Ah, Saved By The Bell. The very words will instil one of two feelings in you: a slightly ashamed but fervent sense of childhood-based nostalgic joy; or a bitter, cynical lament over what used to pass for entertainment in the early 90s. Whichever side you're on, however, you may be surprised to learn that there's actually a decent amount of fun to be had in rattling through a boxset of NBC and uber-producer Peter Engel's impossibly glossy, unfathomably cheesy teen sitcom.
We'd never claim that a "ten best episodes" list of SBTB represented a high point of artistic endeavour, but if you remember any of the below, we're sure a few of them will crack a smile…
Episodes from the first couple of seasons are generally a bit more difficult to watch than those from the latter half of the show's run. The cheese factor is noticeably higher, the pacing often feels off, and although the cast were never exactly superstar actors, they're especially awkward in their younger years.
All of this is true of the very first broadcast (although not actually the first-produced) episode, in which the gang enter a dancing competition hosted by Casey Kasem (playing himself). In fact, the dancing scenes themselves might be among the most rancidly cheesy the show would ever produce. But then Screech and Lisa do "The Sprain", and all of a sudden… everything becomes rather lovely for a couple of minutes. Awwww.
It's hard to fathom why Zack and Slater ever really become friends in the first place. Zack may be annoyingly smug, arrogant and slick – but at least he has his good side.
Slater is basically just a monumental asshat to him throughout the course of the show's four seasons. In The Fight, the simmering tension of this unlikely and often fraught bromance comes to the fore, as both chaps find themselves courting the same girl. Oddly, despite this having happened frequently over the previous three years, this episode sees them come to blows for the first time in an argument-turned-brawl so monumentally epic in its cheesiness that it defies description. We don't think it was meant this way, but it's genuinely one of the funniest moments in the show's history.
Episodes centering on Elizabeth Berkeley's Jessie tended to be rare in the SBTB canon – and while we contemplated including the infamous caffeine-pill-addiction antics of Jessie's Song in this list, it's an episode that just veers right through "so bad it's good" and into "so bad it's really, really bad".
Instead, this third season two-parter introduced us to Jessie's… well, "wicked stepbrother", Eric, performing the classic trick of bringing a character into an established group and having them immediately puncture every one of their conventions. Eric is, not to put too fine a point on it, a scumbag – but he's the kind of scumbag you can't help but admire for basically doing whatever he wants and irritating the heck out of the Bayside regulars.
Mr Belding. In the 1970s. As a radio DJ. With a moustache. 'Nuff said.
This bizarre "half-season" was filmed as a block, and actually set immediately following the end of the third season's school year – however, in one of the many broadcasting quirks that plagued SBTB over the years (including some episodes getting their first showing fully two years after being shot), the episodes were interspersed among ordinary instalments, meaning that viewers would alternate between seeing episodes set at Bayside, and ones featuring the gang at their summer job at the Malibu Sands club.
Chopped out and grouped together, however, the Malibu Sands episodes hold up fairly strongly. It's difficult to pick out one, since they all kind of merge into one another to form a longer story, but it was good to see the series trying something a bit different – and in deliberately putting the characters in an "older" environment, it feels like a trial run for the later (and very short-lived) prime-time spinoff The College Years.
It also helps that Leah Remini's Stacey is a welcome change from Zack's usual love-interests – not least by virtue of having an unusually strong onscreen chemistry with him. Of course, if there's a downside to these eps, it's in the complete and total lack of Mr Belding – with bumbling resort manager Leon Carosi serving as a startlingly poor imitation.
A fun episode, built around – unusually – a pretty strong central premise. Well, at least once you get past the bizarre notion of an annual, agreed-upon "cut day" where every student agrees to skive off the for the day and the school goes along with it.
On this particular day, however, Zack already has too many unauthorised absences so far: and so Belding determines that if he's caught skipping, he'll face a suspension. So of course, the sensible thing Our Hero does is to make a bet with Slater that he can meet the gang at each of their locations that day – from the Max, to the cinema, to a very obviously indoor-looking beach set. The results play out in classic sitcom style, but there are some decent laughs here – and the episode also deserves credit for finally driving a wedge in the ridiculous Slater/Jesse relationship.
The episode that broke a million hearts. Well, maybe a thousand. Well, several, at least. Anyway, following the archetypal sitcom will-they-won’t-they pattern – teasing in the first season, on in the second, off again in the third – season three kicked off by suddenly, dramatically breaking up the Golden Couple of Zack and Kelly.
For many youngsters, this would be their first taste of the true heartbreak caused by the death of young love – although chances are, most of their own eventual experiences probably wouldn't involve a creepy older college guy (played by Patrick Muldoon, later to play a similarly creepy jerk in Starship Troopers) seducing a 16-year-old girl whom he's just employed to wait tables. And fortunately, most people's first breakup probably won't be soundtracked by the band Zack Attack butchering How Am I Supposed To Live Without You. But still, this was a major and significant development in the SBTB canon, showing viewers that they could never take the characters' happiness for granted. Or something.
As already mentioned, whenever Saved By The Bell decided to get serious with its "issues", the results were almost invariably laughable. But every so often – and we really do mean occasionally – the episodes could make a strong moral point almost in spite of themselves.
One such example is this second season episode, in which the Baysiders are introduced to Mr Belding's younger, hipper, long-haired brother, Rod Belding. Brought in as a substitute teacher, Rod is the absolute antithesis of their oft-mocked principal: giving them all the grades they want, encouraging them to use his first name, and upgrading their "senior class trip" to a whitewater rafting expedition. But of course, he ultimately turns out to be an absolute tool, ditching the kids' dream trip for a dirty weekend with an air hostess – and it's left to the better Belding to heroically step in and accompany the kids instead.
In its message that the sort of teacher (or parent, or authority figure in general) that school kids want is rarely the one that's best for them, the episode makes a striking and mature point; and in giving depth to the relationship between good old Richard Belding and his charges, it's almost – dare we say it – a bit moving.
For a show that's ostensibly a sitcom, it's fair to say that a lot of the laughs in Saved By The Bell tend to be at it, rather than with it. The unbearable cheese generally ends up overriding any actual attempts at well-written and performed intentional humour. But just as it could occasionally pull off serious (see entry number three)… it could also sometimes play the role of a legitimately decent sitcom.
Cut Day managed it, and so did this fellow third season classic, which is well-constructed around a solid premise, and genuinely funny. Zack meets – and falls for – a college student at The Max, so obviously the natural course of action is to get Screech to make fake IDs for the guys so that they can hang out with her at the "over-18s disco" The Attic, right? Of course it is. From setup, to carefully managed scheme, to unravelling (involving Zack's mother), this all plays out in an obvious – but fun – way, and the ridiculousness of the nightclub scenes themselves can be countered by the fact that it's actually a pretty zinging comedy episode. Fancy that.
Bonus points for being the last we see of Scummy College Guy Perv Jeff, too.
There are a number of Bell episodes that could be described, charitably, as "batshit insane". From the one where they all sing a song for Slater's dead pet lizard, to the infamous Jessie's Song, you could compile an entire top ten list of the show's most bizarre moments. And even then, the same episode would probably top the list as does this one: Rockumentary, an utterly mental 25 minutes which sees Casey Kasem (yep, him again) introducing a Behind The Music-style docco on Zack Attack.
Wait… what? Yes, it seems that Zack's band – first glimpsed in The Last Dance – have suddenly become the primary concern in the lives of the Bayside chums (er, except for Jessie, due to the fact that – according to Dustin Diamond's book – Elizabeth Berkeley split her knee open shortly before filming), and this episode charts their meteoric rise from garage-band teenagers to global rock megastars. It doesn't take long for an increasingly self-obsessed Zack to drive away the rest of the band, and then Lisa becomes a Gladiator, and Slater crashes his motorbike, and… oh, lots of other ridiculous nonsense.
Of course, it all turns out to be a dream, but it has a surprising amount of fun getting to that point – with a sense that the writers at this point really had gone "To hell with it" and tried to come up with the silliest episode they could. And it worked.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the episode, of course, is that it seems to serve as a template for producer Peter Engel's next hit show, California Dreams – which hit the networks barely a year after Rockumentary was broadcast. The two shows even seem to share a garage set. But did the Dreams ever have a song as good as Zack's – ahem – opus, Friends Forever? We think not…
Saved By The Bell: The Complete Series is available on DVD now, from Fabulous Films.
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