Our Monday night movie club has a rotating pick, and this week was fellow ISCFC reviewer @kilran’s. He suggested the fascinating-sounding 2011 movie “Saved”, but I assumed he was talking about this, got excited and that excitement was apparently contagious, because @kilran immediately agreed to change his pick. By the way, if you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you’ve got at least a passing familiarity with the show, as this movie (and this review, by extension) are strictly for the fans. No-one else would be stupid enough to watch this!
“Saved By The Bell” ran from 1988 to 1993 or so, with a few TV movies and several spinoffs (“The College Years”, “The New Class”) under its belt too. It really was an enormous hit, so that part of the movie isn’t exaggerated – tons of merchandise (I have a lunchbox from the show somewhere), huge post-show fame for most of the cast, still big enough to bother making a film about 20 years after it ended.
Its first season was actually a different show on a different network, called “Good Morning, Miss Bliss”, based around the teachers, primarily former superstar Hayley Mills as Miss Bliss. It was fine, if a bit saccharine, but was swiftly cancelled after one season. Taking the show to Disney and retooling it so it was about the kids, adding several cast members, it still didn’t really take off…until word of mouth caused the ratings to go through the roof. Huge success, with everything that came with it, then a couple of cast members left for the last season, but came back for the finale, everyone was smiles, the end.
This Lifetime Channel original movie (normally the home of weepies, or ultra-bland Christmas movies) is based on Dustin Diamond’s tell-all memoir “Behind The Bell”. In case you weren’t sure, we start off at some public appearance full of screaming fans, and “Zack” / Mark Paul Gosselaar (Dylan Everett) is about to do one of his breaking-the-fourth-wall bits, freeze time and address the camera; only to have “Screech” / Diamond (Sam Kindseth) take over and tell us this is his story, only with the rather enormous qualifier “the way I remember it”. It’s extremely kind to him a little too often – there’s a scene near the beginning where Gosselaar is rehearsing a scene, and Diamond’s goofing around in the background makes him (and everyone else) break up with laughter. The movie makes out like he could have been the lead if he’d been cast for it, ignoring the fact his face and everything about him screams “comic relief sidekick, at best”.
Its biggest problem is it’s too mild. Gosselaar and Lark Voorhies / “Lisa” (Taylor Russell) have an extremely chaste secret relationship, but break up because the show is forcing him and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen / “Kelly” (Alyssa Lynch) to go on press junkets together; Mario Lopez / “Slater” (Julian Works) brings teenage female fans back to the set after hours; the studio insists on them maintaining a squeaky-clean image both on and off set. This is about as bland as movie conflict gets, but all this is merely window dressing compared to two of the central elements.
First up, the girls decide that the scripts are too boring, and gently push to get more mature and interesting themes for the show, which culminates in the classic “I’m so excited…I’m so scared!” episode about caffeine pill addiction. I’m sure the show’s writers will be delighted to know that it was the teenage actors who came up with all the ideas; and given how much mockery that particular episode has been subjected to down the years, the only one of the cast to see how ludicrous it was at the time was Diamond, storming off the set in disgust. “Very special episodes” have been a staple of US TV since as long as there’s been TV – “Diff’rent Strokes”, for example, dealt with child molestation, child pornography, pedophilia, kidnapping, epileptic seizure, bullies, racism, bulimia, drunk driving and drug abuse (not all in the same episode, I hasten to add). This entire segment acts as if “Saved By The Bell” invented the phenomenon, and I love it.
The second “thing that definitely didn’t happen” is Diamond’s Asian friend. One day outside the set, he meets a guy who’s been working as an extra, who introduces him to drink, and eventually slightly harder stuff. This guy is just using him to get famous himself, thus representing the evil world of Hollywood, hangers-on, etc. There’s one bit where he’s sent to North Carolina on a press junket, and this Asian guy comes along too – which is so unlikely as to be a joke, if it were a slightly less Lifetime-y movie.
The two people who are treated like saints are Brandon Tartikoff and Peter Engel. Tartikoff is one of the better TV executives of recent decades, and was president of NBC from 1980 to 1991. That he’d let Dustin Diamond stroll into his office in the late 80s is a little on the unlikely side, but his untimely death at 48 means he was only going to be shown this way, and I’m fine with that. Engel is the producer who, at the beginning, was all “live action kids’ comedy? Really?” then went on to produce, to rapidly diminishing returns, every live-action kids sitcom of the next 15 years. All the Saved By The Bell spin-offs, “California Dreams”, “Hang Time”, “USA High”, “City Guys” and “Malibu, CA” are his, and he’s worked for ultra-conservative (and very powerful) Christian media mogul Pat Robertson for many years too. Another person you don’t want to upset, I guess?
Given it was marketed as a tell-all, behind the scenes story, it leaves out every single story that’s even remotely interesting, and that’s by far its worst crime. Lopez had a few “date rape” allegations hanging over his head for several years; Elizabeth Berkeley sued Leonardo DiCaprio (!) over him and his entourage beating the crap out of her then-boyfriend; Voorhies was engaged to Martin Lawrence, who apparently treated her very badly; and the entire cast did tons of weed and had sex with each other (apart from Diamond, who was significantly younger). Perhaps craziest of all the stories involves Ed Alonzo (Max, the guy who was a regular in season 1, briefly recurring in season 2 before leaving the show). He was and is a working magician, and spent a lot of time with Diamond in the beginning before befriending a young Neil Patrick Harris, who was filming on the same lot. The heavy implication from the book is that, while showing Harris round his magic warehouse, the two of them had a sexual relationship (with Harris substantially below the age of consent at the time, which puts Alonzo in some very murky waters). Harris has described Alonzo as his best friend, and Diamond as a personally unpleasant liar, so I’d suggest that bit of the book perhaps implies something that was never there.
If you’re going to make a film like this, there’s two ways. Either go all out with everything you can prove, or make it a comedy. Don’t do what this movie did, which is a miserable halfway house that reveals nothing, offends no-one (apart from fans of cinema) and, while full of laughs of recognition for fans of the show, has little else to offer. I feel sorry for the cast hired for this thankless task, and the mockery they’d have to put up with afterwards. I feel sorry for Dustin Diamond, honestly, his Hollywood upbringing, and the messed up life that made him think writing a book that threw his co-stars under the bus was a good idea.
Rating: thumbs down