Over at Slate a few days ago, the magazine’s television critic Willa Paskin mused on the recent Lifetime movie, “The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story,” a look at what was going on behind the scenes of the classic 1990s young adult sitcom. I have not seen the Lifetime movie yet, and I’m not sure if I will—maybe I’ll wait for the DVD release—but in the meantime, I find Paskin’s estimation of the original “Saved by the Bell” to be deeply troubling:
Saved by the Bell was precocious without being adult in the least. It was about a group of smart-aleck kids testing boundaries but never actually getting near the intimidating issues of sex and drugs—Saved by the Bell is a show in which dangerous drugs are caffeine pills. When a pop idol comes to Bayside to film an anti-drug PSA, the kids are gutted to learn he smokes weed. Kelly Kapowski, the most popular girl in school, dates a college boy and mentions sex exactly never. She and Zack, after dating for almost all of high school, don’t seem to consider it either.
If that’s not enough for you, Paskin also remarks on the show’s “innocence,” claims Zack Morris was a “nice kid” and that he practiced “cutesy misbehavior,” and suggests some of “Saved by the Bell’s” thematic concerns included “insouciance” and “playfulness.”
Now, I’m not a TV critic, but I like to consider myself a “Saved by the Bell” critic, so perhaps it’s not too forward of me to disagree with every word of Paskin’s evaluation. “Saved by the Bell” was not “playful” or “innocent;” it constantly and blithely gratified some of the worst, basest inclinations of humanity. Zack Morris was not “cutesy,” and he sure as hell wasn’t a “nice kid;” he was a backstabbing, disloyal schemer with very few good tendencies whatsoever, if he had any at all. He was, in fact, an awful person who blatantly flaunted authority and cheerfully threw every one of his friends under the bus at every opportunity.
Take the episode “Model Students,” in which Zack, Slater, and Screech come up with a novel idea for making money: they surreptitiously photograph the girls’ swim team and turn the pictures into a calendar to sell at the school store, without the girls’ consent. This is despicable and unacceptable behavior; it is hardly “playful.” Anyone who did this in the real world would be expelled from the school and blacklisted socially; at Bayside High, it’s par for the course. Jessie, Kelly, and Lisa are subsequently recruited to be models for a teen magazine, and Kelly herself is selected to fly to Paris for an additional photo shoot—but Zack is worried that Kelly will “forget” him in France, and so he sets about sabotaging Kelly’s incredible career opportunity, spreading lies and falsehoods to prevent her from leaving town (on a trip that would last only a few weeks). Zack eventually “lets” Kelly go to France, so perhaps it could be argued that he was redeemed—after creepily taking photographs of her, selling her image without her knowledge, and lying to her and to the rest of his friends multiple times.
Then there’s the episode, “From Nurse to Worse,” in which Zack and Kelly are considering going steady—and yet Zack quickly and cruelly dumps her when a new, sexy school nurse starts working at Bayside. Or what about “Miss Bayside,” where Zack falsely informs the entire school that Slater beat up Screech? Or “Check Your Mate,” in which Zack and Slater kidnap a Russian chess master, steal his clothes, tie him up and lock him in a broom closet? Or “The Will,” in which a girls versus boys competition turns nasty when Zack viciously sabotages a bake-off? Or “The Video Yearbook,” in which Zack and Screech turn the titular video yearbook into a dating video, once again selling the girls, without their consent, like commodities in a market?
The list could go on. And yes, it’s true that Zack “learned his lesson” at the end of these dirty, sneaky little misadventures; but then again, he never really learns his lesson, because in the very next episode he’s once again betraying his friends for petty personal gains. There were no lasting consequences for his awful actions, no real reason for Zack to exercise self-control or undertake any self-improvement whatsoever. And it never stopped. Through the one season of the spin-off show “Saved by the Bell: The College Years,” Zack was still a bad, scheming, nasty person. He never learned, because he never had any reason to learn; the show’s producers never bothered with it.
Far from being “innocent,” the show was borderline corruptive: it taught young children that one can betray one’s friends whenever one feels like it, use them with no thought of their own well-being, and disregard any obligation one might have towards anyone else’s feelings or happiness—and that there would be zero ramifications for such behavior. If there is any reason to despair for the future, it’s that one day, our business leaders and politicians will be the same folks who were reared on the unseemly Machiavellian principles of Zack Morris’s Bayside High. It’s not all right, and we won’t be saved by the bell.