the one with the tragic nostalgia


Everything I know about high school, I learned from Saved By the Bell.

Countless writers before me have recounted their own experiences with SBTB, writers smarter, funnier, and more poignant than me. But I have something Chuck Klosterman doesn’t: an unironic love of the show and the fact that it pretty much ruined my high school experience.

SBTB debuted as Good Morning Miss Bliss in 1989 when I was a paltry four-years-old. I don’t specifically remember watching it at the time (the only media viewing I remember at the time was A Nightmare on Elm Street. What can I say, my parents were… forward thinking.) and I don’t particularly remember watching new episodes on TNBC Saturday mornings (thought I know for a fact that I did).

What I remember most vividly about SBTB is how deeply it skewed the vision I had of my future high school experience.

I didn’t entertain thoughts of being best friends with Kelly Kapowski (I mean, I was obviously Jesse Spano, but that’s really beside the point.) and I didn’t particularly imagine a world in which I could date Zack Morris or even AC Slater with his truly atrocious Jerry Curl. But, growing up in Southern California, I envisioned my high school future as something not too far from the halls of Bayside High, an experience rife with a hang out like The Max (more likely to be an In N Out in my suburban Los Angeles hometown) and the potential for an oil reserve under our football field.

I knew, logically, even at the time, that these were unlikely and extraordinary scenarios, but I know that I also secretly hoped that we’d have a radio station or an advice line that would lead to wacky hijinks.

My high school didn’t even have lockers, let alone a drivers ed class with in-car (or…cart) training, not even a principle that could have pulled me from a police line-up.

Somewhere in the back of my mind as I set foot on my campus that fateful September day of 1999 when I began my high school education, I expected Mr. Tuttle to run a glee club and for someone to have a caffeine pill-induced freakout.

I’d like to say that these delusions were my own, that I was simply a mindfucked product of too much TV at such a young age, but I wasn’t.

Sitting in my honors world history class, I turned to my close friend and said, “Man, I wish we went to Bayside” and she looked at me and without a moment’s hesitation said, “We don’t even have lockers. Saved by the Bell creates unrealistic expectations.”

We then proceeded to have a conversation about it that lasted the rest of the day.

I’d like to say we learned something profound about our expectations, about the image that the media creates for the youth culture, about how SBTB is secretly some profoundly counter-culture experience.

But we didn’t. We spent what amounted to about four hours just discussing episodes.

“You remember the one where Lisa sold all of her clothes to pay her dad’s Visa bill?” “Yeah!” “Remember Screech’s robot?” “Steve!” “Remember the time that they did the anti-pot episode?” “Totally. With the Brandon Tartakoff message at the end?” “YES.” “How about the one where they make spaghetti sauce?” “With Punky Brewster!”

And it always culminates in the great remembarance. “Dude, the caffeine pills!” “I KNOW.” And in unison, “I’m so excited. I’m so excited. I’m so… scared!” complete with melodramatic Elizabeth Berkely sobs.

That’s it. For four hours.

And I have proceeded to have the exact same conversation at least once a year for the last eleven years.

I watched four episodes of SBTB a day, five days a week for the four years I was in college. It was a staple in our dorm room and the on-campus apartment I lived in for the year after that. The two years that I lived at home and commuted depressed me infinitely because I wasn’t home to catch them. Gratefully, my Tivo was. I own all of the seasons on DVD and I watch them.

This is not some fleeting, nostalgic interest like I have in Mr. Belvedere or Salute Your Shorts. This is an all-consuming passion for some of the worst television programming to ever grace our airways.

I love Saved By The Bell. Unironically and unapologetically.

One of my favorite episodes of the show is the one where Mr. Belding’s brother Rod comes to work as a substitute teacher at Bayside. He’s the perfect image of a “cool guy” of the era, long hair and cowboy boots, that kind of obnoxiously perfected image that was really only cool for about twelve seconds in 1993, if it ever was at all.

While working as a substitute teacher at the alma mater that had so failed me as my own Bayside, I introduced myself to the class. “I’m Ms. Russell. You guys can call me Ash.” I grinned and was blindsided by a mostly mortifying realization: I was Rod. I had somehow modeled my entire method of substitute education after a one-off character on an episode of SBTB who ultimately turned out to be the bad guy.

Saved by the Bell is not a show to me; it is an inexplicable cultural phenomenon of such importance that it has integrated itself into my personality and my professional life.

I am not what I eat; I am what I watch.

I know that I am not alone in my slavish devotion to a show that’s seventeen years off the air. SBTB is a language of my age, an utter cultural staple. I have never once met someone in my age bracket that hadn’t seen at least one episode and more often than not they are almost as intimately familiar with the show as I am. If you are looking for a uniting force for Generation Y, there is no pop cultural icon quite like Zack Morris and his brethren. I cannot imagine building a long-term friendship with someone who is not at least relatively familiar with the canon of what probably amounts to the single most important television show of my life.

In the end, that is, of course, what it amounts to: a TV show and a really shitty one at that. It’s not the great American novel or Citizen Cane; hell, it’s not even well-done Saturday morning programming, but it is the kind of media that leaves a mark, the kind that will likely (and probably sadly) outlast the great masterpieces of the ages because it’s left that mark on the hearts of a generation of pop-culture addicts who are never going to let it go.

Zack Morris will live on and I’m so excited.