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 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. (Next week: The Brittany Murphy Story.) 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 just like Showgirls and a long-lasting career—a combination that sounds promising, but in fact holds zero promise—Saved by the Bell and Lifetime make for a lousy match. Unauthorized, which aired last night, failed to provide even the bare minimum of salaciousness expected of a Lifetime movie. While intimating otherwise, it presented the stars of Saved by the Bell as having lives almost exactly as outré as those of the characters they played, which is to say, not outré at all. At 18, in Paris on a work trip, Mark-Paul Gosselaar is served a glass of wine, takes a sip, and spits it out. He’s not looking for a laugh, he just hates the taste, having apparently never sampled alcohol before.
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—an NBC executive, Brandon Tartikoff, 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.