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I've been watching a lot of Saved by the Bell lately. I’m not sure if you know this, but it’s on for 2 hours…every morning. Yep, that’s every single day you can get 4 whole episodes of Zack, Kelly, Jessie, Slater, Lisa and Screech from 7-9 AM. A few years ago when I learned this to be true I would watch about 3 episodes per day and after about a year, I needed a break. But I've recently gotten back on the wagon, watching a far reduced number of episodes so I don’t feel the day to take an extreme break once again.
Watching Saved by the Bell as an adult is a far different experience from watching it as a child. Additionally, watching it in 2011 versus 1995 is also particularly interesting. There’s nothing new or revolutionary about a show about teenagers taking place in a high school. Bell was not the first and is most definitely not the last. The stock characters also all remain the same – the jock, the nerd, the cheerleader, the spoiled fashionista, the playboy and the feminist. Just take a look at Glee, they are all there.
Watching Saved by the Bell today is a fun trip down memory lane. It seems like each episode was a big one. From the “I’m so excited…I’m so scared” episode to when Kelly falls for Jeff , the hot college guy, and who can forget the Miss Bliss years? That show was part of pretty much my entire childhood it continued onto the college years and eventually the special “Zack and Kelly Wedding” made for TV movie. If you count Saved by the Bell: The New Class (which I admittedly never watched), the franchise lasted an impressive 13 years, from 1987 to 2000. It remains a cultuaral institution for those of us who grew up on it. It inspired lingo (Tell me that “preppy” doesn’t immediately bring Zack to mind, and who hasn’t referenced a “Zack Morris cell phone to describe their outdated technology?), fashion (I’m pretty sure I started by scrunchi collection to emulate Kelly’s) and countless others. I even dressed up as Kelly Kapowski (in her waitress uniform) this year for a costume party and I was immediately recognized as such without once having to explain the costume.
As fans, we also let a lot of things go. We don’t question how the principle and some students of Jefferson Middle School in Indiana were suddenly and without explanation transported to Bayside High School or how Jesse and Zack could have been best friends from the time they were little if she wasn’t in the Miss Bliss episodes. We ignore the fact that there is zero continuity of Zack and Kelly’s relationship. Or how there was somehow an extra year of high school after graduation, but this time a biker chick named Tori was around and Kelly and Jesse were gone. I guess, when you love something, you just let the little things go.
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The only show that is on the air today that I can really compare Bell to is Glee. They both take place in high schools with only rare appearances by parents and an educator who guides the kids through those perilous High School years. However, 15 years after Bell went off the air, these 21st Century kids are dealing with issues of bullying, teen pregnancy, drinking, homophobia and discovering their own sexuality. It’s a near certainty that almost two decades ago kids were facing the same issues as they are now. Moreover, there were shows of that time period that did deal with those issues head on, such as My So Called Life. But shows like Life did not last long, definitely not as long as Bell did – this one in particular was on for one primetime season before getting axed despite its loyal, but small, audience. It sounds cliché to say so, but it seems as though the world simply was not ready to have their kids exposed to such issues. On the flip side, a show on broadcast television geared towards adolescents like Bell skirts these issues today would get nowhere and most likely not have the same popularity as it did back then.
So what changed in the last number of years that would create this huge split? My take is that the Internet changed everything. Today, more people know more information than ever before in history. To keep things “innocent” would be akin to lying and not being true to your target audience. Because of the dissemination of information we, the public, know about the pervasiveness issues that were once not being spoken about openly. For instance, bullying, especially based on kids’ sexual preferences have become a real issue in the public forum of late and the availability of information is largely to thank for that. Furthermore, with so many entertainment options, if programming, especially kids’ programming, isn’t honest and doesn’t address their needs they’ll go elsewhere for it.
So, does Saved by the Bell hold up? Objectively? Not really. I can’t say for certain, but my guess is that when TBS decided to run it for 20 hours a week they weren’t looking to build a new audience of Bell fans. More likely, they realized that the generation of kids who grew up on it were now of working age and not in the morning talk show demographics so this would give them a different and nostalgic show to watch as they got ready for their 9-5s. I know that’s the case for me. It reminds me of the optimism and carefree-ness I had as a kid and helps me hold onto it as I journey on into adulthood.