Lifetime aired its TV movie on the behind-the-scenes drama of Saved by the Bell last night. Sam, a lifelong Saved by the Bell fan, has plenty of opinions and observations.
I’m an unapologetic Saved by the Bell fan and have been for more than 20 years. (I’ve literally never apologized for it. I’ve never had to. At every step in my life it’s been a badge of honor, not shame.)
One of the most-read pieces in the six years I’ve been doing this website is 11 Most Scandalous Saved by the Bell Revelations in Screech’s Autobiography. Back in 2010, Dustin Diamond wrote a tell-all about his time on Saved by the Bell and it was so comically salacious it essentially transcended potential libelousness. I read the entire thing, plucked out the most absurd nuggets and turned them into that list.
Fast forward to yesterday, when Lifetime aired an original movie called The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story.
When I initially heard about the movie, I thought it would be based on Diamond’s book Behind the Bell; when I found out Diamond was an executive producer on the movie, I was sure.
It was not. Or, at the very least, it was based on Behind the Bell if it were edited by Ned Flanders.
Here are my 11 takeaways from the very first Lifetime movie I’ve ever watched — sorry, Meredith Baxter-Birney, it’s true — The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story.
1 | I’m not sure why it had to be unauthorized
I know a lot of the cast members spoke out against the movie, but they really didn’t need to. Over the past few years, word about Diamond’s book certainly trickled down to all of them and I assume they figured the movie would be that kind of smear job. It wasn’t. They all come off, at worst, as teenagers — and not the modern teenager having meth-fueled orgies on top of their common core homework assignments. They’re primarily positioned as preternaturally mature professional teenagers with microscopic flaws.
2 | It was incredibly tame compared to Dustin Diamond’s book
In the years since Behind the Bell came out, Diamond has distanced himself from it and admitted a lot of it was made up. After seeing this Lifetime movie which, ostensibly, lands closer to the truth — they should’ve stuck with the fabricated version. Because the cast apparently had less drama than any six random teenagers at any high school in America.
According to this movie, the following are the biggest scandals for each of the major players: Mark-Paul Gosselaar, having a thing for all three of the girls on the cast at some point… Mario Lopez, once bringing a girl to the set to impress her and kissing her… Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, enjoying one sip of wine on a publicity tour in Paris… Lark Voorhies, celebrating her birthday even though she’s a Jehovah’s Witness… Elizabeth Berkley, wanting to leave the show to audition for more serious roles… Brandon Tartikoff, going into TV and not skipping directly to sainthood.
Dustin Diamond gives himself the most scandals, mostly centered around some extra from the show named “Eddie.” In the movie, Diamond became friends with Eddie, then Eddie peer pressured him to drink straight vodka out of a flask and tried to use a video tape of Diamond smoking a tiny joint and quoting Wayne’s World to blackmail him into a role on the show. Mildly damning, but again, Diamond’s behavior isn’t end-of-the-bell-curve bad — plus Eddie comes off like the bad guy.
This is a long journey from Diamond’s tell-all book where he accused the show’s creator of having threesomes with Gosselaar and Thiessen… accused NBC of covering up Mario Lopez raping a girl… accused Martin Lawrence of abusing Lark Voorhies… and accused himself of going to Disneyland every weekend to have sex with 2,000 different groupies.
3 | The cast was visually solid, but their impressions were a mixed bag
The casting on this movie wasn’t as terrible as it probably could’ve or should’ve been, although the quality of the actors’ impressions varied. The slam dunk winner was Ken Tremblett as Dennis Haskins (Mr. Belding). He nailed it almost too well. The actors who played Diamond and Gosselaar also did a pretty good job occasionally nailing their characters’ facial expressions. The rest of the actors looked similar enough to the people they were playing but never made you actually see those people.
4 | Lack of canonical material killed me
The line between what movies like this are and aren’t legally allowed to use is never quite clear to me. This movie featured a lot of fake Saved by the Bell “style” scenes that didn’t use real material from Saved by the Bell, so I was thinking they couldn’t legally use dialogue from the show — then they did the “I’m so excited / I’m so scared” scene basically verbatim. (Even though here it took place in a generic living room, not an accurate replica of Jessie’s bedroom. You’re not going to find Zack crawling through the window into that generic living room.) And those fake scenes, of course, made me crazy.
Side note: As always, Mikey and Nikki got screwed — actors were cast to play them but never named. Milo didn’t even get an actor. Violet and Tori got mentioned by name but their faces were mostly obscured. Apparently finding Tori Spelling and Tori the character lookalikes was a bridge too far for the casting department?
5 | The music budget for this thing must’ve been tremendous
The attempts to duplicate the Saved by the Bell sets (and the thickness of Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s brown eyebrows) were pretty mediocre — because, apparently, all the money went to the music. This TV movie didn’t just feature period-appropriate music, it featured expensive period-appropriate music like U Can’t Touch This, Poison and Baby Got Back. Is this typical in Lifetime movies? Or did they break the bank for this one?
6 | They acknowledged the Saved by the Bell: The College Years but not the Saved by the Bell: The New Class
The movie ends with the finale of the original SBTB, the high school graduation episode. They acknowledge that wasn’t the end of the brand — with The College Years lasting one year on NBC in primetime. They fail to mention the repeated efforts at Saved by the Bell: The New Class, which is basically the Michael-Jordan-on-the-Washington-Wizards of the franchise.
7 | Where were the double belt loop Z Cavariccis?
They could anachronistically have the cast twice use the word “douchebag” but couldn’t dig up a pair of double belt loop Z Cavariccis for A.C. Slater to wear? Come on.
8 | Also, what was with Screech’s bowties?
In virtually every faux SBTB scene in the movie, Screech wears a bowtie. I’m not sure he ever wore one on the show. Also, they have him dress as Abraham Lincoln in one SBTB scene in the movie; I believe only Miss Bliss ever wore that costume on the show. Canon, people. Canon.
9 | Dustin Diamond’s “Screech” acceptance is a very different ending than the book
This movie is told from Diamond’s perspective, and his character arc wraps up much more neatly and zen-like than in the book. The movie concludes with Diamond saying:
And me? I guess some part of me will always be Screech. And you know what? I’m okay with that.
Which is diametrically opposed to the book, a 200-page manifesto on how Dustin Diamond is zero percent Screech and you’re a terrible person for even suggesting so.
On a meta level, it was good to see things this way; assuming Diamond had at least some hand in the narrative of the movie, it’s a relief to see he’s let go of a lot of his anger. The tone of the book was pretty bitter and sad — the movie, while exponentially more bland, at least suggests Diamond has found some peace.
10 | For some reason, the show had a scene of Dustin Diamond’s weird muscular fantasy that didn’t at all match the tone
I’m not sure if this fits into Diamond’s catharsis, but the movie had a brief fantasy scene where Diamond has CGI big muscles and gets into a hot tub with four women. It’s… I don’t know.
11 | I was hoping for more… something
Lots of websites posted articles after the movie last night, mostly titled things like “Things We Learned From the Unauthorized Saved by the Bell” and… there was basically nothing. The consensus biggest takeaway is that the girls in the cast pushed for “meatier” subject matter on the show like the episode on drugs. The second biggest takeaway is that the show was almost canceled three times. I’ve been a fan of this show for more than 20 years — I was kinda hoping the big TV movie about it would give me a little more to sink my teeth into than that.
I mean… 15 minutes ago, when I was looking up whether Nikki from Good Morning, Miss Bliss was spelled “Nicki” or “Nikki,” I learned that the original pilot featured Brian Austin Green, Jaleel White, Jonathan Brandis and a principal named Gerald Belding. THAT’S good Saved by the Bell info. A bunch of reenactments of milquetoast behind-the-scenes moments wasn’t what I was hoping for.
It almost feels like the Lifetime movie was working so hard to distance itself from Behind the Bell that it felt like it needed to just be a straight-edged, linear tale of the five years of Saved by the Bell. I don’t know if there was a happy medium, or maybe things behind the scenes really were just this benign — but ultimately, I’m just left shrugging my shoulders.
If I hadn’t decided to write this list, by now I already would’ve forgotten about the movie entirely. And as a huge fan of Saved by the Bell, wasn’t indifference the worst possible outcome?