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Being Zack Morris Essay

 

When it comes to “Saved by the Bell,” the Disney Channel/NBC sitcom that ran from 1989 to ’93, I was a believer. Even if I couldn’t be Zack Morris—the show’s fresh-faced, smooth-talking star, played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar—I believed I could be his best friend. Zack was best friends with both Screech, the class nerd, and A.C. Slater, the class jock. Why wouldn’t we be friends—Zack was friends with everyone! Of course, even as a seven-year-old I knew that Zack wouldn’t literally be there waiting when I finished elementary school, but I figured I would eventually have a best friend just like him, and that we would hang out with girls just like bubbly cheerleader Kelly Kapowski and strong-willed brainiac Jessie Spano. Our high-school principal, like Bayside High’s Mr. Belding, would be wrapped around our fingers, and the whole gang would end up drinking milkshakes together at the Max, or some equivalent after-school hangout, every Friday afternoon. 

“Saved by the Bell” was the first live-action television show, aside from “Sesame Street” and “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” that I watched religiously. But it was no fantasyland of Muppets or talking chairs. “Saved by the Bell” provided a glimpse into “real” Southern California high-school life, no hocus-pocus. As a kid, I watched it without an ounce of criticality. To me, “Saved by the Bell” was nonfictionmy ticket to understanding what life would be like someday.

As much as I believed in the show’s characters, I also bought its plotlines. It seemed perfectly normal for high-school students to start a pasta sauce company (using beakers from the science lab) that would become an overnight success. Or that, with their parents out of town, high-school guys might spontaneously reenact the Tom Cruise socks-and-underwear sliding/dancing scene from Risky Business, or that one day my classmates and I would all manage to get summer jobs at the same beach club (a plotline corroborated by “Beverly Hills 90210”). Of course, I resolved that, unlike Jessie, I would never, ever, ever take a caffeine pill (but that, if I did, I might end up changing the lyrics of the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited” to Jessie’s breathy, panting “I’m So Scaaaared!”).

I was enamored of the show’s aesthetics. From the opening credits’ poppy squiggles, buoyant comic-book graphics and infectious jingle, to Zack’s color-blocked Jams and Maui & Sons outfits, the show blended in perfectly with Saturday morning’s cartoonishly colorful TV Guide lineup (“The Smurfs,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks”). Zack’s personal style was bright, pop and tech-savvy. He had a computer-graphics-inspired comforter cover, and he was constantly rolling calls on his brick-sized cell phone. The Max had a retro-futuristic decor that combined the best visual elements of my three favorite childhood spots: ’50s-themed burger joint Johnny Rockets, the Bigg Chill Frozen Yogurt shop that my father opened in 1987, and the Westwood Village video-game arcade. Lots of laminates, neon and glass brick. The Max was an art director’s Memphis Group-inspired folly, and it was just about the coolest-looking place I could ever imagine chillin’ with my seven- and eight-year-old friends.

In “Being Zack Morris,” an essay in Chuck Klosterman’s 2003 book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, the pop-culture critic performed a hard-nosed autopsy on the show, linking its “watchability” to the “fundamental truth of its staggering unreality.” For Klosterman, “Saved by the Bell” presented an “ultrasimplistic, hyperstereotypical high school experience” via cliché after cliché. “Every decision [the characters] made was generated by whatever the audience would expect them to do; it was almost like the people watching the show wrote the dialogue.” Klosterman wrote that he “could watch ‘Saved by the Bell’ without caring and still have it become a minor part of [his] life.”

Klosterman is 10 years older than I am. When “Saved by the Bell” premiered in 1989, he was a jaded high-school senior waving goodbye to the ’80s with one hand and hoisting himself onto the grunge train with the other. He assumed that the audience always knew what was going to happen next—to him, this was the show’s winning secret. However, as a child I had no idea what might happen if Jessie didn’t stop taking those caffeine pills. I watched devoutly—riveted, obsessed and consistently surprised. For Klosterman, the show’s transcendence lay in its ability to become minor. For me, it stemmed from the simple fact that the show described everything I wanted to know.

By the time I was a high-school junior, I could no longer sit through a single rerun of the show. I was en route to college, to critical thinking, to a better place. I couldn’t stomach the direct-to-camera monologues, the corny moralizing or the Day-Glo colors. I believed I had left “Saved by the Bell” behind.  

However, in the summer of 1999, just before my senior year, I joined Pro Gym, a Brentwood workout club owned by Love Story star Ryan O’Neal. I spent hours there, working out in its slightly run-down space off San Vicente, near Jamba Juice and California Pizza Kitchen. Pro Gym was like “Cheers”—everybody knew your name. One day, Elizabeth Berkley, who had played Jessie, came into the gym to work out. She and her husband, Greg, were friendly and chit-chatty with everyone, including me. Jessie “I’m so Scaaaared” Spano became my gym buddy. I convinced myself that it wasn’t weird to say “hi” to her and Greg. I was an adult (sort of) and so were they, and saying hi and making small talk was a totally normal thing for adults to do. Much to my shock, we eventually exchanged numbers. We remain friendly to this day.

When I was a kid, “Saved by the Bell” was the realest thing I knew. As I grew up, it became the “ultrasimplistic, hyperstereotypical and staggeringly unreal” cliché that Klosterman would eventually describe. But then, at Pro Gym, the unexpected happened. Jessie Spano stepped out of the television and into my life, as if to remind me that she was right there all along, a very real part of my DNA. And in that way, “Saved by the Bell” became real again, entertainment became tangible, its raw material became my gym buddy and I resolved to work with it—clichés, Day-Glo colors and all.  


 

Ted Turner has to be proud of his superstation network TBS. In the '80s, the network was very much like other cable networks in that the primary programming material came from old TV series. For millions of Gen-Xers, Superstation TBS acted as sort of an afterschool babysitter with reruns of The Flinstones and The Brady Bunch usually running from when school got out until around dinner time save the occasional Braves baseball game – much to the disappointment of every kid who wasn’t a Braves fan.

In the late '90s and early '00s, TBS grew more ambitious like similar cable channels. Reruns of yesteryear (Addams Family, Leave It to Beaver) were replaced with more contemporary reruns (see Friends). Original content soon found its way into programming with shows like My Boys and Tyler Perry sitcoms. Last year, the network showed it could hang with the big boys by recruiting Conan O'Brien to its late night slot (at the expense of George Lopez, who was bumped an hour).

So far, TBS shown it can change with its audience. Primetime reruns of Family Guy and The Office have replaced reruns of Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond in prime-time, but the network has had far less success trying to alter its morning formula. Much like a smoking or junk food addiction, TBS seems to have facilitated a habit for a few hundred thousand viewers every day: two hours of Saved By the Bell reruns.

As Chuck Klosterman stated in his famous essay "Being Zach Morris" in his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Saved By the Bell is not a great show by any stretch. In fact, if you were to compare the show to the most popular teen-oriented show today, Glee, most of the protagonists in Saved by the Bell would be depicted as the enemies. While Glee's cast at least tries to embody the high school outcast mold, the Saved by Bell gang represent the ruling class in almost a tyrannical way. Keep a counter running every time Salter threatens a nerd or when Zach extorts money from a geek and you couldn’t ask for a better pair of villains on Glee today.

In his college years, Klosterman said he watched the show almost 20 times a week. But the viewing experience usually involved him dropping by a neighbor’s house and watching the show passively, much like having your iPod on shuffle while you work or study. He described the experience of watching Saved By the Bell reruns as being in a "parasitic relationship". He apparently wasn’t alone.

For almost 15 years, Saved By the Bell has been part of the TBS lineup. It’s the only holdout from the station’s earlier era. And any time the station has tried messing with the morning formula, they’ve been met with serious fan backlash. It may even be inaccurate to call it "fan" backlash. For many, watching Saved By the Bell in the morning may be the first thing they do. Because watching the show requires almost zero cognitive ability, the show could easily exist as a gateway between stage 1 sleep and waking up.

Whatever the reason, for almost a decade, people have expressed their resistance to anything less than two hours of the show. The most recent case being petitions posted on Facebook and Twitter pages soon after reruns of Home Improvement cut into the first hour of SBTBreruns. To take the side of those protesting, it’s not like TBS has done any favors with its alternatives, consider the following two replacements:

The Megan Mullally Show

This experiment was doomed from the beginning. If you were to look at the typical Saved by the Bell viewer on TBS in the mornings, chances are 95 percent of them have seen each episode at least 50 times. Whether they genuinely love the show or watch the show as a "hate fix" (such as listening to The Rush Limbaugh show if you’re a non-dittohead), they know the score Zach got on his SAT, how much Slater went for on a date auction and every scathing comment Lisa shoots at Screech. For viewers used to ten years of predictability, the last thing you want to unveil when they wake up is something as unpredictable as a talk show.

Some viewers may treat Saved By the Bell as sort of a filler in their morning TV diet. It may only exist to fill in the gaps between the local traffic and weather reports and Sports Center. Saved By the Bell is a near perfect fit for this purpose. A talk show is not.

Yes, Dear

The Megan Mullally Show proved that early-morning TBS viewers do not like the unpredictable. So for almost a week last fall, programming executives carved into the two-hour SBTB lineup with reruns of Yes, Dear. As for reruns, TBS couldn’t have chosen a worse show.

Mention Saved By the Bell and people who know the show react in a myriad of ways. They laugh at the show’s absurdity, they reminisce about late ‘80s nostalgia, or they react in an anger bordering on violent. But the show elicits a reaction. The same can’t be said for Yes, Dear. It’s a show as forgettable as any of the sitcoms NBC tried to roll out every fall to fill in the gap in their “Must See TV” Thursday lineup. Regardless of how you feel about SBTB, it deserved a better replacement. And while no major announcement was made, after almost a week of Yes, Dear reruns, Saved By the Bell was back in its two-hour time slot.

For almost six months, the two-hour Saved By the Bell block remained static. That changed in early May when reruns of Home Improvement began appearing, cutting into an hour of Saved By the Bell’s lineup. The Facebook campaign went up and more than a few Twitter posts declared "TBS WTF? Where’s #SBTB?" However, if the network is serious about weaning fans off an almost 15-year addiction, they could do worse. Home Improvement may not have anything as comedic as "Jessie’s Song", but for many Gen-Yers, it at least elicits a memory. Each episode is as formulaic as every Saved by the Bell episode, and requires about as much mental ability as hitting the snooze alarm. As I write this, it looks like TBS may have finally found a ‘gateway’ show. Let’s see if viewers will accept a substitute morning fix.

The Megan Mullally Show

Amazon