by: Michael Samuels
The 90’s were a crazy time. So were the late 80s. Tired, weary, and beaten, the sitcom venue had been through its share of dramadies set in, or dealing with, the formative high school years. Welcome Back Kotter and Head of the Class were famously set in the best years of life, and had seemingly explored all the possible avenues of high school. When these settings were gloriously combined with those promiscuous scamps—teenagers—we, as the viewer, all feel young again, or at least felt old enough to feel young again!
“Woe unto the world of television!” we collectively shouted as a culture in 1988, “why have we not a definitive sitcom experience of our truest to life high school expectations?” Verily, the reigning Lord of Television, Brandon Tartikoff, gave unto a loving viewership his ultimate gift to the ages: Saved by the Bell.
Of course, that is the Reader’s Digest version of that glorious, sacred, and most tubular show’s genesis. Many scientists agree that the 90s would not have happened had NBC not forged of pure light and magic pf the epic saga of Zack, Kelly, Slater, Jessie, Lisa, and the Screech. But it did not come fully formed and realized, nor was its dinosaur exterminating impact truly appreciable until much later when the daze had fully worn off.
Presently, I, the enigmatic chronicler of high school serial, have been dispatched to revisit the series that knocked Shakespeare down a rung. Over the coming months, exepecteth thou a brilliant flash of a minute smattering of the unbridled divinity of the show that launched a zillion rip-offs.
As all journeys do, let ours start at the beginning as well. A pilot starring Brian Austin Green, Jaleel White, and that kid from Sea Quest that killed himself after doing Ladybugs, were cast along with Hayley Mills (as the best friggin teacher ever in a show called Good Morning Miss Bliss). The show was blessed with line art that paid homage to its contemporary Family Ties, fonts that lauded its senior Cheers, and music that would adorn only the finest of Wall Street elevators. The pilot aired in the venerable time slot of The Facts of Life, and once eschewing the riff-raff of later 90s television, resumed with only Hayley Mills surviving the development culling to a young Disney Channel. Yes! GMMB (as we call it in the SBTB game) was the embryonic version of the series we shall call “the Glory.”
A mighty 13 episode run was crafted by smithy elves in the heart of a television studio in Valhalla, or perhaps the United States, or Canada. It was show about Carrie Bliss, Mr. Belding, Cool Ass Janitor Milo, and Crazy Art Teacher Best Friend as they deal with morally parallel and conflicting issues that arise in the town of Onlyoneparent, Indiana. Yes! Here we see Zack “Attack” Morris, Samuel “The Screech” Powers, Lisa “Lisa” Turtle, and Richard “Mr.” Belding for the first time. Never to be seen again? Those other characters I mentioned, and Mikey and Nikki. They went to that attic they locked Judy from Family Matters in (until she escaped to make a porno with Lexington Steele). These core characters were not yet perfected though, their characterizations only starting to shine, whereas later they would beam cancer-curing light that caked ambrosia and manna on your television’s rabbit ears.
Over the course of this season, we see the beginning of the redeemable, yet precocious, persona of the messianic Zack Morris; whom, all hideous shirts aside, millions of young men my age would come to idolize in one way or another. The growth of this character at the onset with his literally bleached blonde hair, and probably white guy appearance, would come to define the Glory that would come in the reinvention. Intelligent, charismatic, lazy, and self-involved, the Zack is exactly the kind of kid you would expect to be raised by a yuppie. His television character status also allowed for him to grow into a caring, thoughtful, and essentially moral-lead troublemaker. While he did not yet grow to have the magical power to break the 3rd wall, call “Time Out”, or have the monstrous cell phone known as “Excalibur,” he certainly outshined all of his other cast mates.
The Screech was equally proto-formed in GMMB, however his role was clearly defined as essentially a side kick character. He was not yet entirely Zack’s lackey, nor was he quite as zany or mega-intelligent as he would grow to be as the series ascended through the ages, but he was still a quintessential La Screecha Majora (as they say in Fake Spain). I won’t go into many of the later development of this celestial geek, as I need fodder for later columns, but suffice it to say that Screech is the actual lynchpin of the entire Saved by the Bell franchise; he is the only character to appear regularly in portion of the SBTB Testament.
In the beginning, Lisa’s character was as developed as she ever would ever get. While certainly an amount of depth was added to her character, most of this was just a punctuation of the amount of sass in her ass. In junior high school, she had to hide the amount of makeup she wore to school, but in high school, she just wore makeup to school. The character arc is fascinating and truly explains why Lark Voorhies has had so much work since the Saved by the Bell movies. So. Much. Work.
Mr. Belding, to his credit, actually goes through the most evolution—especially from the pilot when his name was Gerald and his body was the body of another person. Gerald Belding, before he changed his body to Dennis Haskins and his name to Richard, hated his job, loathed his teachers (except for Miss Bliss) and was a pedophile. I may have made up that last part, but we’ll never know. The Mr. Belding we get post pilot is an administrator, concerned with requisition forms, budgets, and pleasing parents either by perfunctory action or wit’ dat ass; but he is also a man who cares for his students, his staff, and the frogs. Oh, how he loves the frogs, almost as much as the children of his Gerald Belding days. Recently, Haskins played a fat scientist, or something, in Mad Men and I was all like, “Oh shit, Mr. Belding is fat, yo!,” but that is superfluous information.
Nikki and Mikey are also proto forms of Slater and Jessie, but they are incredibly underdeveloped. Mikey serves as the peer, equal, and opposite number to Zack, while Nikki provides the intellectual and socially conscious “girl” role who loves the frogs as well. The frogs were a planned live dissection by the JFK Junior High science teacher, Professor Kidnap (I think that was his name, and at the very least that’s what he should have been called, because that’s the costume he wore). Professor Kidnap wanted the frogs dissected so the kids would learn how to kill without emotion. Nikki, brimming over with emotion, decided to thwart the plans of the evil Professor Kidnap. Mikey would often try to get the attention of the same girl as Zack…like that time they both tried to get Tiffany (Kayfabe Stevie), one of Miss Bliss’s former protégé’s turned pop star (all teachers have one of those), to kiss him in her regular persona. Stevie had nothing to do with ripping off Jem or pre-dating Hanna Montana, but somehow nobody recognized her face when her hair wasn’t styled. It’s a classic Kentinsian style of disguise.
The show attempted to deal with a number of social issues, like getting old, and being illiterate. One episode featured a student, who I always thought was a young David Boreanaz (but wasn’t), bullying The Screech into doing all his work for him because the bully couldn’t read. His leather jacket and slick hair-don’t kept his brain from recognizing graphophemes. The Screech was saved by Miss Bliss who confronted Angelus with the “YOU CAN’T READ!” teacher finisher combo from Capcom’s Famous School Fighter II: Examination Day. Another episode (the last of the Season/Series) saw Miss Bliss’s favorite teacher, Jerry Hatrick (or some other old guy sounding name) teaching the kids about how much the Civil War was awesome by taking them on walks and doing demonstrations. In this final episode, Miss Bliss had to kill her former teacher with a sword of chalk and take his power, for there could be ONLY ONE.
Disney Channel didn’t pick up the next season of the show because they needed Hayley Mills to film The Parent Trap XVI: Zombie Father’s Day. All was bleak, and it looked like the 90s weren’t going to happen after all. Then el Tartitkoficus, President of NBC, returned on a steed the colors of a peacock. Hey said, “Worry ye not, some of the cast, for I shall make Zack the new Bliss, and craft unto this soundstage the greatest epic sitcom the universe could even muster.” And a sigh of relief, the Berlin Wall toppled.
EPILOGUE: Most of the eschewed characters were fed to the Tick Tock Croc that ate Captain Hook’s hand, with the exception of Nikki and Mikey who lived with Judy from Family Matters and the first sister from Boy Meets World in the Attic of Future Porn Stars. Eventually, Good Morning Miss Bliss was retrofitted with Saved by The Bell’s intro, and transition music in the same operating room that made Steve Austin into the Stone Cold Million Dollar Man. The show was rechristened “Saved by The Bell: The Junior High School Years,” and featured Zackus Morrus doing a cold start to the episodes. They even had it make sense by having him state “Back before my friends Mikey and Nikki were sent to the porn attic and we all lived in Indiana before bringing Mr. Belding with us to Los Angeles, there was this time Miss Bliss, my never heard from again teacher, wanted to date my Dad when he looked totally different and had a different name; it was one of the times when my parents weren’t married.” This was good because it brought some consistency to the show since after the reboot, Saved by the Bell was meticulously consistent in its family histories, even more so than the bible.
And that just about does it for this round of RETURN TO BAYSIDE. Come back next month as we explore Season One of Saved by the Bell, and I’ll tell you how you can get a cardboard cutout of Tiffany Amber Theissan (age 15) to descend from your ceiling. All that and more: NEXT MONTH!