‘Saved by the Bell’ Was Never So Innocent
In 1996, Elizabeth Gilbert visited the set of 'California Dreams' to explore the cruelly unreal high school universe created by Screech, Slater, Lisa, Mr. Belding, Jessie, Zack, and Kelly
The Lifetime network has shared the first bit of footage from The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story, an upcoming TV movie that offers—you guessed it—an unauthorized, behind-the-scenes (and low-rent) look at the early-’90s teen sitcom Saved by the Bell. To coincide with the clip’s release, the SPIN editors have dusted off a 1996 feature, written by best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert, that desconstructs the high school myth created by Bell.
All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray. Outside, it’s a winter’s day in Los Angeles. Inside, on the set of California Dreams, it’s a warm summer’s evening, “somewhere on the California coast, by the ocean.” A young girl and a young boy are hugging under the artificial starlight. It’s a touching moment of teenage-American love, even though the huggers are actors in their early 20s.
“I’m scared, Tiffani,” the boy says.
“You can’t lose sight of your dreams, Jake,” the girl says.
Then they kiss, and the live studio audience says, “Ooohhh…”
There are a few boys in this audience, but the larger (and louder) part of the crowd consists of girls bused in by NBC producers from schools, Girl Scout troops, and church groups in the area. My particular row is stocked with wriggling seventh-grade girls, each one suffering from a different deadly symptom of early adolescence: excessive height, excessive weight, braces, acne, etc. When the actor who plays Jake walks by, the audience shrieks as one worshipful chorus. Crew members on California Dreams wear earplugs to protect themselves from how piercingly every girl in the audience loves Jake. Jake wears a leather jacket. He’s a bad boy with a pretty face and a heart of gold who owns a motorcycle, but plays the guitar and writes love poetry and even cries sometimes. Jake is definitely worth falling completely in love with.
“I watch him every Saturday,” an anxious looking girl confides. “If I was Tiffani, I sure wouldn’t go to college and leave Jake behind.”
“But Tiffani wants to further her education to advance her position in society,” I point out. The girls roll their eyes at me like I’m their collective mother. Then the tallest girl tells me that she and her friends came to the show today with a “special class” from school.
“Which special class is that?” I ask.
“Self-esteem class!” the crow in unison.
“And what does this TV show have to do with self-esteem?” I ask. They think about this.
Finally the girl with all the braces says hesitantly, “Because it makes us happy?”
In 1988, someone at NBC noticed that the network was losing its audience of kids on Saturday mornings. Not the little kids, who were happy to eat their Cocoa Puffs in front of any random image, but the bigger kids. Nobody knew exactly what the teens and pre-teens were doing with their weekend mornings, but they sure weren’t watching enough TV anymore, and it was scary. So somebody at NBC talked to a producer named Peter Engel about it, and the next year, Mr. Engel unleashed Saved by the Bell on the Saturday morning lineup.
It was genius—a lightweight, live-action show about teens in high school, featuring fresh-faced young actors in impossibly innocent situations. (Everyone’s innocence seems a little less possible since original Saved by the Bell cast member Elizabeth Berkley went on to star as the naked, greased-up, nipple-tugging Nomi in the appalling Joe Eszterhas vehicle Showgirls.) Still, you would have to go back to the beach movies of the 1950s to find such as simple, pure depiction of American youth as this. No sex, no drugs, no school-yard fights where someone gets slashed with a box-cutter, no desperate misery. Instead, in every episode, there is simply a Misunderstanding, which is then Resolved, resulting in a Lesson for everyone. While the cast, Menudo-like, has been replaced a few times by younger clones, this basic formula remains true.
Recent Saved by the Bell: The New Class episode: Lindsay thinks her best friend Rachel is trying to steal her boyfriend Ryan. (Misunderstanding). Rachel explains that she and Ryan are just friends. (Resolution). Lindsay proclaims, “Jealousy is the pits. It can make you act crazy. I’m sorry for not trusting my two best friends.” (Lesson).
The drama is interrupted occasionally to promote shampoo, cereal, and tampons.
“We’re giants in the industry,” Engel growled at me over the telephone. Engel talks like Kojak-era Telly Savalas. He even smells like cigar smoke over the phone. “We invented teen TV. We have a huge international following, because every kid in the world is just like the kids on the show.”
The kids on the show are a popular blonde girl, a popular blonde boy, a popular brunette girl, a popular brunet boy, a popular black boy, a popular Latina, and a popular nerd. There is also a principal named Mr. Belding. He is popular.
The show itself was so popular that it spawned a family of imitators. After Saved by the Bell came California Dreams, which is just like Saved by the Bell except that the popular blonde girl is actually popular blonde twin girls. Then came Hang Time, where the popular high school friends are all on a basketball team. Finally, there came Out of the Blue, whose popular high school friends exist within the confines of an aquatic theme park.
Out of the Blue is the most disturbingly utopian. These kids don’t ever seem to go to school, nor is it very clear what they’re doing at this theme park, although they own lots of swimwear. While all these teen shows have sexy-but-virginal leading ladies, Out of the Blue has the sexiest star of all: The character of Veronica is played by the actress Veronica Blume, a young woman who—like many American teens—is a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model in her free time.
The networks bunch these shows together on Saturday morning like a pack of best friends after a sleepover, but nothing has touched the success of the original.
“Saved by the Bell owns the 9-14 demographic,” Engel told me. “Teenagers all over the world love us.”
I called my cousin Margaret, who is an actual teenager, and asked what she thought of Saturday morning teen TV. She said, “I would rather pull out my own hair, one strand at a time, than watch any of those shows.”
“Is your high school anything like these TV high schools?” I asked. She said, “You gotta be kidding me.”
Ironically, many of the actors starring on these high school shows never went to real high school themselves, since they were too busy starring on these high school shows. This raises the question, What the hell do they know about high school?
Take Screech. Played by Dustin Diamond, Screech has been on Saved by the Bell for eight years. He is the Erkel-like character, a shrieking geek with a chicken’s neck and goofy clothes. Screech harbors an unholy love for the principal, Mr. Belding, whom he showers with mysterious endearments like “my poor feathered chief” or “my winded sack of air.”
“Everyone knows a Screech,” Diamond told me in a surprising baritone. “There’s a Screech in every school.”
Except that this Screech is well-liked. I’m sorry to report that in my own high school, an unfortunate creature like Screech would have been ritually tortured. Diamond himself couldn’t possibly know the pain of the true geek, though, since he was educated on the set of Saved by the Bell by a private tutor who probably never shoved his head in a flushing toilet.
Sixteen-year-old Richard Lee Jackson, an actor on the new class of Saved by the Bell, is also tutored on set. I asked him what grade he was in right now. “I don’t know actually,” he said, “I’ve wondered that myself.”
Of course, the problem with joining a teen TV cast after you’ve finished high school is the embarrassment of playing a teenager while well into your 20s. “I’ll never understand it,” 23-year-old Michael Cade told me. Cade grew up in normal New Jersey, and plays popular Sly Winkle on California Dreams. “To be honest, I only signed a four-year contract because I was sure it wouldn’t last. It’s the stupidest show on earth, but kids seem to love it.”
“The younger kids love our show because it represents something they wish for,” explained Abbie Charette, a coproducer of Sweet Valley High. “Most of them are pre-teen girls, and this is what they hope high school will be like.”
A recent issue of Sweet Valley High fan-club newsletter, The Oracle, included a word search game with these hopeful words buried in the puzzle: BOYS, DANCE, PARTIES, SLEEPOVER, SHOPPING… Teen gossip magazines spread the gospel of glee, too. One issue of SuperTeen featured a “SuperTeen Exclusive!” behind-the-scenes photo spread of Sweet Valley High. Every sentence ends in an exclamation point—”Brittany personalizes her dressing room by painting the walls periwinkle blue!”—cuing the reader to feel excitement about everything!
Charette continued, “We even get fan mail from little girls who can barely write yet. Our show is very female-driven. We provide strong female role models.”
It might be a mistake to assert that a television show provides strong female role models simply because it provides females. While television has never presented a drove of inspiring female figureheads, at least there was a time when girls were offered Bionic Woman (champion), Nancy Drew (intellectual), and Wonder Woman (goddess).
On the other hand, the stars of Sweet Valley High are gorgeous, blonde, size-6 identical twins with pushed-up boobs. One twin is naughty, one twin is nice. The naughty twin is sexual, but not smart. The nice twin is smart, but not sexual. Pick your role models, girls!
Peggy Orenstein, author of SchoolGirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap, refers to Saturday morning programming as “brainwash time.” She says, “Kids at that age need to see real people facing real situations. It’s good escapism, but it boomerangs back on real teenagers as they age, making them even more isolated because lives aren’t like that.”
Still, the producers of current teen TV believe their product is harmless enough for any kid. They’re practically proud of the racial diversity of the characters (one of each!), although the minority roles aren’t entirely revolutionary. On California Dreams, the only openly sexual girl is also the only Hispanic, a head-tossing, hot-tempered diva named Lorena Costa. On the set of California Dreams, I met Rosa, a young Mexican-American girl in the audience. “Who’s your favorite character?” I asked her.
“Because she’s shy,” Rosa said, “Just like me.”
Lorena Costa is not shy at all. A fiery chiquita, she is the only damn girl on the show who isn’t shy. But shy Rosa identifies with her because Lorena Costa is all she’s got. This is sad, but it’s still somehow encouraging that, despite all the brainwash, the girls in the audience have rich imaginations. Like shy Rosa, they see hidden features in bland characters.
Another sixth-grader told me she loved Tiffani—the blonde bimbo on the show.
“Why do you like Tiffani?” I asked.
“She reminds me of my big sister. Very intelligent.”
Still another sixth-grader said, “I like Jake best.”
“Why? Because he’s cute?”
“No,” she said cryptically, “because he cares about me.”
Kids are innately inventive. They deserve better than these shows, although they certainly seem happy with what they’ve been given. This was a good California Dreams audience. They said “ooohhh” at the kissy parts and laughed at the funny parts. During breaks in the shooting, they sang the show’s theme song (“Don’t wake me up if I’m dreaming…” goes the sunny refrain). And they shrieked for Jake. The audience’s baby-sitter was an NBC employee who answered questions from the crowd with exquisite boredom.
“Why are the sets so big?” one girl asked him.
“That’s right, sweetheart,” he droned. “Everything looks bigger on TV. Next question?”
The kids were quiet only during the last shot of the day. Beneath fake stars, somewhere on the California coast, the characters of Sly, Jake, and Tiffani said their final emotional good-byes before heading to college. In the live studio audience, the geeky young girls were still and breathless, watching. Real tears glittered prettily on their eyelashes. It was impossible to imagine what any one girl was thinking, but, from every angle, they all looked like starlets.