The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story & the Limit of Nostalgia

For several weeks now, teasers and trailers for Lifetime’s The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story have been popping up around the web, capitalizing on the 25th anniversary of the show’s debut to tell the shocking behind the scenes tales of the beloved denizens of Bayside High.

Reporters have plagued the show’s former stars with questions about their involvement: Elizabeth Berkley (Jessie Spano) denied having any curiosity about itDennis Haskins (Principal Belding) dismissed it as mostly fictional. Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Zack Morris) tried to diplomatically distance himself while his Franklin & Bash costar Breckin Meyer delightfully ignored all his media training to declare Dustin Diamond (Screech Powers, but also an executive producer on the TV movie) a dick.

Despite all the pre-release rumors and speculation, The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story that aired last night proved to be notable only for its lack of salaciousness and the generic saga it told. Watching it, I found myself thinking that with a few tweaks of names and details, it could prove to be an adequate template for any teen-show tell-all (because we all know to prepare for a barrage of knock-offs: any takers for The Unauthorized All That Story?). Ultimately, the movie is a ninety-minute summary of what I imagine were the most family-friendly parts of Dustin Diamond’s therapy notes, with a script that could have been pieced together through a few simple Google searches.

The project was purportedly based on Diamond’s 2009 memoir Behind the Bell. (I say purportedly because I haven’t read it. The book is out of print and $40.95 used on Amazon. No thanks.) There’s long been distance between Diamond and the rest of the cast; for example, Diamond wasn’t included in People’s 2009 20th anniversary cover shoot with the rest of the original stars. However, Diamond has since distanced himself from his most vitriolic recountings in the book, claiming most were the creation of his ghostwriter, and declared that the movie would take a fonder look at the teen show. He’s right; it does. But, the movie commits the cardinal sin of scandalous reveals: it’s boring.

Diamond’s former castmates need not have worried, as Diamond is the only one who comes off as a disaster here; fitting, since in the opening moments he takes over Zack’s trademark breaking of the fourth wall to declare, “This is MY story.” The ladies are actually portrayed fairly kindly – Berkley is driven, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen (Kelly Kapowski) is sweet, and Lark Voorhies (Lisa Turtle) is moral – and as the driving force behind the writers’ shift to covering more serious teen issues. Mario Lopez (A.C. Slater) is a bit too studly, and Gosselaar’s greatest sin is not being better friends with Diamond.

The adults involved in the production are even more superficially sketched and are the worse for it. Parents are fun-killers. Saved by the Bell’s executive producer Peter Engel is a frazzled teen hormone wrangler who never loses his hangdog sense of bewilderment at his job even as the show becomes a sensation. Network executive Sharon Harris mutters mildly racist reactions when Engel decides to cast black Voorhies as Jewish-American princess Lisa and Latino Lopez as “Italian John-Travolta type” Slater.

All this bears the question: why? Why even bother watch? Does our nostalgia know no bounds? I might suggest that the sheer banality of The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story has indeed revealed some of those limits.

The original Saved by the Bell (itself a spin-off from the canceled Disney Channel show Good Morning, Miss Bliss) aired from 1989 to 1993, and in one of the TV movie’s more astute observations, it was something entirely new. The success of Saved by the Bell paved the way for the now ubiquitous child star breeding farms/tween shows on Nickelodeon and Disney. A live action comedy for tweens on Saturday mornings was unexplored territory; as one of those tweens, I was glued to its entire run. Zack Morris was my third pop-culture crush, after Jareth (David Bowie in Labyrinth) and Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing). In grad school, I often planned trips to my apartment complex’s gym around when I knew Bell reruns aired. I should have loved this movie. I didn’t.

Nostalgia – a longing for a past often viewed through rose-colored glasses of selective memory – is all about remembering something already well-liked as better than it was. Saved by the Bell doesn’t hold up as well as some other nostalgia bait – check out this Fine Brothers video of teenagers (including Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams) watching and reacting to the show for proof – but it still occupied a special place in the childhoods of many in my generation.

Adult nostalgia allows space within its borders to complicate and enrich the story of our youthful favorites; an example of this is Anne Helen Petersen’s recent fantastically in-depth look at the making of Empire Records. These pieces provide the making-of backfill that we didn’t care about as kids, but that intrigues us now as adults who don’t mind a peek around the curtain. Our nostalgia can even withstand scandal or takedowns, provided that they’re interesting.

What nostalgia can’t permit, however, is rendering its target mundane. Think about the disappointment when George Lucas recut the original Star Wars trilogy to include more boringly slick CGI and the reveal that Greedo shot first; it took away from the ambiguity and the messiness of the beloved original. Think about the trepidation from fans when remakes of cult classic tv series are announced. (Some, like Battlestar Galactica, transcend their originals while others, like Dallas, remove any of the distinctive flavor that made the first popular.) Think about the recent controversy when FXX messed with The Simpsons’ aspect ratio in early episodes, which diminished some of the show’s subtle visual gags. And finally, think about how boring reruns of Sex and the City are with some of the series’ trademark sex and raunch removed. All of these things took away some of what made the nostalgia-worthy entertainment special in the first place.

Nostalgia at its best can spark conversation and provide a safe space in which we can examine contemporary issues, something on which shows like Mad Men and The Wonder Years capitalized. But vapid nostalgia – such as The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story – suggests one of our worst fears: that underneath it all, our affection was misplaced and there was nothing that amazing about it, anyway. In the case of Saved by the Bell, we only need look at the later success of several of the shows’ young stars and the subsequent proliferation of tween entertainment to know that it was indeed an influential and memorable point in time, even if Lifetime’s movie tries its best to obscure that spark. If you didn’t catch the movie last night and it’s languishing on your DVR, don’t bother – instead, watch this two and a half minute video from 1990 of the cast chatting about their characters. It will satiate all your nostalgia cravings in a more nourishing way in much less time.