The Irresistible Quality of Saved by the Bell

I suppose this was inevitable.

For years, nearly decades now, my siblings and I have held Saved by the Bell near and dear to our hearts. I’ll be the first to admit this is not a stellar example of television’s potential for quality. There is little about it that isn’t wholly formulaic, the performances are unremarkable, and the source material could’ve been pulled from any 9th grader’s creative writing notebook.

Yet I can’t help loving Saved by the Bell. Thanks to the Internet, my brothers and I can get into quote-athons on any given day, recalling our favorite Zack Morris (Mark Paul Gosselaar, which I spelled correctly on my first try) zingers and cherished AC Slater (Mario Lopez) comebacks. That time Gosselaar went on Jimmy Fallon’s show in character and agreed to a reunion filled us with great hope. And just to emphasize the extent of this love, I will freely admit that my brother Scott and I have discussed the possibility of a Saved by the Bell fantasy camp.

What I have a hard time articulating is why I love this Saturday morning/forever syndicated show. I understand why I loved the subversive Animaniacs, the slyly brilliant Boy Meets World, and the absurd comedy of early 90s Nickelodeon fare. But Saved by the Bell is worse than all of these. Now, let me break down my affection, for my sake and yours, in a few simple steps.

1. It had its moments of honesty. Late in the initial series’ run, Zack kisses Lisa Turtle (Lark Voorhies), a longtime friend of his with whom he has never been romantically paired. Throughout the entire run of the high school-focused show, Zack’s best friend Samuel “Screech” Powers (Dustin Diamond) has had an obsessive crush on Lisa; obviously, Zack making any move on Lisa is a major blow. So it makes sense when Screech exposes Zack’s disloyalty in front of a crowd at an inexplicable fashion show in the Max, which is kind of like Arnold’s on Happy Days, but much less cool.

What I’m getting at here is there is depth, and even darkness, to these characters. Zack sometimes treats his friends in a way that can be described as cruel at best and near unforgivable at worst. And he wasn’t the only one. As my brother put it, “Everyone was really mean to Screech at times. If you actually think about what they say rather than just laughing uproariously as his face in response, it’s quite cruel.” And then, I find that it falls flat when they forgive and forget, and they do so often. But still, there are sincerely sad moments here. And it can be worth watching for them.

2. It presented hilariously improbable scenarios. On more than one occasion, the entire school banded together to play a prank on Zack and Zack alone. One of those times involved subliminal messages, and another involved Zack in drag. In fact, Zack and Screech dressed in drag multiple times, usually in a situation where it couldn’t really be justified. Actually attending high school looks nothing like this. And this side of Tiny Toons, there was no kid-targeted programming so escapist as Saved by the Bell, the home of the smash hit rock band the Zack Attack, a school play themed around a hip hop version of the Snow White fairy tale, and the most well attended chess tournament anyone has ever seen.

3. It taught you what you already knew. There are shows targeted toward the younger set that attempt to show their audience something new, to introduce them to a wealth of knowledge they may never otherwise tap into. Fortunately for us, Saved by the Bell is not one of them. Over the course of four seasons, it taught us that drugs and alcohol are bad, you shouldn’t lie to your parents, and friends are generally an OK thing to keep around. Never once did the show try something new with its Very Special or morality-based episodes–and that’s fine, because sometimes, it’s nice to be reminded of what you already knew through the stale humor of a photogenic prankster and his friends.

4. It aged poorly in the best possible way. Here’s an experiment: mention Saved by the Bell in casual conversation. If the person with whom you’re speaking doesn’t turn on their heel and walk away, time how long it takes them to mention Zack’s larger than life portable phone. Looking back, I’m sure the producers knew they’d be dating themselves with that phone, and those outfits, and the way the aforementioned subliminal messages were copied to cassette tapes, some of which were purchased at the Spinning Lizard. But it’s part of what the makes the show so fun to watch, the thought that hey, these kids once seemed totally cool. And personally, that’s good enough for me.

5. It doesn’t actually require validation. You could call Saved by the Bell a guilty pleasure of mine, but I feel no guilt for it. The show is unreal in all the right ways. It’s sincere in a way that isn’t painful, the jokes are just bad enough that they become good again, and Dennis Haskins, AKA Mr. Belding, once gave me a call to wish me a happy birthday. (My brother set that up for me through … you know what? Never mind.) I like that I like Saved by the Bell. And, to reiterate, that on its own is justification enough for me.

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