This is one of those shows that I watched when I was younger (I realize I may be showing my age) without realizing how terrible it really was. Later, in re-runs, I came to that realization in spades. “Saved by the Bell” actually started as a show called, “Good Morning Miss Bliss,” which focused on a middle school teacher in the Midwest and the wacky kids she was teaching. The characters of Zack Morris and Samuel “Screech” Powers were part of the cast. For whatever reason, the show was re-tooled in the next season to star a bunch of high school kids at a trendy California high school called Bayside. Zack and Screech made the jump to the next series, which is what most people remember. There was also a short run in college which didn’t last very long for various reasons (mostly that it was even worse than the high school series).
The show featured mainly the following characters:
Zack Morris– he’s the preppie kid who could do the work required of him if he applied himself to it but prefers to think of crazy schemes to get out of the work, which of course end up more work than just doing the work straight out.
Albert Clifford “AC” Slater – a token hispanic minority and dumb jock wrestler. In the beginning he did not like Zack and even after they become friends he often competes with Zack (even disparagingly calling him “preppie” [which, in fairness, he was]).
Samuel “Screech” Powers – the spastic scapegoat of the group whom one assumes is allowed to hang out with the obviously cooler kids for reasons that are never actually explained.
Jessica “Jesse” Spano– the tall, gangly smart girl who is in fact Zack’s longtime friend.
Lisa Tuttle – the cool, token black minority girly-girl more concerned with popularity than grades.
Kelly Kapowski – the new, peppy girl that Zach and AC spend a lot of time competing over.
Mr. Belding – the hapless, clueless but well-meaning principal.
Most of the adventures start with the trite plot hooks that almost all high school sitcoms have – interschool contests or intraschool contests being the biggest. The wacky hijacks start when Zack (who is the main character among main characters) comes up with a crazy scheme to get the prize/girl/whatever. Zack is even allowed to break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience. Screech is either the willing but incompetent or the easily manipulated minion who can be counted on in both cases to say or do the wrong thing at the wrong moment and jeopardize Zack’s plan. AC and the girls, especially Jesse, are either in on the plan or trying to foil Zack’s plan. Mr. Belding was almost always being bypassed or otherwise manipulated in these schemes. As the series went on, Zack’s crazy schemes became a little less about what he wanted and a little more about his misguided attempts to help out his friends. The writers also started putting in more obvious moral messages (don’t do drugs, stay in school, etc.). Eventually Zack starts dating Kelly, AC starts dating Jesse although it’s obviously a bad match and they do nothing but fight, and Screech pines for Lisa, who is well aware of Screech’s feelings but won’t go out with a spastic moron.
Good points – Zack and Jesse have an established history as childhood friends. And this is one of the few shows I’ve seen in which a pair with this history does not end up dating. There is an episode in which they land lead roles in the school play that has a kissing scene, leading them to reconsider the standing of their friendship and of course leading to dramatic misunderstandings with AC and Kelly, whom they are dating at the time. But ultimately they decide they are just good friends, and all is resolved happily. Screech obviously pines for Lisa and ineptly tries to win her over, and Lisa does take advantage of his affection while berating him for his futile efforts, but she does not ever go out with him. She occasionally is nice to him, but again this is one of the few shows I’ve seen where this pair of stereotypes (beauty and the geek) do not end up dating.
Bad points – pretty much all the rest, but this is a discussion of those bad points beyond what is typical of this kind of sitcom (not stellar acting, shallow stories, heavy-handed morals, etc.). Most of the extra bad points are due to the character of Zack. He is the main character and is supposed to come across as a loveable scamp or dashing rogue. He’s the boy who’s just bad enough for all the girls to want him but not bad enough to be overtly dangerous. Except he’s not loveable. He came across to me as a selfish, spoiled kid who expertly manipulated his friends and enemies alike to get what he wanted. Even his misguided attempts to help his friends still involved manipulating them. Often he had to apologize in those cases, but he didn’t change his behavior. He was a jerk. A charming jerk, but a jerk nonetheless. There was also an episode in which the gang is discussing their SAT scores and Zack had a 1500, while Jesse (the established brain) had only a 1250. SAT scores are their own rant, but the point is that the SAT isn’t an IQ test, it’s a test of what students have learned in school. I don’t care how intelligent Zack may be, if he wasn’t paying attention in classes, he would not have done well on the SAT. His behavior in the college years is even worse and he mostly uses his charming scheming to get girls, although he has no interest in long-term relationships. One of his recent conquests laments to him, “You collect girls like baseball cards.” Normally I like meta-characters, and in theory Zack’s pausing time and breaking the fourth wall should have been enduring, but usually he only paused time to make smug comments about his own awesomeness. In updated slang terms, he was kind of a douche-bag.
Screech also wasn’t a great character. I don’t remember if Zack and Screech were longtime friends (although Screech was present in the junior high episodes) but it came out in one episode that Screech isn’t even that good in school. In that same episode of SAT scores, Screech had maybe an 1100, which is barely above average. I never really understood why kids so obviously cooler than Screech allowed him to stay in their group unless he provided some use to them, such as Zack copying his homework from Screech (if not tricking him into doing it outright). Screech may have had value as a minion, but it becomes clear that he’ll screw up the plan which reduces his value as a minion. As the show went on, the writers made Screech more and more spastic and stupid until he was almost nothing more than a walking excuse for slapstick.
Other bad points – AC and Jesse’s dating was also not good. She came off as a shrew, and he came off as a bumbling chaveanistic he-man. They fought nearly every episode and finally broke up before the “summer break” season. Mr. Belding was perhaps the worst principal in the history of schools. He was personally manipulated by Zack several times and never disciplined him in any way. He never even gave any of the kids detention. Some of the crazy schemes were borderline illegal and yet these acts are clearly never reported to the parents.
Mostly though the problem was Zack. He was not likeable. He was a manipulative jerk who was always forgiven by his friends when his plans went wrong and rewarded when his plans went well. I’m not sure what that says about the attitude of the 1980s that portrayed such a preppie jerk as a hero. Or maybe that perfectly incapsulates a LOT about the ’80s.