Saturday Morning: From Toons to Teens

I’ve mentioned that the DVD release of the first two seasons is horrible, and I’ll be talking more about that in my recap Wednesday. One thing the DVDs got right, though, is bonus features that are more substantial than most. In the case of Saved by the Bell, that means two documentaries about the series.

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The first is Saturday Morning: From Toons to Teens, where we learn why Sam Bobrick and Peter Engel were geniuses for creating a live action show exclusively for Saturday morning tween audiences at a time when Saturday morning was dominated by cartoons. More on that in a minute. First, let’s meet our interviewees.vlcsnap-2014-08-25-19h16m19s186

Mr. Belding sure hasn’t aged well. Little Zack must have hit him up for pain and suffering after his experience with Scott.vlcsnap-2014-08-25-19h16m25s5

Hi, random guy from TV Guide who I know nothing about and have no reason to trust other than having a relationship to a magazine about the medium which brought us Saved by the Bell.
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Oh, Warren Littlefield. They rolled you out of the nursing home to come talk about your glory days? Guess someone had to fill the seat for the late Brandon Tartikoff.vlcsnap-2014-08-25-19h17m00s100NO! IT’S HIDEOUS!

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I’d rather remember Lark like this than those not so flattering photos that recently surfaced.vlcsnap-2014-08-25-19h17m15s247

Hey, everyone! It’s Mike Myers’s Turtle Man character from Master of Disguise! Chase it away or it will infect this documentary with stupidity!vlcsnap-2014-08-25-19h26m43s45You know, Don Barnhart, I might have more positive things to say about you had you not directed most of the horrible The New Class episodes during the first four seasons.

So, yeah. The documentary is very much ten minutes and twenty-eight seconds of vomit inducing praise about how genius NBC was to air Saved by the Bell on Saturday mornings. The story supposedly goes that Brandon Tartikoff didn’t want to compete against so many new cartoons coming from ever increasing cable stations. Tartikoff wanted to capture the tween demographic that are normally lost once they outgrow Saturday morning cartoons.

In addition, no show had ever been created with kids as the stars. Shows like Family Ties and Growing Pains that produced breakout child stars were originally designed as vehicles for the adult characters. Saved by the Bell changed this by having kids star in it who were, more or less, the ages of their characters. This made the show relatable to teens and tweens and captured a new Saturday morning demographic since everything happening on the show was happening in their real lives.

Of course, there are several problems with their version of events. First of all, Saved by the Bell‘s history as a retooling of Good Morning, Miss Bliss isn’t taken into account at all. The series was not originally created to be a Saturday morning show per Tartikoff. Instead, it was a show for the Disney Channel, with possible rebroadcast on NBC in the summer months. Saved by the Bell came to Saturday mornings because Tartikoff was looking for a way to salvage his pet project, Good Morning, Miss Bliss, without Hayley Mills. They also don’t mention the fact that Saved by the Bell really didn’t explode until TBS started airing the reruns five days a week.

Second, it’s debatable if this was the first show with kids as the stars. Consider shows like LassieFlipper, Punky BrewsterHappy Days, and Benji, Zax, and the Alien Prince, where child characters may not receive top billing in the credits but it is obvious they are intended to be a focus on the show.  And let’s introduce the show that completely disproves this dumb theory:

The Wonder Years

Yes, nearly a year before Good Morning, Miss Bliss hit Disney Channel, The Wonder Years rolled out as a revolutionary look at a man’s suburban childhood in the 1960s. You might say it was a nostalgic show for adults, which is true, but kids, myself included, loved it as well. I argue it’s one of the best television shows to come out of the ’80s. And guess what? It starred twelve year old Fred Savage as the point of view character, Kevin Arnold. Yeah, most of the claims in this documentary are bull shit.

Hell, technically Saved by the Bell doesn’t even fit this since Good Morning, Miss Bliss was conceived as a vehicle for Hayley Mills. I think what they mean is that they gave birth to the industry of tween comedies such as those on Disney Channel and Nickelodeon today. If so, fuck you. Fuck you for indirectly making stars out of Shia LaBeouf, Selena Gomez, the Jonas Brothers, and Miley “God Damn I Want to Gouge My Eyes Out” Cyrus. Fuck you for creating the industry they came out of and then having the god damned nerve to come back and brag about it!

And, from what I can tell, this show was not relatable to teens and tweens. What tween has ever had to outwit an idiot Air Force agent who believes she’s an alien? What tween has ever brought her baby brother to school because her parents were snowed in at a ski lodge and know no other adults? What tween has ever had her principal come over to her house and eat pizza in her bed while shit-talking the opposite gender? What tween has ever developed a crippling addiction to caffeine pills in less than a week? Worst of all, what kind of tween gains ESP after a lightning strike and is used by her peers for personal gain? Meanwhile The Wonder Years was tackling shit like first love, first heartache, changing cultural norms, the pressure to fit in, and what it meant to be a family. Which one do you think was more relatable?

These idiots don’t seem to know what we all know. The appeal of Saved by the Bell was that it was goofy humor from six teens who seemed to have it all. It’s stupid. At times it’s mind-numbing. In the end, though, it’s mostly harmless and it’s what we all hoped high school would be like. We wanted high school to be an awesomely magical world that was full of excitement and new adventures every week. Instead, we got to high school and realized the writers of Saved by the Bell had probably never attended it themselves. But it says something that, even after all these years, people keep watching these old episodes in fond nostalgia, unlike The New Class and pretty much every other cookie cutter clone series Peter Engel rolled out for TNBC.

They go into some bullshit about diversity and how they were “color blind” in casting but fail to mention the lack of diversity among the background characters. Dennis Haskins even claims race was never mentioned on the show. He obviously forgot about Jessie’s white guilt subplot in “Running Zack.” He makes the bold statement that they had all the colors in the rainbow but forgets that neither Saved by the Bell nor either of its spin-offs features main characters who were Asian, Native American, or green Martians. There’s some bragging as well about Zack Morris and Lisa supposedly being the first interracial kiss on children’s television. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but I’m far more impressed with William Shatner and Nichelle Nichol’s kiss on Star Trek way back in 1969.

There’s some bragging about the Peter Engel clones like Hang Time and California Dreams. The TV Guide man mentions that The College Years was the first time a Saturday morning show transitioned into prime time, but he naturally forgets to mention that grand experiment only lasted a year. We get some bull shit from Don Bonhart about why no show like Saved by the Bell could be made today because that was a much more innocent time. Way to over-hype the ’80s. I lived through the ’80s and they weren’t as amazing as he makes it out to be. Plus, he’s probably not watched Disney Channel lately.

The documentary closes with TV Guide man saying that people still look back on Saved by the Bell with fond memories because it was ours. It was a moment in time. All this documentary has taught me is that the people closest to Saved by the Bell really have no idea why it did succeed and are making up shit on the fly.

Don’t get me wrong; I have much respect for Brandon Tartikoff. The man turned around what was then the worst-preforming of the three networks by being a cheerleader for classic, much-beloved shows such as Law & OrderHill Street BluesALFFamily TiesCheers, and, yes, Saved by the Bell. His wise actions probably saved NBC and completely turned the network around in the ’80s and ’90s. But this account of the franchise’s legacy is so white-washed and over-romanticized that it makes me want to puke. RIP to the legendary Tartikoff. I’d rather know what he would say about Saved by the Bell if he were still alive today.

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