After much fanfare, Lifetime’s “The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story” aired on Monday night to share all the sordid behind-the-scenes details of the hit ’90s comedy. Given that “Saved by the Bell” is a beloved piece of nostalgia by millennials, it was primed to be a spectacular viewing experience. Within minutes of the movie’s first scene, #UnauthorizedSavedbytheBellStory was a worldwide trending topic on Twitter.
Unfortunately, for all the hype, the two-hour movie didn’t really deliver on its cheesy potential – disappointing because there’s always so much to dissect about what happens on any hit show. Fights? Hook-ups between the actors? Network interference? Scandals?
Not really for “Saved By the Bell,” at least according to this version of the show’s history. There was a bit of drama, as the cast members sniped at each other and some indulged in underage drinking. But mostly the characters – who portrayed Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Mario Lopez, Dustin Diamond, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, Elizabeth Berkley, Lark Voorhies – spent time complaining about how “trapped” they felt in their roles as high school students.
Still, the movie – vaguely based on star Dustin Diamond’s tell-all book “Behind the Bell” – was clearly made with the show’s fans in mind and hit all the inside jokes as it traced the history of the series. Zack’s enormous cell phone; a “time out” to freeze all the characters; we saw Jessie’s famous caffeine pills scene.
The movie also chronicled the inside-baseball Hollywood process of making a TV show, so there were plenty of hilarious entertainment industry cliches. Here are some of the best:
Clueless TV executives
In this tale, “Saved by the Bell” starts in 1989 with an amazing scene of NBC executives discussing what kids really want: A TV show about teachers. Because who doesn’t love teachers? They decided to set the show in Indiana (to capture those easygoing Midwestern viewers) and call it “Good Morning, Miss Bliss.” NBC passes and Disney Channel picks it up.
The series tanks, because kids don’t like teachers. That’s news to the executives. So they come up with a brilliant idea to save the show: Focus on the actual students in the high school. “Forget the teachers, make it about the kids,” they marvel. “Nobody has ever done a live-action comedy with just kids.” One exec frets that no one will watch because it doesn’t have an adult star – another correctly points out that young viewers don’t care at all about adult stars.
They create a new show called “Saved by the Bell,” which will air on Saturday mornings on NBC between cartoons, catering to pre-teens. They’ll also change the setting to California. See ya, Midwest – everyone wants to go to school near the beach. Miraculously, it’s a hit.
Adults trying to control “misbehaving” young stars
When “Saved by the Bell” becomes a massive international success, there’s also a great boardroom scene among network offiicals, fretting about maintaining the show’s squeaky-clean image. One exec is unhappy that the male cast members are posing shirtless on magazine covers because it undermines the “wholesome” brand.
“They’re teenagers in Hollywood. They’re going to get in trouble, it’s like an unwritten law,” one exec says.
“Our job is to make sure that doesn’t happen,” snarls another. After all, there’s millions of syndication dollars to consider.
Time to lay down some unrealistic boundaries — famous, wealthy teenagers will definitely respond to rules.
Teenage actor rebellion
The whole movie is told through the eyes of Dustin Diamond (Screech), often upset that he’s cast as a geek and his co-stars make fun of him for being so uncool. Sick of being the nerd of the show, he acts out by drinking vodka from a flask and hanging out with a pot-smoking troublemaker named Eric, who is actually just using his friendship to get a role on the show. There’s also a disturbing fantasy sequence scene where Diamond woos multiple girls in a hot tub.Eventually, he gets in trouble for showing up drunk to a fan event. None of this is ever really resolved.
Also: Lopez brings female fans to the set to seduce them. Gosselaar gets mad that his parents won’t let him get a car for his 16th birthday and are putting his paychecks in a college fund, so he throws a massive temper tantrum.
It’s all used to make their troubles seem very ominous: “The more successful the show became, the more we realized how trapped we really were,” Diamond says in a voiceover. Ultimately, none of it is really characterized as a very big deal.
The actress who has bigger dreams than just TV
Poor Elizabeth Berkley. Not only will she always be known as the actress who did “Showgirls,” but here, she’s portrayed as truly wanting to become a serious actress – until her “Saved by the Bell” resume is a problem. She tries out for a TV movie about Eleanor Roosevelt (really) and overhears someone say, “I can’t believe she’s auditioning…I mean, it’s just a silly Saturday morning kids show.”
Ouch! Though she does get her way when she and the other cast members demand more serious storylines from the writers – otherwise known as her famous caffeine pills episode and the “I’m so excited, I’m so…scared” scene.
Heartless TV executives obsessed with $$$
The people in charge of the network don’t care that the show was only supposed to go four seasons and everyone’s sick of it. Dollar signs get in the way of everything. “The show’s a global phenomenon, no way we can stop now,” one exec says, and turns nasty: “The cold hard truth is without this show, these kids are nothing.” Nothing!
Fake love triangles
In the most half-hearted love triangle ever, Voorhies and Gosselaar are sort of dating – though he also has to spend time with Thiessen, as Zack and Kelly are the heart of the show and fans love them. Vooerhies is extremely upset when tabloid photos surface of “Zack and Kelly” hanging out in real life. “You know how the magazines twist those things around,” Gosselaar pleads with the most Hollywood excuse ever.
A happily ever after that isn’t actually true
The ending of the movie is wrapped with a neat tidy bow where everyone comes back for the special graduation finale – even though Diamond’s narration hastily adds that the network commissioned a “College Years” spin-off that lasted just one season.