For adults of a certain age, Saved By the Bell, NBC's endlessly syndicated sitcom about the high jinks of six high school students, is a nostalgia object par excellence, exerting a special, long-lasting grip on the heartstrings of people young (or maybe old) enough to have been living at home, with a television, through at least the 1990s.
This deep well of nostalgia and affection was surely part of Lifetime's decision this week to air The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story, a made-for-TV movie based, very loosely, on the autobiography of Dustin Diamond, aka Screech Powers, Saved by the Bell's resident super-geek, who grew up into a kind of super-creep. Saved by the Bell seems, on the face of it, a sort of perfect subject for the Lifetime treatment. Teenagers doing outrageously naughty things that they shouldn't be doing and that we, the supposed adults, probably shouldn't find so titillating is a Lifetime movie subgenre. So is, more recently, the biopic riff on celebrities whom it is socially acceptable to vaguely disrespect. Not to mention the most famous moment in all of Saved by the Bell, when type-A Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley) gets addicted to caffeine pills and breaks down, sing-sobbing, "I'm so excited! I'm so … scared," is a Lifetime movie-moment transplanted into a high school sitcom.
But Saved by the Bell and Lifetime make for a lousy match. Unauthorized failed to provide even the bare minimum of salaciousness expected of a Lifetime movie. And, yet, just by presenting the show in a Lifetime movie context, Unauthorized undermined the innocence that is the core of Saved by the Bell's appeal, an appeal completely disproportionate to the show's actual quality.
Because, really — and I am now speaking to my generational kin, those adults who grew up on Saved by the Bell and all things Bayside, who can sing the chorus to Friends Forever and know Tori Spelling as Violet first — what is it, exactly, about Saved by the Bell? An adult coming across Saved by the Bell for the first time might scrunch her nose and say … this? You love this? This laugh-track show with softball punchlines about a rapaciously entrepreneurial and girl-crazy blond kid with a giant cellphone who never actually gets into any trouble?
In Unauthorized, as Saved by the Bell begins to come together — its short-lived progenitor, Good Morning, Miss Bliss starring Hayley Mills, has just been canceled — when an NBC executive says that his daughter loved the teens on the show, but didn't care at all about the adults. It's 1989. The executives hatch the brilliant and bold idea to ditch the grown-ups and make a show aimed squarely at kids who aren't quite children anymore, but are not yet teenagers. Without naming the name, the tween is born.
Saved by the Bell arrived in a moment of less: less TV in general than there is now and much less programming for tweens in particular. And Saved by the Bell aired an absurd number of times per week, at hours that targeted idling teenagers: Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons. There were no DVRs, there were no DVDS, but Saved by the Bell was, still, somehow, always on.
And it was more than just hugely prevalent and hugely prescient about an untapped demographic. It also dog-whistled to young teenagers at exactly the right pitch: 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.
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.
It is easy to imagine 14-year-olds — at least if you don't have any of your own and are used to seeing them portrayed by 26-year-old actors on television — as scarily mature and naughty and constantly entangled in the sordid sex-drugs-Internet sagas that so often come up in the news. There is a strain of high school-set TV show that plays on this — it was a CW specialty for many years, and has recently been revived by HBO's The Leftovers, in which high-schoolers aren't just naughty-for-high-school-students but debauched and drugged and sexually adventurous by adult standards. But when you talk with a real 14-year-old, with braces, with a backpack, possibly pre-growth spurt, it suddenly seems obvious that for many of them sex and drugs are very overwhelming things.
Zack Morris is a perfect avatar for sidestepping that discomfort. Saved by the Bell may not be funny, but Zack is all bravado and charisma. The show repurposed a great YA trick: Zack breaks the fourth wall and puts the show in the first-person, pulling the audience into his confidence. He is, obviously, effortlessly, a cool kid, but also a nice one: just having a best friend as dweeby as Screech would, on most other TV shows if not also in life, amount to social suicide. Identifying with Zack doesn't make you a goodie-goodie, but rather an acceptable amount of naughty. Being bad like the kids on Saved by the Bell involves testing, but never really disregarding, authority.
Saved by the Bell is a kind of a transitional culture object. It's a thing that speaks to us when it is age-appropriate, when we are developing into teenagers but before we have any taste. Eventually, we grow out of it. But it's a thing we loved so well and so completely that it feels ungrateful, destabilizing, and, in its own way, in poor taste to go back and skewer something so formative with adult eyes. It exists in the protected, special category of childhood nostalgia.
But from Saved by the Bell, hammy as it is, a tween could start to appreciate insouciance, playfulness, and what looked, at that age, like structural ingenuity. A tween could even, with the "I'm so excited, I'm so scared" scene, learn to recognize a tonal misstep and delight in the unintended camp of such mistakes. And having begun to appreciate all those things with Saved by the Bell, that tween, all grown up, would know that The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story didn't have any of them.