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 nonfiction—my 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.