“…we were far from the perfect teens we portrayed on Saved by the Bell. In fact, truth be told, we were all pretty fucked up.” – Dustin Diamond, Behind the Bell.
I’ve grown to quite like Dustin Diamond, the actor who played Saved by the Bell’s most despised or adored character (delete as appropriate) – Samuel ‘Screech’ Powers, over the last few weeks.
Before watching all the episodes across four long seasons of possibly the most fondly-remembered teen-orientated TV comedy show ever, I made a point of reading Dustin’s scandalous and frankly quite dementedly bitter book about life behind the scenes of this hugely popular series in Dustin Diamond: Behind The Bell. At first I decided dear old Screech / Dustin was now a sad and selfish individual, obsessed with sexual conquests, preoccupied with the ‘monster’ in his trousers and dishing the dirt on his fellow cast members for personal gain and worse – stabbing in the groin an NBC Vice President who he claims he had an affair with but who is now no longer with us to answer back. But behind all these shock-stories and sometimes outrageous expulsions of bile and wild assumption from Dustin Diamond, lurks a man who writes with a clearly addictive style and who knows how to tell a great ‘horrors of being a child star’ story – true or otherwise, in a way that is as far removed from a traditional Hollywood sob story as it gets.
Dustin Diamond was a man who, as a boy, was clearly made to feel unwelcome on a show that remains fondly remembered to so many (including myself), and who was – and remains – an eternal ‘outsider’. There’s some warmth in the terrible tales of Screech that go beyond the headlines, and Diamond is today apologetic for behaving like “a dick” at times in the years since his face became a familiar one as much as he is philosophical about his time on the show as uber-geek Screech. There, I’ve said it – I like Dustin Diamond. Now send me to Hell!
For many, the squeaky clean image of Saved by the Bell has already been battered into submission. Elizabeth Berkley shocked the show’s fans and production crew (less so her fellow cast members who Dustin says saw each other naked in the dressing rooms so often over the years, the thrill had worn off) while still appearing as her proto-feminist character Jessica Spano by stripping off for the soft porn fiasco of Showgirls (fiasco? Steady on there… Ed). As for Screech himself, well – Dustin made a short sex tape Screeched that clearly made his return to a show reunion a big no-go for evermore, even if he hadn’t screwed his chances already by dishing the dirt on his fellow cast members in his book.
Of Elizabeth Berkley’s role in Showgirls (1995), Dustin comments: “the primary audience for that rotten tomato was a perverse curiosity to see the snatch of that chick on SBTB”. You can’t really argue with that (I can, and will! Ed). Screech’s own sex tape is almost as corny as some of the jokes in Saved by the Bell itself with Dustin having his way with two ladies who clearly think less of him and more of themselves. The big joke is that one of the girls can’t put a condom over Dustin’s engorged (and boy it really is something to boast about – you got to give the guy that much credit!) ‘monster’ that he always seems to be going on about in his book. In fact, this one girl in his video does the same dumb thing twice: “Why’s the condom not going on? You’re so big!” – “It’s the wrong way round again – haven’t you ever seen one of these before? Sheesh!” It’s the kind of humour you would expect to see in a show with Screech in post-Bell. When even Dustin’s own sex tape gets to be a sub-standard bluer version of Saved by the Bell you can see why the poor guy was worried about being typecast!
There’s a certain fascination with seeing once famous child stars strip off as adults – it’s the only reason the film Havoc generated huge interest in its pre-release, because folks thought the beloved former teen star of the Princess Diaries movies, Anne Hathaway, now grown-up, was about to participate in some very explicit sex, instead of the mild raunchiness we eventually found out was actually on the table. Well, not literally on the table, but… Anyway, it was perfect marketing. But I fail to see how Screech’s sex tape could be something anyone would wish to watch and not be forever tarnished with demons in the mind for ever after. Elizabeth Berkley’s turn in Showgirls possibly killed dead any serious potential acting career, according to Diamond – but she’s still appeared in some great movies such as The First Wives Club (1996) and Woody Allen’s The Curse of the Jade Scorpion as well as regular TV roles in US TV series from The L Word to CSI: Miami, as too are all the main cast of the show still working on high-profile projects and far from has-beens. I don’t think Dustin Diamond’s clearly underwhelmed opinion of his co-stars on Saved by the Bell should be – too often – taken entirely seriously. There’s no doubt the cast have all gone on to better things. Even the main preppie star of the show, golden boy Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) after a career in movies went on to be a regular star on TV cop show NYPD Blue as Det. John Clark, Jr as well as currently starring in the ‘lawyers on the case’ comedy crime hit; Franklin & Bash.
It was odd seeing Berkley strip off in Showgirls but the concept isn’t new; and even today the likes of Lindsay Lohan cover up their cute past by stripping off for the camera. Other child stars such as Brooke Shields stripped off as a child star and spent the rest of their career putting more clothes back on with each successive new film. Some actresses just have to be different! Screech is different, but naked Screech is just horrible. But even that wasn’t as much of an eye opener as the full length porn movie This Ain’t Saved by the Bell (2009) featuring an entire lookalike cast of the original series stars in predictably compromising positions. The world seemed determined to taint the goodness of the show forever – and ‘Kill Screech’ was so often the flag-waving battle cry. Poor Screech!
If you do read Dustin’s Behind the Bell book before launching into the new, rather brilliant box set of every episode ever made of Saved by the Bell then be prepared to view often meaningless, scatter-brained episodes that you just about remember from those hungover Saturday glory mornings back in the early 90’s but, following Dustin’s behind the scenes revelations, every episode will also now take on a whole new seedy meaning (I’m sorry but this is true). It’s not such a bad thing, actually; it helps banish nostalgia and allow the show to be seen in a post-Screech dirtier light.
Just remember: only one regular character made it into every series of Saved by the Bell and appeared in every single spin-off – two movie specials: Wedding in Las Vegas (1994) and Hawaiian Style (1992), and follow-ups Saved by the Bell: The College Years (1993-1994) and Saved by the Bell: The New Class (that lasted a whopping 7 series from 1993-2000!) – and you may think I’m going on to say that it was Screech who was that one brave soul. But no – it was only Mr Belding, the School Principle who lasted the distance. Screech was in almost every series but bailed for The New Class: Season One. When that turned out to be a disaster, they sacked most of the young cast and brought Screech back for Series 2 onwards. Screech really did get to save The Bell. Sure, Screech was increasingly a caricature as well as being increasingly annoying in some later shows (purposely it turns out, as according to Diamond, he was trying to finish Screech off as his signature role in a haze of slapstick and grotesque gurning and tellingly names his comedy hero as the great Rowan Atkinson – this overplaying though, ended up leaving his character “in the realm of the absurd”) but the little guy with the sweetly dumb expression, as Dustin points out so often in his book, was always in fact – something of a survivor.
If you’ve never watched Saved by the Bell before, you don’t have to worry. You’ll soon get into what this show is all about. It’s all set at Bayside High and follows a young group of friends as they go about their school lives, falling in and out of teenage trouble each episode in increasingly bizarre and often plain surreal plotlines that centre around the same characters and their plot-defining personality traits. So that means we get: Mr Belding (Dennis Haskins), the kind-hearted but dopey and sometimes teensy weensy bit strict-ish Principle; Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), the golden boy ‘preppie’ with a cheeky grin and cunning plan for every occasion; Samuel ‘Screech’ Powers (our very own Dustin Diamond) as the geeky, annoying ‘outsider’s outsider’ that wants to help but mostly can’t; A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez) the pumped-up ‘jock’ amateur wrestler and all-round dimple head; Lisa Turtle (Lark Voorhies) the glamorous, fashion-conscious, Daddy’s girl; Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley) as the hot-headed campaigning feminist caffeine-addict and Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen) the pretty cheerleader that Zack and A.C both lust after and eventually get (hey – even Executive Producer of the show Peter Engel supposedly got glamour girl Tiffani on the desk behind his office door for possible threesomes with Mark-Paul the golden boy according to Dustin, but that’s another story totally unsubstantiated and absolutely not anything the NBC lawyers need to think is a claim that I am making myself – it’s all in the Screech book!).
There was a reunion of the cast a few years back for a pictorial in People magazine. Guess who didn’t go – yep; Dustin Diamond. What’s a cast without its Screech? The omission of Dustin from the reunion surely cemented the fact that Screech will never go under the Bell again, but it’s not impossible. From Dustin’s book again on a possible reunion: “..if it ever happened, I’d love to see the gang reunite in a film where everyone plays against type”. OK, sounds fun, so what does Screech have in mind: “I’d like to see Mario play a mentally ill person. Mark-Paul play a homosexual struggling against his true self. Um, I want to see Tiffani play a crack whore. Man, this is hard”.
One thing here – an explanation for why Diamond is perhaps a little hard on his co-stars today – is that he recounts a great deal in his written expose of how cruel some of the cast of Saved by the Bell were, he alleges, towards him over the years. Diamond was a few years younger than everyone else, and, rather like fictional Screech appears to Zack and gang, and to them he was a little pain is the ass. They wanted him out of their radar. Especially cruel was Tiffani-Amber Thiesson (nowadays just ‘Tiffani Thiesson’) who Diamond claims was openly spiteful to him, telling him to “fuck off” when he once tried to cosy up to his fellow cast members. The studio execs all seemed to hate him too, Executive Producer Peter Engel once allegedly telling Dustin (when he found out that the kid playing Screech was just 12 years old) that he would never had hired him had he known. But anyway, back to Dustin’s ideas for a reunion: “Lark can play a homeless person with rags for clothes. Elizabeth can play a prim and proper schoolmarm with skirts cut off at the ankles. I’ll play the serial killer”. Like I said, by the end of Behind the Bell, and by the end of the Saved by the Bell complete box set too, I really had developed an unexplained likeness for Screech, where before there were only the stirrings of desire for cheerleader Kelly. I guess that what happens when you get older – you start supporting the geeks!
The story of Dustin Diamond’s life on the set of Saved by the Bell is one of typical childhood trauma; growing up with a character he came to be identified and drowned by, falling out with a young cast that probably hated him, robbed, he alleges, of a financial future by his father who was supposed to be looking after his earnings not spending it all, and a life of age inappropriate oddness with that old on-set child star chestnut of intense tutoring and backstage discovery of sex, drink, Disneyland and dope.
Diamond sometimes comes across as something of a tragic figure, in that life’s biggest breaks often passed him by. He has an obsession for Scooby Doo and the character of Shaggy and got a film project close to production during his later years on Saved by the Bell. He even had the backing, he says – in an entire chapter devoted to this one big obsession in his book – of Joseph Barbera and Casey Kasem (the animated voice of Shaggy) but in the end bigger stars took the project over; Mike Meyers and Kevin Bacon before they dropped out too and the film got made with “a cast of douchey teen heartthrobs led by Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prinze Jr…I got the freeze-out on my dream project. And it was cold”.
This is all, remember, in the own words and mind of Dustin Diamond and he freely admits that we only have his word for what happened behind the scenes, but in Behind the Bell he reveals a studio set where all the teen cast were, at some point, screwing each other, except for him it seems. But don’t feel bad – the man who gave the world Screech claims to have still slept with a few thousand girls, often picked up on season breaks spent at Disneyland or from a weekly lottery of cute young extras; eventually, he claims, he was sleeping with random girls in most of the on-set beds over the years the show was on air as well as doing the deed in other places you wouldn’t think possible, including on all the rides at Disneyland it seems. Diamond claims to have also had a relationship at a tender age with NBC vice-president of children’s programming, Linda Mancuso, who he seems to have genuine affection for. These claims can’t be proven, especially since Linda later succumbed to breast cancer, quite some time after Dustin’s alleged relationship with her had faded out of regular contact. He couldn’t attend her funeral: “It was a shock. I was numb. There were memorial services held in Los Angeles… But I couldn’t go. My mom had also died of that same disease, when I was nineteen, and I just couldn’t go”.
A commentary with the cast for the UK box set of Saved by the Bell would have been fun. Sadly, you only get the episodes. A recent US box set did have a commentary. Dustin remembers it being a weird experience on recording day, especially with Lark Voorhies who played his unrequited screen love, Lisa Turtle: “I was happy to see Lark. I said, ‘Hey – what’s going on?’ Her response – her whole body language – was freakishly distant. She was weirdly aloof and had no desire to engage in any form of communication. When we were all miked up and rolling on the DVD commentary, Lark never uttered a word”. He puts this down to an abrupt end of a relationship with comedian Martin Lawrence, who she was engaged to before being dumped, he says, on live TV by Lawrence’s announcement of plans to marry another woman. Of all the cast of Saved by the Bell, Dustin seems to have the most time for the quieter, and clearly often cuter, Lark Voorhies and even recently appeared in a movie alongside her – the horror movie Little Creeps (2012).
On to the box set of Saved by the Bell, and while there are no extras beyond plot summaries, the picture is preppily fresh and the sound of the Screech quite excellent. The episodes are also quite wonderfully still arranged in their original bonkers transmission order. Often the transmission order didn’t make much sense at the time of the original UK broadcast, but I like that quirky sense of jumbled up continuity, as if the cast exists less in the real world as in a world of make believe and surreal dreamscapes, much like the boy in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits had to contend with, only swapping geeks with minotaurs and feminist cheerleaders on a caffeine high with, err, anything else. Part of the make believe world that Saved by the Bell (and Hollyoaks or Dawson’s Creek this show ain’t) clearly exists in, is often made all the more clear to the audience by blonde lead Zack’s ability to talk to camera and stop time to do so (watching the cast trying their best not to move in increasingly contorted positions is all part of the fun here). Dustin Diamond writes about a drinking game popular in the US where leading character actions such as ‘Zack freezes time’ gets a ‘Three Drinks’ payback, a sighting of Screech’s own Kevin the Robot gets ‘Five Drinks’ or, horror of horrors – ‘Screech dresses as a woman’ gets a ‘Finish the Glass’.
The thing about Saved by the Bell is that it started off a bit samey and silly in Season One, grew up a little (well, a lot actually) and tried new things in Season Two, reached a peak of creativity (if a restrained, network-controlled kind of creativity) in Season Three and went a little weird and scrambled in Season Four. What is clear though is that all the cast perform their roles with real enthusiasm throughout, develop their characters as the show goes on (especially Zack and Screech) and by the time the series ends, there’s a kind of realism to the cast that seems to have escaped all the silliness and scrambled up progression of time. Perhaps this is what teenage life is all about – what it feels like at the time, to be in a big cloud of fake and sometimes real friendship, a whirl of tentative flirting, fantasies, and first experiences and how it should all be remembered as some kind of surreal Big Bang in a giant milkshake when we reminisce as adults about those acne-addled years. A time when it’s survival of the fittest – or of the funniest – and a world where the geeks get dumped on until, suddenly, it all gets more serious one day with weddings and funerals to attend, breakups to heal and geeks suddenly start inheriting the world.
It could just be that the cast simply get better along with the scripts. But as Diamond points out: “For me, SBTB was more than just a TV Show – it was my youth”. Correctly, as the episodes prove, Diamond also says that the show was one: “of firsts: first kiss, first date, first dance; first love, first fight, first breakup. I always mocked that until I was older and it all had a chance to sink in”.
So now, I think it’s time to name and unshame some of the episodes of Saved by the Bell that remain the most memorable. Season 1 is very much still in the mould of traditional Saturday morning Kids TV, if a little stranger and loopy than most – most of the action takes place in the locker room or in local hangout The Max, over a fizzy drink and fries. The cast are in their mid-teens (except for Dustin Diamond, who kicks off his time in the show as a 12 year old – which kind of makes you realise why some of the rest of the cast were less keen to have him as their best friend on set) and the plots less campaigning or even downbeat as some of the later episodes are. When Dustin Diamond finally quits the character of Screech, he’s 23 years old – which kind of also makes you realise why he had to write Behind the Bell as such an honest, and at times damaged, read. Looking back on Season 1 after remembering the grown-up cast in the later years of the show is a strange experience – they look so young here and as yet untarnished by the turmoil of child star traumas and tantrums.
(Geeky Spoilers Follow)
SEASON ONE ‘BESTBELLS’
The Lisa Card (Series 1/Episode2) Fashion freak Lisa (Lark Voorhies) overspends on her father’s credit card and the cast get involved in various money-making schemes to pay the money back. It’s typical Saved by the Bell territory at the start of the show; a moral dilemma with a Zack-planned way out of an increasingly bad situation that saves the day – a plot device that typified the show’s storylines in the early years. Executive Producer Peter Engel apparently loved that kind of saving grace with Diamond claiming in his book that his boss was a campaigning born-again Christian having pulled through his own turbulent personal past of substance abuse and wild sowing of oats, despite coming down strong if anyone else dare indulge. In fact, throughout Diamond’s Behind the Bell book Engel is referred to as ‘St. Peter’ due to his constantly spinning moral compass: “Engel worked hard to drive home his wholesome vision of the all-American teen”, claims Diamond, “never mind that he invented the concept of putting fresh-faced T&A on TV for kids first thing in the morning”. This is a good episode for fans of the pretty, doe-eyed Lisa, as from here on in she doesn’t get to do very much when she’s on her own except whinge at Screech and call him ‘a dork’ in various ways, insults that also seemed increasingly heartfelt over the years the young actress spent acting as Screech’s ‘unrequited love interest’. So, 15 year old Lisa gets gawky 12 year runt of the litter Screech, 15 year old Kelly gets same age golden-boy group leader Zack and 17 year old Jessie gets 16 year old buffed-up boy bodybuilder Slater. After four years of that kind of slap in the face it’s no wonder that Lisa’s pissed!
The Gift (S1/Ep3) Screech gets struck by lightning and discovers the ability to predict the future. This episode has a nicely surreal edge and gets increasingly bizarre as Screech’s sudden powers get stronger. Zack decides to use Screech to cheat in exams and impress the girls. But are Screech’s powers a force for good – or an epic fail? Yes, it’s Stephen King’s Carrie– Saved by the Bell style! It’s one of the best and certainly quirkiest episodes – especially inspired is the sequence in Mr Belding’s office where Zack replies with answers to the Principle’s questions before he has a chance to ask them. Also, a slightly disturbing episode in that Screech is clearly badly injured by the lightning strike, and in an initial daze, but it’s only when his mother calls the school to check whether her son is alright that anyone seems to care!
Aloha Slater (S1-Ep6) A.C Slater, the school ‘jock’ get his dimpled face in a twist when it turns out he has to move to Hawaii with his dad and leave his friends behind. There’s a decent sense of stabbing to the heart of Slater when his friends make out they dislike him to persuade him to leave after being fooled by Zack into thinking their friend has a terminal disease that only treatment in Hawaii can help. Mario Lopez as A.C Slater I always think turns in a good few heartbreaking performances when the moment is right, and always has perfect comic timing – it’s often forgotten in the face of the golden boy character of Zack, but Lopez possibly has the most convincing real gift for comedy of all the cast. Of course, Dustin Diamond sees Mario as a hunk of thick beef, obsessed with building muscles on set and something of a bully, but the plots of the show often call for Slater’s conviction that he is top dog to be put into question and a later episode where a date-spoiling mother is invented for him by Zack to burst in on his rival at the cinema results in some hilarious responses by Slater: “She’s not my mother!” he barks with increasing frustration every time a cast member refers to her as such and provides one of the few laugh-out loud rather just snigger moments in the series.
Cream for a Day (S1/Ep8) Well, it had to happen – the episode where Zack and Screech confront the prickly issue of acne! In something of a wish-fulfilment for teens everywhere, the boys accidentally invent a spot cream in the chemistry lab that rather convincingly goes wrong – turning everyone a dark shade of red that almost hurts just to look at; it’s all very Cronenberg’s The Fly– Saved by the Bell style!
The Zack Tapes (S1/Ep14) Subliminal messages planted in the minds of the entire class by their own teacher. Hey – the Department of Education would never allow that in the UK state school system today. Although we did get Boris Johnson’s subliminal messages across the London transport system in time for The Olympics – so who knows what’s next. Zack, of course, abuses this newfound dark art to develop his own subliminal music tapes on a Beach Boys tape to convince Principle Belding into thinking Zack is the son he never had – and most of all, to make sure that Kelly falls fully in love with him and not best friend and love rival Slater. Of course, the tapes get mixed up and the wrong people get to fall in love with each another. There’s a vaguely sinister feel to this episode with teachers being made to fall in love with pupils and pupils forcing themselves to be desired by those who have no interest in them – it’s all just a step away from a moral warning from Screech’s ‘St. Peter’ about the dangers of date rape. And the ending, where the class teacher helps the kids fake being affected by Zack’s subliminal message ‘love tapes’ to all fall in love with the golden boy at once is downright disturbing as the entire class chases after the terrified boy, lovestruck and stumbling through school corridors after him. Even best friend Slater now desires the terrified Zack. Clearly this time it’s Night of the Living Dead – Saved by the Bell style!
The first series of Saved by the Bell is short, sweet and surreal. It only has flashes of realism and is sometimes unsure of its footing (that confidence grows over the years) but remains inventive, charismatic and often unexpectedly bizarre; the clear makings of a long-running TV series if not quite yet the reality. The show was unique in that it appealed to the morning-after University crowd as much as it did to the young teens it was mainly aimed at, developing a cult status for a time – always a sign of the healthiest kind of kids TV. There’s also a first appearance in Season One from Screech’s bedroom-bound robot in the episode Beauty and the Screech – the frankly slightly annoying character of ‘Kevin the Robot’ is voiced by Mike Lavelle and only appeared another couple of times before being forgotten about altogether as if he’s actually just Screech’s rather high tech imaginary friend that soon gets grown out of. Or maybe the character was just a bit crap.
For admirers of the tall and statuesque Elizabeth ‘Showgirls’ Berkley there is plenty of soul-searching from her about why her body is growing to Amazonian lengths and shapeliness compared to everyone else around her (Showgirls director Paul Verhoeven took note) while Tiffani Thiessen as Kelly, gets to wear short gym shorts and cheerleader outfits that mostly escape Dustin Diamond’s drinking game winning sighting (worth three drinks) of ‘Kelly wears a skirt cut below the knees’.
Regarding the revealing outfits (even Roman togas at one point) the young cast are made to wear over the years, Diamond writes in his book of the awkward moment when, while recording a US DVD commentary for the show, Dennis Haskins (Mr Belding) comments on how the girls in the cast have developed significant growth spurts in their chest area as the series progresses – and how the whole room fell silent when he did, clearly creeping everyone out! Coming from the rather sex-centred Diamond, being creeped out by anyone else is really something. But clearly, even in these earlier episodes, a lot is made of those gym shorts and cheerleader outfits as a plot device and in later seasons a lot more is made of the Baywatch-style swimsuits that the female cast have to wear on the beach, even going so far as to have executive producer Peter Engel supposedly put the entire cast on a health food diet to make sure Tiffani fitted into her swimsuit with the most ease: “Why was I made to suffer for Tiffani’s fat ass?” Diamond asks in Behind the Bell, having been ordered to partake of a diet of radishes and carrots. “I was thin as a rail”.
SEASON TWO ‘BESTBELLS’
Season 2 of Saved by the Bell tentatively delves into the tricky realm of ‘real’ teen issues, which, according to Dustin Diamond was forced upon Executive Producer Peter Engel by fan pressure – Engel always wanted the show to avoid such possibly blemishing storylines. This resulted in either the very best, or perhaps worst, episode of Saved by the Bell ever; Jessie’s Song – depending on your point of view and personal opinion on the tricky issue of caffeine addiction!
Jessie’s Song (Season 2/ Episode 9) Morally upright, super student Jessie (Elizabeth Berkley) balances exam revision with new found fame in a pop group with Lisa and Kelly called Hot Sundae. To keep up with all the work Jessie turns to – and becomes addicted to – caffeine pills. It’s a downward spiral (despite today’s kids having more caffeine in a can of Red Bull than Jessie took in a few little pills). This episode (not sponsored by ProPlus) ends in Jessie breaking down in front of Zack, singing words to a familiar song: “I’m so excited, I’m so excited, I’m so – scared”. Of course, it’s fairly silly all this, but also quite poignant at times, if only because it’s a shock to see one of these teen untouchables so vulnerable. The first episode of Season 2, The Prom, had already seen Kelly Kapowski (played by regular show saucepot Tiffany Thiessen) unable to go to the prom with Zack after her father loses his job, so the ground had been prepared for more serious issues to be introduced. But caffeine addiction? That took the cola. As Diamond says in Behind the Bell about this one: “How ridiculous was that scene…she’d had the equivalent of three Mountain Dews and they were carting her off to the Betty Ford Clinic?” Apparently the rest of the cast took the episode very seriously: “It was Elizabeth’s full-court press for a daytime Emmy nomination”.
Save the Max (S2/Ep3) In which Zack and Screech resurrect the old Bayside High radio station, ‘KKTY’ to save the local diner and class hangout The Max, where a lot of the action of the show takes place (when not in the locker room). It turns out that everyone is good in their chosen radio spots except for the boy-most-likely A.C. Slater, whose sports presentation is about as dull as an episode of Saved by the Bell: The New Class, Season One! Slater comes good in the end of course, and broadcasts through the night for a radio-telethon when everyone else falls asleep (bless!) but this episode is yet another example of Slater being shown to be more fallible than the pumped-up cocky jock image suggests, and it’s great – it’s almost as if the scriptwriters were javelining storylines that were aimed straight at body-obsessed star Mario Lopez’s clearly gigantic balls. Screech – were you involved in these character deconstruction attempts?
House Party’ (S2/Ep5) This is an absolute stonker of an episode – in a good way! Featuring Tori Spelling (rather brilliant she is here too, reeking a geek chic that’s almost sexy) as Screech’s sometime girlfriend, Violet Anne Bickerstaff, this episode sees Screech alone at home while his parents head to Graceland for a week. Featuring a completely bonkers performance from Ruth Buzzi (famous in the US for Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In) as the Elvis-obsessed mum of Screech, idolizing a bust of the man himself (Elvis, not Screech) on the mantelpiece – it’s all clearly going to end in disaster when Zack and the gang come round. The Elvis bust doesn’t last long. Featuring an appearance from family pet ‘Hound Dog’ and chief rich designer geek Maxwell Nerdstrom (a memorable performance from Jeffrey Asch) as Screech’s love rival, this episode is as close to the perfect Saved by the Bell episode as it gets. According to Diamond, the producers tried to get Michael Richards (‘Kramer’ in Seinfeld) to appear in this episode as Screech’s Dad but to no avail, the actor claiming he was too busy to appear: “I would have loved teaming up with Richards as Screech, Sr.” laments Dustin, before slating the man’s apology for absence.
1-900-Crushed (S2-Ep11) The new school helpline run by Lisa called ‘Teen Line’ ends up getting Zack into trouble when cheerleader Kelly’s little sister visits and develops a crush on Zack. Laura Mooney plays Nicki Kapowski and is quite endearing in the role. Mooney seems to have quite the fan base but only has a few films and a handful of TV shows to her name alongside Saved by the Bell, including the Hulk Hogan-starring Suburban Commando (1991) and Twilight Zone: The Movie (1993). In America she’s also known as ‘the voice of 80’s talking doll Cricket’ apparently! Nicki Kapowski proves to be a feisty and memorable character and brings a lot of extra fun to a farcical episode. It’s a shame it was Mooney’s only appearance in the show; her character could have easily gone a second round with poor Zack!
Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind (S2/Ep12) Screech dresses up as one bizarre-looking alien in one of Zack’s money-making schemes and is pursued by a newspaper reporter or possibly a Government agent resulting in Screech going on the run (within the school grounds). A diverting episode that’s certainly different and barmy enough to be a standout and there’s a nice surreal moment where Screech takes off his alien mask to reveal Screech then removes the Screech mask to reveal an alien (or was it the other way round?) and at some point the entire school runs around in those bloody awful Screech masks! It’s all very cartoonish, as some of the best episodes of the series often were and any episode that has references to Mork and Mindy, Pee-wee Herman, and such Cult TV sci-fi as My Favourite Martian and Star Trek is ok by me!
Running Zack (S2/Ep13) Following a class project on ancestry our young, dumb blonde hero Zack gets to find out about his Native American ancestors from local expert Chief Henry, only to find the man who he expected to be something of an old bore to be more of a surfer dude and wisecracking beatnik! Chief Henry is played by Dehl Berti who had something of a career of playing American Indians in the movies and on TV, being both the ‘Old Indian’ in Wolfen (1981), ‘Eddie Whitefeather’ in The Rockford Files and ‘Iron Fist’ in The Six Million Dollar Man. Zack is devastated when his ‘clearly more fun than he realised’ ancestor-expert dies and even receives a spiritual visit from the old man in his dreams. Zack has developed a new respect for ancestry and his Native American roots. The year after Dehl Berti’s appearance in the show, the great man passed away in real life as well. Whether he appeared in a dream to actor Mark-Paul Gosselaar after doing so, we may never know! This is also the episode where we find out that Jessie’s ancestors were slave traders which results in her spending the entire episode rather patronisingly (deliberately I think) apologising to black friend Lisa. Another unusual episode with an unexpectedly downbeat conclusion; Saved by the Bell confronts issues of mortality, racism and heritage. Admit it; you weren’t expecting that!
Season 2 took the show into increasingly new, unexplored territory with the odd issue-based or darker episode with the cast coping with death and caffeine addiction being the most unforgettable result of this change of direction. The move to a more grown-up show was perhaps not quite perfected yet, and the series still retained a gleeful indulgence in all things absurd and surreal – but the ground had been laid.
The following season it was all change again as the show took on the characteristics of a far more serious (but no less silly at times) teen drama, and the roles were now played by the cast with noticeably less cartoonish zeal. Even Screech became increasingly less of an outsider, and the role played by Diamond at times with a hint of – dare I say it – real pathos! More risks were taken with the show’s format, and a whole stretch of summer job episodes in Malibu catapulted the cast into a whole new direction where they actually had – oh the horror – jobs! There were still a good few silly plotlines to be had but Season 3 was still the year Zack and the gang grew up in one big rush, flew the nest, fell out of love and stopped grinning so damn often at the camera. It’s easily the pinnacle and pivotal season of the show, with by far the most consistently enjoyable and unpredictable episodes.
SEASON THREE ‘BESTBELLS’
The Last Dance (Series 3-Episode 1) This fantastically downbeat opener brings the series back with a sudden thump to the heart. Kelly gets a job working at The Max and falls for her boss, Jeffrey Hunter (Patrick Muldoon of Melrose Place and Starship Troopers ‘fame’) while still going out with Zack. Since the start of the series, Zack and Kelly’s on-off relationship has been the centre of the show, and finally now they are together. You half expect everything to be alright, like it usually is on Saved by the Bell by the end of the episode. This time it’s not – Kelly dumps golden boy Zack for the sensible, caring Jeffrey and that’s it. There’s no resolution or reconciliation by the end of the episode. For Zack, it’s time to move on. This remains one of the best episodes of the series for me, for bringing a new lease of real life to the show and for daring to introduce a plotline that the writers, to their credit, never really went back on – this relationship was over. Until of course it was rekindled in The College Years and finalised in the TV movie Saved by the Bell: Wedding in Las Vegas which proved that true love never dies, it just gets rewritten into a spin-off series.
Zack’s Birthday (S3/Ep2) The moment everything went a bit wonderfully weird on Saved by the Bell. For the next eleven episodes, the gang alternate between adventures back at Bayside and a holiday job for all the gang at Malibu Springs Beach Resort where Lisa’s parents are members of this exclusive club and generous enough tippers to persuade the manager to employ their daughter’s best friends for the summer – the fools! Bizarrely, there’s no mention of the Zack/Kelly break-up in these beach-set episodes and A.C. Slater, now dating Jessie back at Bayside, is also young free and single here for no real reason, leaving him free to date the likes of a young, bikini-clad beach babe Denise Richards (in an uncredited and brief early role) both on and off screen – according to Dustin Diamond anyway!
Zack also develops a relationship with initially prim and proper Stacey Carosi (Leah Remini) the uptight daughter of the Malibu Springs club owner Leon Carosi (a great roly-poly comic performance from Ernie Sabella). Of course, this entire relationship between Zack and Stacey is ruthlessly dropped back in the school-set episodes and never mentioned again. It seems like a bizarre move to alternate the two settings, but it kind of works and breaks up the occasional monotony of the limited school setting. While the Malibu location shoot appears mostly under slightly depressing cloud cover, the cast bravely struggle on in their designer swimwear, as if the sun is actually shining, and a clear Baywatch vibe soon develops. Clearly the producers aren’t stupid though and it’s really only body-buffed A.C. Slater and cheerleader Kelly who get to be the lifeguards and beach babe/bum. Poor Zack does get to go topless in a couple of episodes, but the skinny blonde pin-up boy looks hugely uncomfortable doing so and in later years (according to Dustin Diamond anyway) would turn to steroids to pump his body up for The College Years before admitting as much to the crew with an on-set apology. The Malibu Beach adventures include such adventures as Zack’s birthday celebrations, a giant sandcastle-building competition as well as poor Stacey being left alone by her dad to run the resort for the day with just the gang to help her out! A good vibe is built up during these holiday job episodes and the final farewell in The Last Weekend is appropriately poignant and tearful.
Fake ID’s (S2/Ep9) Another standout episode in which Zack decides to get over his break-up with Kelly by getting Screech to fake some ID’s so they can all go for a night out at the local over-21s club – The Attic. Zack has started dating an older woman and hasn’t yet told her his real age. I say older – more ‘college girl-old’ than ‘high school-old’. On the night out, Zack’s friends spot Kelly’s new boyfriend, Jeff, with another girl – the question now being: who is going to break the news to Zack’s ex? It’s quite a downbeat episode, and there’s no easy resolution again to the Zack/Kelly relationship that you might expect. Screech’s misadventures with a lusty, older, plumper, nymphomaniac he meets at the club provides the comedy pratfalls, but this episode is really all about growing up before your time, and nudges the cast into further maturity. The OTT silliness of old, really seems a thing of the past from here on in.
Pipe Dreams (Sr3/Ep11). I may just have said that the silliness of old is no more, after the Fake IDs episode, but the serious oddness is still present and correct here. And Pipe Dreams is surely one of the oddest of all – quite brilliantly so! Oil is rather unconvincingly accidentally struck at Bayside, and a developer starts the inevitable drilling after go-ahead from the School Board. Zack is looking after a duck from the school pond that gets covered in oil when returned to its natural habitat and dies (watch him hysterically clutching a sticky black rubber ducky not too convincingly!). The distraught boy gives a big speech at the end of the show to tell the developers that they’d rather just have the school back to how it was, with trees to eat lunch under, rather than oil fields to be drizzled on by. According to Dustin Diamond in Behind the Bell: “this episode is most amusing to me for the lengths of absurdity the writers would go to make Zack Morris a little slice of pretty much every vocation and bleeding-heart cause a human being can be involved in on planet earth”.
Wicked Stepbrother Parts 1&2 (S3/Ep13&14). Jessie’s mum remarries and her new stepbrother Eric Tramer (Josh Hoffman) moves to Bayside from New York. Tramer is suitably droll and demented; leery and quite cruel at first, but by the end of the episode he’s charming the cast and become something of a nice guy. Hell – it’s bonkers, but it’s fun bonkers and you really do hate that New Yorker by the end of the first episode; Hoffman bringing an unexpected sleaziness to the role, even moving in to his stepsister’s bedroom without permission and waiting for her to step out of the shower – man, that’s one kinky guest star (although when your stepsister is Elizabeth ‘Showgirls’ Berkley, surely partly forgiveable!).
All in the Mall (S3/Ep16) My favourite episode of the series. The gang spend the night in a local shopping mall queuing up for U2 tickets! Zack finds a bag containing $5,000 in notes and they all decide to spend this on more U2 tickets to sell to desperate fans. But it looks like some criminal masterminds are on their trail. I love this episode for the simple reason: the Bayside gang have absolutely no shame in taking the money they have found without handing it in to security and plan to do some very dodgy ticket touting with the newly acquired stash. They are, in fact: total bastards in this episode, even ripping off a little old lady in the queue. The setting is fun too and the surprise ending…woah! I wouldn’t like to be their parents when they see that episode of Candid Camera go out. The mall setting is a lot of fun, so much so that it was revisited for this season’s final two-parter; ‘Home for Christmas that sees the gang actually working at the mall this time and Zack falling in love with a homeless man’s daughter, eventually managing to buy the poor chap a suit while inviting the family back to his mother’s house for Christmas lunch (he probably should have asked her first).
Actually, Home for Christmas is another fun plot that at least has the homeless man revealing that needing to shave in public restrooms is just part of the deal when out on the streets. This, of course, is actually true as anyone who lives in London will tell you when washing your hands in sinks full of post-shave stubble trimmings in a Piccadilly Burger King. SHELTER may be turning in their grave at this episode but at least, like many episodes of Saved by the Bell, there’s no ‘and he gets a job as security guard at the mall thanks to Zack’ ending. All we have is the promise of a suit: that’ll do for now!
S.A.T.s (S3/Ep17) Notable for being the episode where the’ boy least likely’ becomes the ‘boy most likely’ and gets the highest S.A.T’s scores – he’s then chased by the top colleges at Open Day much to the anger of model student Jessie. And the boy who gets the top scores? Why – Zack of course! You half expect a surprise ending where it turns out that Zack’s scores got confused with those of Jessie. But no – the writers either forgot to include such an ending, or this episode was due for a sequel. Or is the twist just the greatest subversive step in the history of the show where the laziest, most grade-failing, class-skipping student unexpectedly comes out on top? And you thought an oil strike in the school field was unconvincing.
Palm Springs Weekend Parts 1&2 (S3/Ep18&19) Another oddity and refreshing break for the series when the team go along to a plush Palm Springs hotel for the wedding of Jessie’s dad to a nubile young aerobics instructor (hey –one for the watching dads this one!). Zack and Kelly kind of rekindle their relationship, but the scriptwriters drop the idea almost immediately. The hotel resort is gorgeous and the clear star of these two episodes. Everyone is fairly grown up in this one, taking their seats at expensive tables in plush dining rooms, having heart to heart chats with Jessie’s dad and each other, and falling into the hotel’s fountain (OK, Screech – letting the side down a bit here fella!).
No Hope with Dope (S3/Ep21) One of the most often remembered episodes, possibly for all the wrong (or right – depending on point of view) reasons. A young Hollywood actor, Johnny Dakota (Eddie Garcia), comes to Bayside to film an anti-dope smoking film. It turns out that he is actually the phantom dope smoker in the locker room. The episode is a little naff, but far more interesting is the accusation from Dustin Diamond in Behind the Bell that Eddie Garcia, Tiffani Thiesson’s real life boyfriend at the time, played the dope smoker here while on set it was actually Tiffani doing the smoking (allegedly) while also sharing more intimate physical moments with both co-star Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Zack) and Mario Lopez (A.C. Slater) on set. Garcia apparently caught Tiffani and Mario together in the dressing room doing the deed, and so ended another beautiful relationship thanks to the den of corruption that was the Saved by the Bell (note to lawyers: ‘according to Dustin Diamond that is’).
Rockumentary (S3/Ep22). Yes, it’s the other episode (next to the dope one) that everyone probably also remembers from the first time around; the rise and fall of top pop band Zack Attack in a Kids From Fame-style episode as narrated by Casey Kasem (the voice of Shaggy from Scooby Doo). Featuring great bad miming that’s even less convincing than All About Eve on a 1988 episode of Top of the Pops.
Following the show’s brave dive into more grown up, bizarre, unpredictable and issue-based plotlines in Season 3, the following (and final) season’s offerings are something of a disappointment. There are some surprises in Season 4, and some outright classic episodes – but not as many as there should be. This was the season where clearly it was all coming to a swift end. The class were all seniors now and a lot of the episodes now looked forward to their college years (little did everyone know that their televised College Years would only last the one season!). Dustin Diamond claims that he never used to get tearful at end of season wrap parties like everyone else did, because he usually assumed they would be coming back is some way, even when told they wouldn’t be. In the case of Season 4, there was a strong build up to the final episode Graduation Day and that was supposed to be it – the end of the show. But of course, that wasn’t it – and the network decided to commission another clutch of episodes to prolong the season’s run. There was a problem – both Tiffani Thiesson and Elizabeth Berkley had decided to leave the show for good and they weren’t coming back. The producers brought in a new girl; Leanna Creel as ‘Tori Scott’ a kind of combo of the two missing girls; part-spunky, part-sexy, all-feisty. The two missing members of the regular gang in these extra episodes were just assumed to be in another classroom at the time, or off sick from school – whatever! You make your own mind up. It’s a bit weird to watch, but worse – the episodes with Tori in feel a bit bland, a bit ‘After the Bell’. It’s not Creel’s fault – she plays her part with real charisma and affection. But the rest of the class has clearly moved on, and suffering from that ‘end of term’ feeling – like having to attend a few final classes for the last week of term, even though you don’t really get to do anything much. It’s still a fun season at times for fans of the show to indulge in, despite the annoying flashback episodes and inclusion of others held over from previous seasons that give the cumulative effect of this being a real jumble sale season to pick and choose from.
The Fight (Season 4/Episode 1) It’s senior year and best friends Zack and Slater compete for the attentions of a new girl in school. After a certain amount of back-stabbing, they come to actual blows in the locker room – it’s completely unexpected too. Not the most original plotline in the history of the series, but while in previous years such rivalry had been a focus for humour, the sudden turn into a full-on punch-up is unexpected and plays with expectations with the initial name-calling suddenly turning cold, serious and not spoken through a half-smile for perhaps the first time.
The Bayside Triangle (S4/ Ep5) More fighting, this time between Screech and his best friend Zack. Screech, throughout the series run kept up a faux romance with fashion-conscious swee’-pea Lisa that at times bordered on the downright creepy. His relationship with best friend Zack seemed strained, but Zack clearly supported Screech enough to allow a geek into the inner circle of cool, even if usually with some derision. Here everything changes. Lisa puts on a fashion show and Zack helps out. The two kiss and Screech catches them at it. As the announcer at the fashion show, watched by the whole school as well as fashion industry heads and school principle, Screech commentates less about the fashions on display than about how heartbroken he is thanks to his back-stabbing friends: “Why’d you have to steal my dream? I hate you,” he tells Zack, grabbing him by the shirt, no longer the school nerd, perhaps even casting aside the demon of the silly old Screech of old. Certainly the character for the rest of the series is far more subdued from this point on.
Drinking and Driving (S4/ Ep10) Zack and the gang attend a toga party to celebrate Lisa being announced as the new Homecoming Queen. Cue: many bare torsos all round (or sadly only shoulders and legs if female), including scrawny Screech and, my god – a newly pumped-up Zack giving Slater a run for his gym money. Saved by the Bell had already covered drugs, caffeine overdoses and oil spills, now it’s the turn of that other teenage hang-up; drink driving. Zack offers to drive everyone home in a sports car that Lisa borrowed from her dad, despite having been on the beers all night and trying to get inside a few random lady-togas. There’s a near-fatal car accident, and Slater nearly loses an arm (well – ok, not really, but he does have a poorly shoulder that sees him struck off the school football team for their last ever match). The sorry gang try to cover up what’s happened, but their story crumbles. This episode is fairly downbeat, and the car crash, while shot in a comedy kind of way (either that or in a low budget kind of way; ‘whoops, here we go, big crash time – everyone sway to the right’) is clearly expected, but still a first for the show, the cast never having been drunk before or even showing an interest in such unknown pleasures. The singing in the cramped car just before the crash reminds of similar scenes in the later Saved by the Bell-like teen comedy That ‘70s Show – or as seen in the Bohemian Rhapsody-singing car scenes in Wayne’s World, (1992) a film that played cinema screens a few months before this episode came out. Coincidence – or copycat? You decide!
Slater’s Sister (S 4/Ep16) &Earthquake (S4/ Ep21) Two episodes that introduce family members for this final season that we haven’t met before; Slater’s sister, ‘J.B’ (Rana Haugen) and school principle Mr Belding’s expectant wife, ‘Becky Belding’ (Louan Gideon). The routine episode Slater’s Sister sees Zack ask J.B out on a date, a move that initially horrifies her protective brother but which in the end – sees the two pals bond again when Slater realises there could be far worse dates out there for his sister than Zack! The later episode, Earthquake on the other hand – is fairly inspired. A heavily pregnant Mrs Belding gets stuck with Zack and Tori in a lift during an earthquake while Mr Belding gets stuck in his office with – oh horrors of horror – Screech! By the time the lift comes back up, a baby has joined the cast. The scenes with Screech and Mr Belding in the office clearly pave the way for the later double act of these two most unlikely suspects in Saved by the Bell: The New Class.
Snow White and the Seven Dorks (S4/ Ep20) & Slater’s Friend (S4/ Ep23). Two episodes shunted into Season 4 to make up the numbers. Snow White sees Zack as the Prince and Jessie as Snow White in a stage production practising that kiss. When the rehearsal snog goes on a bit too long, both students are worried they may be in love with each other and not Zack with Kelly and Slater with Jessie after all. The stage show is dire; sub-standard hip-hop and the storyline’s clearly out of place with the other romances built up throughout the season and you can understand why producers dropped this one as the finale of Season 2! Zack smooching with a flat-on-her-back Jessie, chest heaving and tight leggings mounted by Zack’s blue jeans (he grabs a pile of books to quickly cover his crotch area as he gets up from this snog session as if to cover the clearest show of affection yet – or was that just my imagination?) is also a little raunchier than we may be used to in this school. So not all bad then! Dustin Diamond writes in Behind the Bell that you can usually tell which member of the cast Mark-Paul is going with from the episodes playing out on screen. But this is nothing compared to the Season 1 reject episode Slater’s Friend that in the US was often skipped past in subsequent Season 4 repeats. Slater trusts his pet chameleon to the gang for the weekend, only to find it’s as stiff as something in Zack’s jeans from the Snow White episode when he gets back. The episode ends in a funeral held at school and a song for the dead chameleon from Screech and co that clearly has the cast in stitches. Diamond reveals that they had to shoot take after take of this scene and they still couldn’t contain the giggles: “In the end we could never really get through the scene. We always fucked it up, and that was the footage they were forced to go with after many takes”.
School Song (S4/ Ep24) Not the final broadcast episode – but the final episode of Saved by the Bell in all but statistics. This was the last of the newly commissioned episodes missing Jessie and Kelly but still with new girl Tori. Zack thinks he may have wasted his time at Bayside High and achieved nothing of any longevity (many of the final episodes are full of moments of self-doubt and a sense of legacy). Cue: Zack trying to write a song by himself, mostly all about himself and trying to cheat his friends to have his song being picked as the one the school gets to sing – one last scheme at the expense of his friends to end his time in school with. By the time the whole gang take to the stage for one last sing-along (to “Bayside, My Home”) Zack realises that joining in with his friends and singing about what they have all done together (but not the kind of things they possibly did backstage together as detailed in Dustin’s book!) is all that matters.
To the music of Home on the Range the old friends sing about what it means to be best friends, and everyone looks genuinely upset that the series is over, especially Screech, who suddenly looks like the actor Dustin Diamond up on stage, not the rubber-faced character he came to portray for so long. He’s fully grown-up now, respected as an equal by all his friends. A few episodes earlier, in The SEnior Prom even old sparring partner and wishful thinking love interest, Lisa, had suddenly and unexpectedly defended Screech’s honour and character to a pupil insulting him and quite cruelly deconstructing his personality in front of her in a way that went beyond simple mockery and into darker territory. Lisa even asks Screech to go along to the school prom with her to cheer him up. Screech is no longer the dork – he’s earned true respect, even from Lisa who spent most of the rest of the show pulling him down. Diamond has revealed that he was always a little sad that his character never really hooked up with Lisa properly by the end of the show – though this brief encounter is still surely worth the wait.
The Time Capsule (S4/Ep25) Written by Executive Producer Peter Engel, The Time Capsule has an older Mr Belding showing the class of 2003 (doppelgangers for the original ’92 gang) a video tape found in a time capsule buried by the original cast upon their leaving the school. This results in straight to camera character summaries from all the original Bayside gang as well introducing their favourite moments, all shot in clear close-up on videotape and only just about in character, maybe more as themselves. This episode has the feel of a home video shot by Executive Producer Peter Engel as a way to end the old show and look to the new spin-offs probably already being planned ahead. The new class watching the taped segments in Mr Belding’s office looking like a prototype The New Class and the grown-up cast clearly closer to The College Years in all but name. The future of Saved by the Bell in both the old and new possible formats feels like it is being tried and tested in the same room, with even Mr Belding’s futuristic moustache making it through to The New Class later that same year.
Graduation (S4/Ep26) The final episode of Saved by the Bell doesn’t disappoint. There’s real pathos as Zack finds himself isolated from the group being a grade point short of graduation. And Dustin Diamond as Screech plays the role dead straight when he sacrifices his achievement as class valedictorian instead of the expected winner; Jessie. Screech, in this final episode, suddenly slipping with ease into the role of the show’s clear martyr (but the moment had been obviously prepared for across the previous few ‘exaggerated Screech’-ridding episodes) and in that final act of sacrifice, clearly that boy Screech is the student that has achieved the most out of all his friends, and stayed the most true to himself – it’s as if the entire series has been building up to this point, finding a purpose, a reason, and a suitable end point. Nobody expected Screech to earn the highest grades or sacrifice the honour he clearly deserves for the sake of a friend – he lies to Mr Belding he doesn’t want the honour as he has cheated in one of the papers. In the final graduation scene all is resolved, but there are real tears (hell – even Mr Belding’s voice cracks at one point) especially from Jessie, whose face is a mess of running make-up and red-rimmed eyes. All the cast, except for Elizabeth Berkley’s Jessie would return for Saved by the Bell: The College Years the following year (although Lark Voorhies only appears in the one episode). But the fun was over; the series didn’t make it past a first season. The only thing that saved Saved by the Bell was reinventing the show with a new young cast and even that didn’t work until they brought Screech back for the second season of The New Class: it was clear which former pupil of Bayside High managed to get the last laugh in the end.
Saved by the Bell was a series that experimented with the teen comedy genre – a Happy Days for the modern age – gave a platform for geeks everywhere, dabbled with the unexpected, and is probably best remembered by many for featuring a gaggle of buff boys and cute girls in cheerleader outfits, swimsuits or, err, wrestling wear on Saturday morning telly. At times, Saved by the Bell added the odd puff of pathos and sometimes just went a bit too bonkers. The first season had to find its feet, while the middle two were at times, quite inspired. There were many ‘best bits’ but a scene from the Season 2 episode House Party with the male leads; Zack, Slater and Screech behaving like boys should at Screech’s home while his parents are away – dressing up and performing the Beach Boys classic Barbara Ann with kitchen mops in hand, sliding across the floor and behind the sofa, watched in secret by all the girls, is one of the funniest moments in TV teen comedy – ever.
By the time Season 4 hit the screens, flashback episodes crept in and a third of the regular cast had left for half the season. It was time to grow-up, but not before drugs, drink, caffeine and (less obviously) sex had been discovered and enjoyed to the max (and possibly in The Max after hours). Backstage shenanigans as detailed by Dustin Diamond in his outrageous but compulsive car-crash of a series expose; Behind the Bell probably details the same behaviour that went on behind every similar show featuring kids in their teenage years (I want an expose of The Wonder Years next!), but it’s still an eye-opener to read about, even if the show, to an extent, gets a bit blemished as a result. I don’t think it does personally. I can’t say how many of Diamond’s many outlandish claims are true (buy the book – there’s loads more I haven’t even dared mention!) but the kids on screen weren’t ever written as whiter than white, so why should the cast off screen be playing against type? Lighten up folks – these are teenagers and the hormones are rocking out to MC Hammer and Paula Abdul man!
What I discovered most about watching the UK box set of every episode of a series I still remember fondly is that, apart from all those aforementioned MC Hammer and Paula Abdul mentions; it’s dated very well. Hey, they’re even queuing up for fast selling U2 tickets in the series – just like they still do in 2018. As for Screech – I’ve begun to love that guy and the chap who played him too. Screech, as Dustin Diamond makes clear in his book, was never the loser we all assumed him to be: “Screech was a champion of the underdog. He stood for any kid who got bullied or singled out for being different, because Screech achieved ‘popularity’ and acceptance within the group by remaining true to himself”.
A final word on Saved by the Bell magic from Dustin Diamond writing, again, in Behind the Bell seems appropriate: “I scored my share of coochie backstage at SBTB, but it wasn’t easy, walking around all day cracking my voice while sometimes wearing a yellow chicken suit. Hey, I played the number one nerd in the world, for all kids, for a decade”.
MARK GORDON PALMER