the canned audience), Zack learns about it all at the ball, and, only moments after Principal Belding awards them their crowns, Zack and Kelly have one last dance and agree to split.
You can tell the producers knew they had a big moment on their hands because they shelled out for the rights to “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You,” which accompanies the doomed couple’s final embrace. Unfortunately, any emotional resonance is ruined by the same things that always ruined the show—awful acting and terrible writing. Gosselaar, in particular, is totally lost during the break-up scene, delivering his lines with a flat affect that was probably an attempt at “devastated.” Kelly’s indecision, meanwhile, is written with a weirdly twisted resignation, as though the end is inevitable; Tiffani-Amber Thiessen plays the final scene like a girl being forced off a plank. Even worse, though, is the undercurrent of her scenes with Jeff, a subtext that goes completely unremarked on by either the show or the characters.
Jeff, of course, is an adult, a sophomore at UCLA. Kelly is fifteen. (Sixteen, maybe. It’s never made clear.) Her gig at the Max is her very first job, one she literally begs for, and Jeff’s unsavory attraction is made obvious in their very first scene. When he stands up for her against some unruly customers, her gratitude gives him an in for a grossly inappropriate compliment; when she confesses her troubling attraction to him, he gladly makes a move. With the stiff acting and poor production, it all looks and feels exactly like a corporate sexual harassment video. And yet, no one–not Kelly, not Zack, not the rest of the gang, not the “WOOOO!”-ing audience track–seems to notice or care how grotesque this all is.
This is unusual for Saved by the Bell, and probably unintentional. When they wanted to make a point about an Important Subject, they made it without tact, wit, or subtlety. Jeff’s pursuit of Kelly features none of those things, either, but that it happens without comment actually makes it all the more stark and instructive: it’s an opportunity for the audience to recognize the problem themselves. It fails as drama, but it succeeds (again, almost certainly without intending to) as a cautionary tale. And I can say that the cautionary aspects of “The Last Dance” were accidental because the second half, “The Aftermath,” tosses any possible audience anger at Jeff right out the window, in favor of tricking the audience into hating the main cast members themselves. And this is where, for half an hour, Saved by the Bell accidentally gets interesting.
“The Aftermath” presents, for the first time, a schism in the gang’s dynamic: Kelly versus everyone else. The guys are busy trying to cheer up Zack, while the girls turn on her for not hiding how happy she is in her new relationship. Kelly is unequivocally depicted as the villain, and Zack as the blameless and wounded victim. That is, until around the halfway point, when Zack hooks up with a rebound date. He takes her to the Max during Kelly’s shift and gleefully shows off, forcing Kelly to bring them a milkshake to share before dancing with his date to “Zack and Kelly’s song” on the jukebox. Stunned by Zack’s casual emotional savagery, the others realize how unfair they’ve been to Kelly and completely flip sides, chastising Zack for refusing to move on while comforting Kelly and warmly greeting Jeff as an interesting new friend. Naturally, Zack doesn’t stay the bad guy for long–one inspirational discussion with Screech later, and he and Kelly have mended their fences, Zack and Jeff share a “You better treat her right” moment, and Zack is making a beeline for the very next available girl.
Of course, “The Aftermath” is a mess. The ending is too convenient, the jokes painful, and the montage of Zack’s first few failed rebound dates is merely a delivery system for a patently offensive fat joke that looked like its own Very Special Episode waiting to happen. (Which it did, later that season, in “Date Auction.”) And, worse, at various points in the half hour, each member of the group turns into a jerk. Zack is spiteful and mean, Jessie abandons her principles to take potshots at Kelly, and Lisa’s primary concern seems only to be that none of this drama ruins her Sweet Sixteen party. Every single one of the characters comes off as oblivious, childish, arrogant, and utterly detestable. In miscalculating every possible narrative beat in “The Aftermath,” they accidentally show the group to be emotionally confused and immature. In other words, for the first and only time in the entire series, they act like high school students.
On the whole, Bell is totally lacking in any sense of self-awareness. (This is all the more strange when you consider the protagonist spends a good chunk of every episode talking directly to the camera.) The show is concerned with the experience of being a teenager only in the sense that the stories take place in a high school. Every manner of logic and realism is sacrificed at the altar of bad jokes and stupid plots. Even before I was old enough to go to high school, I looked at Saved by the Bell and realized how ridiculous its universe was.
But for two episodes, this group of cardboard cutouts and lame gags started acting like actual people you could recognize. No one I knew was ever blackmailed into dating the principal’s niece, but real teenage girls fell for the wrong guys and made stupid, self-destructive decisions. Real teenage boys reacted to heartbreak with knives out, slashing for vengeance without concern for their victims. And real friends sometimes got swept up in the undertow, taking sides and starting fights without thinking. Momentarily freed from the need to ensure the audience’s sympathy at all times, the writers of Saved by the Bell inadvertently made their characters actually relatable.
And that might be why the series continues to cling to its fans today. Nothing the show actually tried to accomplish—the jokes, the emotional payoffs, the pop culture references—holds up. But from beneath all of that corniness, the truth occasionally, accidentally, leaked out. And for those brief moments, Bell could hit home with its audience.
Did it last? No. By the next episode, the status quo was reestablished, and the gang was back to Zack’s get-rich-quick schemes, Screech’s tired nerd shtick and everyone’s Very Special Episodes. Jeff and Kelly broke up after Zack and Slater caught Jeff at an adults-only nightclub with another (older) woman. (If you’re wondering how Zack and Slater got into an adults-only nightclub, the episode was called “Fake IDs.”) Everyone remembered how to be best friends again, and the franchise eventually came to a end with Wedding in Las Vegas, a made-for-TV movie NBC aired after cancelling The College Years. The wedding in question, of course, was Zack and Kelly’s–the fairy tale ending to a comically fantastical story.
And that’s probably where their story, and Saved by the Bell‘s, should have ended, with a fantasy. Not with stories about the struggles of adulthood or the pains of fading youth, but with pure wish fulfillment, both for the characters and the audience. They were given the proper happily-ever-after they’d been destined for, a life where they’d never again have to worry about falling apart, about accidentally becoming real.
Previously on Same As It Ever Was?: You’re No Fun Anymore – Monty Python Minus One