Are you embarrassed about it? It's okay. We ALL liked it at one time or another. Saved by the Bell was so ubiquitous, middle and junior high school kids everywhere worked it into their daily routines. Go to school, come home, grab the afternoon snack, watch Saved by the Bell, do homework. We didn't even think about it, we did it as if we were robots automatically set to a common workday routine. Therefore, Saved by the Bell has a certain kind of universality carried by very few other shows; even the master lords of television ubiquity - Seinfeld and The Simpsons - don't share the daily soap-like power of Saved by the Bell.
Their names have been branded into the deepest parts of our souls: Zach. Slater. Kelly. Jesse. Lisa. Screech. Mr. Belding. And Sometimes Tori. The characters and their antics are unmistakeable. Zach, the charismatic frontman, with his ability to sweet-talk his way into and out of any bad situation. Slater, the school jock. Kelly the requisite hot chick and cheerleading captain whom all the guys fight over. Jesse the uber-PC character. Lisa, the materialist shopping queen whose life direction is always toward the mall. Screech, the geek. Belding, the clueless principal who was somehow on a first-name basis with these six particular students and no others. And Sometimes Tori, the tomboy who appeared for a handful of episodes in the final season, displacing Kelly and Jesse, then disappearing without a trace and never being seen, heard from, or mentioned again. (The explanation is that when it was time to film those episodes, actresses Tiffani-Amber Thiessen and Elizabeth Berkley - Kelly and Jesse respectively - were tied up with other projects, so they were dropped and this mysterious new character was brought in to replace them just for those episodes.)
Saved by the Bell was originally created as a show called Good Morning, Miss Bliss, and it starred Hayley Mills as an amazing teacher named Miss Bliss. The show was supposed to be about her. The original show - which is still frequently seen in canon with every other episode of Saved by the Bell - had a few elements of what it eventually turned into: Mark-Paul Gosselaar playing Zach, Dustin Diamond playing Screech, Lark Voorhies playing Lisa, and Dennis Haskins playing Belding, with all of their personalities front, center, and fully developed even then. But if it weren't for those characters, you'd never figure out these were the same show. It took place in Indianapolis instead of Los Angeles, and scenes in the school office and teachers' homes were more prevalent than anything else. When NBC realized the potential of the show, they did the weird thing TV executives always seem to do when they find shows with potential and made it over. They put the show in Los Angeles, cut off nearly every tie it had with its Hoosier roots, brought in eye candy, and centered it around the students. The focal point around the kids allowed creator Peter Engel to turn it into a Lesson show.
The Lessons were well and good on the outside. It dealt with the common stuff: Bullying, death, driving drunk, finances, drugs, the whole nine. But when you grow up and force yourself through retreads of every episode as an adult, some disturbing subtexts begin to emerge from the structure. I highly doubt they were what Engel intended, but they happened. The reason a TV producer would set a show around young teenagers would be so the teenaged audience could relate to them. And so, among the Lessons these universal teen mouthpieces conveyed are also: Nerds are different and weird, so use them to your advantage and make fun of them! (This trope was absolutely everywhere. If the nerds appeared in an episode, they WERE going to be a target of some sort. Hell, the only reason the gang seemed to keep Screech around half the time was to use his brains to get their newest schemes off the ground.) Cheating is okay! (Another one that was in many episodes. The gang frequently resorted to underhanded tactics to get the better of their rivals. On the sometime occasions that cheating was shown to be BAD, the consequences were always rather minimal.) Gambling is awesome! (This seemed to be one of Zach's hobbies. Never mind that gambling addiction is a debilitating condition; he suffers no consequences for his constant betting over friends and tests and sporting events, ever, and at times it actually serves as a way to validate an even worse scheme.)
The classic John Hughes flick Ferris Bueller's Day Off often gets criticized these days for an alternative interpretation of Ferris himself: He's a sneaky, manipulative bastard bent on enriching his own life solely by taking advantage of everyone around him and exploiting their deepest weaknesses and fears. Ferris Bueller's Day Off is one of my favorite movies, and I personally prefer to believe its intended message. But there's no ignoring the alternative interpretation once someone puts you up to it. Zach Morris is Bueller taken to the furthest possible extreme; his consequences usually revolve around detention or facing up to his parents. Granted, the latter is definitely nightmarish for kids his age, but the lack of serious, lasting consequences only lends credence to the idea that Saved by the Bell's entire world is Zach's personal playground. This show debuted in 1989, and he's using a damn cell phone! There's no more telling sign than the fact that Zach and Zach alone gets to call brief timeouts which literally freeze the world around him so he can break the fourth wall and sometimes make small alterations to the surrounding scenery. Most of his energy is either placed into getting rich quick - it's amazing how many of his cockamamie little schemes actually worked - or getting Kelly.
Not that the rest of the gang is exactly innocent. In one episode, the gang causes a teachers' strike so they can go on a trip. In another, Zach gets the hots for Slater's long-lost sister, and Slater tries to break them up. In the case of nearly everyone - including Jesse at times - motivation comes in the form of material gain. When Lessons are learned, they come consequence free. Yeah, that would certainly be the ideal situation in real life, the kids getting almost no punishment while their guilt gets the better of them, but real life is not a Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel. In general, it seems like these six people have access to the hip hangout joint, The Max, whenever they need it, to the exclusivity of everyone else in their world. In the school, there is not a team they're not on or a club they haven't joined. In one episode, a bunch of kids who are seniors from the 2003 class find a time capsule containing a video about the senior class from ten years before. The gang is featured in its entirety in the video, but what bugged me is that the six main characters aren't referred to as "members of the senior class of 1993." They're "THE senior class from 1993," and the members of the 2003 class keep talking about how cool they seemed and frequently wished they could meet them. That sums up the entire Saved by the Bell universe.
Engel doesn't exactly present his all-world lessons in a toothy manner, either. There are episodes in which he straight up tries to dodge the bullet altogether. It took him two or three tries to get the drug message right. In the most notable attempt, Jesse got addicted to... Caffeine pills! Yeah, caffeine pills are mighty dangerous as medicinal supplicants or performance enhancers, but is there a medicine that isn't? It isn't until the third season when Saved by the Bell finally sharpens its edge just enough to address the fact that high school students smoke pot. Messages of acceptance - which are there quite a bit - tend to also be lost among the show's rampant pigeonholing. Nerds are smart but weak, jocks are strong but dumb, cheerleaders are bubbly. It's probably also worth mentioning the fact that while the characters go through relationship phases and fall into and out of love, sex is never, ever mentioned. I have doubts that the idealized version of 1950's America was as clean as Saved by the Bell.
There are times when the fault lies more with the show's structure than anything. A good number of episodes wind up doing nothing because they try to tackle so many different things at once. In one episode, Zach has to deal with losing Kelly for the summer to a modeling contract in Paris, but to get to that issue, we first have to deal with the school store being on the brink and the men saving it by selling calenders of the school swim team for which they shot the pictures of the girls in secret. In another episode with another clandestine girl-related scheme, Zach turns an innovative idea for a video yearbook into a get-rich-quick scheme by selling the girls' sections as a dating video. What happens? He regrets it because Kelly is getting a ton of attention! In one amazing swoop of an episode, Zach has to whip up a quick heritage project or else he can't run in the big upcoming track meet. He half-asses it at first (of course), but soon is introduced to a tutor on native American heritage named Chief Henry, who tells Zach lengthy details about his Cherokee side. Zach aces the project, but is soon discouraged from running once Chief Henry dies. Matt Groening wishes he was such a master of such randomized plot jumps.
Saved by the Bell is notorious for the plot threads it leaves open. Screech once had a nice, pretty steady girlfriend by the name of Violet during the second and third seasons. Everything was going well for them. Then she disappears. One can make a good argument that the gang might have killed her, because after her breakup with Screech, no one mentions her again. (And since Screech had such trouble with the ladies, you could argue his motivation that he'd never find another girl who liked him like Violet did.) There's a series of episodes in which the gang gets jobs at a beach club called Malibu Sands and Zach falls in love with Stacey Carosi, his boss Leon's daughter. That thread is brought to a conclusive end, but the end of Zach's relationship with Stacey ends a lot more abruptly. There's yet another episode in which Jesse's stepbrother moves out to Los Angeles to live with Jesse's folks. I wonder how that turned out, because the show doesn't tell us! This is why the sudden appearance of Sometimes Tori is frequently pointed at with such a special emphasis; she sums up the whole trend of untied plot threads, and the actress who played Tori, Leanna Creel, was a full-fledged cast member in her episodes. She was even featured in the opening credits, a distinction which Ernie Sabella and Leah Remini - who played Leon and Stacey Carosi - were denied despite having been in about the same number of episodes. This isn't just a story arc problem, either; is also happens from one episode to the next as the characters apparently fly into and out of school clubs with ADD-like reckless abandon which would surely get them institutionalized in the real world.
For all its want to be a Lesson show, the plots don't exactly waver on realistic, either. Some are real, like the pot-smoking episode and the drunk driving episode. There's a fake ID episode, which I'll generously grant a pass as real even though fake IDs aren't quite common enough to be universal. There's also an episode in which the school strikes oil, which was clearly invented in order to force the requisite pro-environment episode into the series. How many schools have date auctions? Bayside High does in one episode. Another episode features a school beauty contest, and I don't mean the Prom, either - it's a straight-up Miss America showcase with the girls of Bayside - and also Screech, who ends up winning it. There's a rockumentary episode which chronicles the rise and fall of the gang's band, Zach Attack. It's not a necessary or realistic episode, although it is a fun one.
Saved by the Bell is fodder for those VH1 lookback shows. You watch it in amazement, listen to the characters, the fashions, the slang, and think to yourself "I used to LIKE this?!" The cast has mostly shed their old roles and landed on its feet - Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Zach) spectacularly played a troubled Police officer on NYPD Blue and was there when the series closed its run. Tiffani-Amber Thiessen (Kelly, and who currently goes by Tiffani Thiessen) has played many recurring roles on TV and currently stars in the TV series White Collar. Lark Voorhies (Lisa) founded a production company. Mario Lopez (Slater) frequently shows up to host entertainment and celebrity news shows. Elizabeth Berkley (Jesse) first nosedived in the infamous Paul Verhoeven bomb Showgirls, but has since been showing up in a steady stream of movies in small supporting roles. Dennis Haskins (Mr. Belding) starred in a Saved by the Bell spinoff before going on to guest spots on TV. Only Dustin Diamond (Screech) appears to be trapped in his role. His most notable ventures after Saved by the Bell have apparently been a sex tape and a tell-all book which alienated him from the rest of the cast. As these iconic teen characters have gone on to bigger things, perhaps it's time for us to move on and admit this show was well on the sucky side.