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written by Sam Greenspan

Tomorrow is the 30th anniversary of Saved by the Bell. I re-watched the first episode, featuring The Sprain, with some random thoughts.

Thirty years ago tomorrow, Saved by the Bell premiered on NBC. Now — as any pedantic SBTB fan (like me, for instance) knows, that wasn’t technically the beginning of the show. Disney Channel aired a 13-episode series called Good Morning, Miss Bliss the previous year featuring Zack, Screech, Lisa, Mr. Belding, and a host of other characters. The series was set at a middle school in Indiana. As the show was retooled for high school and NBC, all the ancillary characters (and, I suppose, a main character in Miss Bliss) were dropped and the show was magically transported to southern California.

So, yes, Saved by the Bell sort of began in 1988. But not really. Saved by the Bell as we canonically know it, Saved by the Bell the cultural phenomenon, Saved by the Bell the most iconic high school show of all time — that began on August 20, 1989. Aka 30 years ago tomorrow.

However, Saved by the Bell really should’ve premiered 30 years ago today. August 20, 1989, as you certainly know off the top of your head, was a Sunday. Saved by the Bell, though a Saturday morning tentpole for its entire run, instead debuted on a Sunday night to introduce the show to a wider prime time audience. This first episode, Dancing to the Max, wasn’t the real pilot the creators used to sell the high school version of the show to NBC — that episode, King of the Hill, wouldn’t air until December — but Dancing to the Max was clearly chosen for its marketability. The episode has some well-written jokes, requires no context to learn the characters, features an entertaining and engaging story, showcases some of SBTB‘s signature hijinks and, dare I say, surrealism, and works, full stop, as a de facto pilot.

In honor of the 30th anniversary, I re-watched Dancing to the Max for the first time in quite some time, and wrote down some random thoughts as I did. Happy 30th, SBTB! Get ready to start finding lots of gray hairs.

1 | Telegram?

(1:24) The show (and, therefore, series) kicks off with Max (owner of The Max) receiving an alert via telegram that there will be a dance contest in Bayside. Telegram? I know it’s more conducive to Max’s middling magic to make a telegram appear with slight-of-hand than another form of communication, but still. I assure all kids who weren’t alive for this that we weren’t still getting news via telegram in 1989. I had an email address already at that point. Telegram?!

2 | The Mario Lopez talent showcase begins with his dancing

(2:13) A.C. Slater was not part of Good Morning, Miss Bliss; the character was one of the new additions for the revamped Saved by the Bell. The people behind the show were clearly quite happy to have the multi-talented Mario Lopez in the fold. Here, two minutes into the show, he’s already showing off his dance moves; three minutes later, they have him playing drums; and about 10 minutes after that, he’s in a tank top doing bicep curls.

3 | Height shaming with no resolution

(3:25) Jessie’s subplot in the episode is all about her insecurity over being taller than most guys. This moment kicks off that plot, as a shorter guy asks her to partner up for the dance contest. She’s a lot taller than him — plus her perfect posture and special poofy hairstyle make sure she’s extra tall. Oddly enough, Jessie’s plot never really resolves itself with a lesson throughout the episode. She rejects a bunch of short guys (many in a dream sequence where she pictures herself growing taller and taller), then ultimately winds up doing the dance contest with the almost-her-height Zack.

And… that’s it. No life lesson that it’s ok for a girl to be taller than a boy, that no one will judge, it’s what’s on the inside that counts, et. al. And I have to say, as a guy of below average height (and as a kid of even below-er average height watching this), it would’ve been nice for the show to convey that lesson.

4 | The Bach set piece

(5:05 – 7:35) A famous sequence in this episode features the orchestra class (including all of the principle cast members playing instruments with various levels of believablity — Kelly on the cello perhaps stretches the bounds the most). The class plays Minuet in G by Bach (or, maybe someone else, I’m not clear on where that debate currently stands). When their teacher periodically walks out of the room to check on another class, the orchestra speeds up to turn Minuet in G into an upbeat dance song. It’s wildly unbelievable but also an inspired, high-energy, signature scene; one that stands out across the series and adds to the reasons why this episode became the de facto pilot. Also, on a personal note, after having my young ego zapped by Jessie’s height issue story line, seeing Zack play the same instrument as me (the trombone) temporarily resuscitated my self esteem.

5 | Casey Kasem’s cameo

(8:40) Casey Kasem has a cameo in this episode, wearing aggressive ’80s sweaters, and today, making a whole new generation ask, “So what, you guys had, like, celebrities who were only on the radio?”

6 | “Now here’s a new step I just invented”

(11:25) There are some pretty quality jokes in this episode but, as expected, a few cringeworthy lines. The cringiest comes when Jessie is giving Zack a dance lesson and tells him “Now here’s a new step I just invented.” The dance move is not good. The line is not good. The antique music player she’s using in the background is not good. 

7 | Mark-Paul Gosselaar actually is a horrible dancer

(15:30) But what’s the least good? Zack’s dancing. Zack’s plot in the episode is that he’s a bad dancer training with Jessie to get better so he can do the contest with Kelly — but he’s legit terrible. He’s so stiff, even once he’s supposed to be “better.” I’m not sure if it was teenage Mark-Paul Gosselaar being too cool to dance or if he’s just that bad at dancing — but either way, the infallible Zack Morris starts off the series with demonstrable fallibility.

8 | Trivia: How did Lisa sprain her ankle?

(16:00) Everyone remembers that Lisa wound up with a sprained ankle. How did it happen? Lisa says:”I kicked the TV and sprained my ankle. I was watching the new Revlon commercial and they discontinued my nail polish.” Revlon aired a commercial about discontinuing a nail polish?  What an odd thing to advertise.

9 | Weird Zack-Jessie romantic tension

(17:40) This episode features a few moments of serious romantic tension between Jessie and Zack, none more pronounced than the one here where he asks her to be his dance partner. Based on Zack’s ice cold relationship with Kelly this episode and interactions with Jessie, if I didn’t know, better I’d think Jessie-Zack was where the series was going. (Of course, we all know better, and it’ll take until the Snow White and the Seven [Eight?] Dorks episode before the Jessie-Zack tension is finally put to bed.)

10 | Seriously it’s incredible just how bad of a dancer Mark-Paul Gosselaar is

(19:50) The pro wrestler Ric Flair used to have a reputation of being so good at flying and bumping around a ring to make his opponent and match look amazing that it was said he could wrestle a broomstick. That’s basically what the dance contest finals are like with Jessie and Zack. He stands there barely moving, like a broomstick, while she works like a lunatic, including her creating all of the motion, high kicking and even ending with a full split. Lost in history is that of the three teams in the finals, Zack and Jessie finish in last place — the team of Slater and Kelly (rightfully) outscore them on the applause meter.

11 | The Sprain dance performance is less good than memory serves

(20:34) If Zack is doing too little during the dance contest, Screech is doing too much. My hazy memory of The Sprain is that Screech and Lisa hop around together, then it ends in the pose above. But that’s not how it goes. They aren’t coordinated at all. It’s mostly Dustin Diamond bopping around like a goon while Lark Voorhees tries to make the bit work. It’s as if the director didn’t get them on the same page before shooting the scene and then said, “Good enough, let’s move on.”