Season four of Saved by the Bell is simultaneously the weirdest and least consistent of the seasons. Pretty much every source from interviews to documentaries to the Lifetime biopic each confirm that this was intended to be the shortest season since the first season but NBC, at the last moment, decided to expand the number of episodes for maximum profit. This would normally be a disastrous move but, as we’ll see, it didn’t turn out as bad as it could have…or as bad as most people remember.
This is a complicated season to recap as well since the twenty-six episodes fit into four categories, none of which really have anything to do with one another: Kelly-Jessie episodes, Tori episodes, clip show episodes, and out of season episodes. I’ll deal with the first two categories in a moment. All I’ll say about the clip show episodes is they’re horrible, each more terrible than the last, and completely worth skipping unless you have a penchant for the most boring episodes of the series. They’re not even worth putting in my bottom episodes list because they’re not even real episodes. I won’t talk much about the out of season episodes but they will come up later.
The Kelly-Jessie episodes are the eleven that were intended to air this season. They were considered to be an epilogue for the series, featuring the gang’s senior year and providing some closure as to the series. And, to say the least, these episodes were underwhelming. They were so all over the map and provided no character development that lasted longer than an episode. Zack Morris and Lisa date…and then never speak of it again. Screech dates Punky Brewster and then break up with her. Slater and Jessie & Zack Morris and Kelly renew their relationships and redeclare their love for one another…and then never mention it again. With the exceptions of “The Fight” and “Graduation,” I really can’t understand the purpose of most of these episodes.
This doesn’t even take into account how stupid many of these episodes are. A square dance senior prom would bring open rebellion from the students. Nobody cares about Screech’s love life or his spaghetti sauce. And we get a completely unbelievable excuse to put Zack Morris in charge of the school and a resolution to the plot that left a Donald Trump presidency looking plausible by comparison. All of our favorite characters were really at their worst in these episodes, as we’ll discuss more in characterization. If these had been the only episodes of the season, this would have been my least favorite of the series.
The Tori episodes are the ones usually remembered as bad and I think the reason has been voiced by many people in the comments: many people were bitter that Tori replaced Kelly and Jessie. And I will be the first to say she’s not a good replacement for Kelly and Jessie. With that being said, she’s not bad as people make her out to be and, more surprising, the episodes featuring her this season are of a higher quality overall than the Kelly-Jessie episodes. Even the worst Tori episodes, like “Day of Detention” and “School Song” are a lot better than the worst Kelly-Jessie episodes. Tori brought something different to the series and, for that, I’m impressed.
It’s even more impressive considering these episodes were kind of ordered at the last minute to pad out the season. The writers could have very easily just blow off these episodes and not done crap with them and, though we would have hated the episodes, we wouldn’t have been able to blame them. Instead we got some high quality episodes that aged well and are enjoyable. There’s faults with the episodes, like every Saved by the Bell episode, but, with the possible exception of continuity issues, the faults are easy to overlook.
Where and how exactly these episodes fit in is another matter entirely. Kelly and Jessie don’t seem to exist in the Tori episodes. This has lead to lots of fan speculation, from the idea that they take place in a parallel universe to Chuck Klosterman’s theory that Zack Morris and the gang just weren’t hanging out with Kelly and Jessie during these episodes. I have trouble accepting either explanation because of some continuity problems during the season. Slater has a new magic sister, Lisa doesn’t seem to remember that she dated Zack Morris earlier in the season, Slater doesn’t seem to remember Zack Morris’s relationships with Kelly and Stacey, and Screech goes back on his promise to stop sexually harassing Lisa. The biggest problem of all, though, is the fact that some elements of the Tori elements find their way into The New Class episodes, including the school song and Little Zack. It’s just impossible to resolve these contradictions. As such, I don’t think there is a satisfactory explanation. It’s just one of those things we have to accept, like the magic move from Indiana to California.
Let’s talk characters.
Zack Morris is douchey, as usual. This isn’t helped by his competing claims in both Hawaiian Style and “Senior Prom” that he has either loved no one like he did Andrea or no one like he did Kelly. One might excuse this as just being a horny teenager who can’t make up his mind, but he doesn’t reflect on his changing tastes so it’s not clear there is character development. So much on this show is done off camera so you never know, but we need to be able to see it to be sure that it’s real.
Having so many out of season episodes, though, did demonstrate that Zack Morris has grown somewhat. He has more of a conscience than he did during season one and, rather than being a complete sociopath, is only a partial one. After all, he does engage in a pissing match with Slater over multiple girls who aren’t attracted to either of their dumb asses. I continue to fail to believe he was admitted to Yale as well and am convinced the writers don’t understand college admissions requirements.
He’s at his best in “Earthquake,” taking charge of a bad situation and turning it around. If he was like this in every episode, he might actually be a decent human being. Instead, he’s a caricature because that’s what we’ve gotten used to. Naturally, he’ll probably lose any character growth once he reaches college.
The number of out of season episodes also shined the spotlight for me on how Slater has changed. Whereas Slater started as a rival for Zack Morris, he evolved into a clone of him, with the only discernible difference being a worse taste in fashion. Really, Slater hasn’t had a whole lot to do this season. The problem is he doesn’t have much to do this season. Only two season four episodes focused on him: one on his relationship with his father and the other one on a sister that had never been mentioned before and will never be seen or mentioned again.
Sure, he had a brief flame up of his relationship with Jessie that came the fuck out of nowhere, but that doesn’t really cut it. I miss the rival Slater, and I think that was something this series drastically needed: regular tension that wasn’t always forced through situations and guest stars.
In any case, I can’t hate Slater. He was just there. I don’t believe for a second, though, that, in real life, he would hang out with Zack Morris or Screech. The girls maybe, but not Tweedle Preppy and Tweedle Dumb. In any case, his just being there must have paid off since little girls fought over who made them tingle more: Zack Morris and Slater and, in the end, maybe that’s what Slater contributed the most to Saved by the Bell.
Screech is a moron and the longer he’s with this franchise, the bigger a moron he is. I’ve decided that Screech’s biggest function this season is to be a walking, talking plot contrivance. Really, the only episode he’s truly the focus of is “Screech’s Spaghetti Sauce” and that episode is fucking stupid. He’s around to tell secrets, to cause drama, and to prevent anyone from dating Lisa except for himself. The fact that someone doesn’t punch him every episode is beyond me.
Really, he’s the court jester, the one who makes the lame ass jokes that make no sense. Despite this, he pushes on, convinced of his own humor, which is not so far from Dustin Diamond in real life. I don’t believe for a second he’s the real valedictorian or that he could really create artificial life. Screech reminds me more of a Ralph Wiggum or Peter Griffin than an Einstein. The fact that he was admitted to multiple Ivy League schools but chooses Cal U instead says it all. No semblance of common sense.
Kelly hasn’t changed a bit over the past four years. Not a bit. She’s around to be pretty and give all the little boys boners. That’s it. There’s an ample comparison between “Video Yearbook,” an episode produced during season two, and “Senior Prom,” both of which feature Zack Morris doing despicable things to Kelly and both of which lead to Kelly instantly forgiving Zack Morris to get back to the status quo. Really, if it weren’t for her being overly nice, she wouldn’t have a personality at all.
I’m going to say something controversial: I didn’t miss Kelly much during the Tori episodes. She just doesn’t do a lot of important things. She has a role in “Student-Teacher Week” and a major plot in “Senior Prom,” but both plots are only in relation to Zack Morris’s plot. This season, Kelly only does things in conjunction with the rest of the gang. She doesn’t do things on her own.
Jessie is at her strongest when she’s the moral center of the group, which doesn’t say much considering she’s pretty much a caricature of feminism. This gradually fades over the years until there’s only a handful of instances where she acts as the ethical one. Other than that, her only other discernible character trait is being a psychopath…about everything. Going off on Slater. Believing a t-shirt to be sexist. Wanting to be valedictorian way too much. All signs of an unstable mind.
It’s no wonder Slater’s really her only boyfriend over the course of the series. I mean, you could count her dance partner in “Dancing to the Max,” but that guy just didn’t know what he was getting himself into. She ranks as just slightly more tolerable than Screech but, suffice it to say, I won’t miss her on The College Years. It was time for Jessie to go, even if that exit was only caused by Elizabeth Berkley doing an NC-17 movie.
Lisa finally got shit to do this season! After spending much of the last three years as just a big plot contrivance as Slater, she actually got to date Zack Morris for an episode, even if that was quickly forgotten in the realm of plots the producers didn’t care to carry over for more than one episode. Not to mention the fact that, in the Tori episodes, she kind of becomes a lead girl, picking up the slack for Kelly and Jessie. It’s the way she should have been used throughout the series.
And, yet, something was still missing. It feels like the producers never took Lisa seriously. Out of all the characters, she shows the most growth over the course of the series, even growing to tolerate Screech, a feat I’ve not yet accomplished. I like Lisa and I wish she had carried on to The College Years.
Mr. Belding hit his stride in season two and he’s been going downhill ever since. He shows so much incompetence in administrating Bayside this season that one could make the argument it’s foreshadowing things to come in The New Class. At his best, he’s a wise mentor and a foil to Zack Morris. At his worst, he’s the butt of stupid jokes and just kind of existing in limbo within the series: kind of there but kind of not.
Mr. Belding is the one character who shouldn’t have been the focus of too many episodes but I still wish we could have saw the wise caring Mr. Belding more often. He only goes down after this season and it’s hard to believe that Dennis Haskins really thought his character was growing in the right direction. Rather than character growth, I think we saw character decline in Mr. Belding, not quite as drastic as Screech, but there nonetheless.
A commenter asked me last season to be easy on Tori and judge her on her own merits, not on her legacy within the fandom. Fortunately, this is where never seeing the series before came in handy. Tori was original. If there’s a previous character I’d compare her to in terms of personality, it’s Stacey. She’s brash, independent, and doesn’t take Zack Morris’s shit. Her relationship with Zack Morris was quite sudden and not really developed, but I attribute that to the low number of episodes she was in.
Naturally, her absence from “Graduation” raises questions despite the fact we know the actual reason for her absence: “Graduation” was filmed before Leanna Creel joined the cast. The solution could have been simple: make her a junior and make her the starring character in The New Class as she befriends a new generation of characters. Unfortunately, people rebelled against Tori. She replaced a popular character and she was never going to be accepted because of that.
Tori got a bum wrap. She’s not the best character ever, but she’s not annoying. She doesn’t deserve the reputation she’s received and, I dare say, there were many times I found her more interesting than Kelly or Jessie. We’ll never know what the potential for her character could have been but there were so many things they could have done with her.
As for Leanna Creel, she continued trying to act throughout the nineties but she never landed another major role. Her next best remembered role was as half of Mike Seaver’s love interest in an episode of Growing Pains (she’s actually a triplet; her sisters appeared in that episode as well). According to IMDB, she currently works as President of Production at Ignite Entertainment. In any case, she never shook the fact that she was the most unloved character from Saved by the Bell and, last year, appeared in Bayside: The Musical, partly as a way to find closure in her own experience from Saved by the Bell.
When I started this blog last year, this was as far as I knew for sure I wanted to go. And here I am. Naturally, it’s morphed into a monster featuring multiple incarnations of the franchise, and I’ve loved it completely. Yet there’s something kind of sad about leaving the original Saved by the Bell behind, even if I know that I’m not leaving the original cast yet. This is the series that people look back on fondly as a nostalgic part of their childhoods. This is the series that made six young faces household icons. There’s something special in that and, though I’m not done with this blog, I’m aware that there’s about to be a shift.
I’m not going to do a grad recap of the entire series. I’m saving that for after The College Years. But I’ve enjoyed the process of really dissecting this series. I hope you have, too. If I have made you smile, think, or notice something new in your favorite childhood show, this blog will have been worth it. I’m sure I missed a lot, but I’m only one person. Hopefully, I’ll inspire some other blogger to write about the things I haven’t. Thank you for reading, commenting, and sharing this blog. It’s been such a rewarding experience for me so far and I’m looking forward to completing the rest of the franchise.
It’s quite clear that the franchise was not intended to continue. The College Years and The New Class were both huge cash grabs as there was a finality about “Graduation,” even if it was ultimately unsatisfying as a series finale. But I move on, now, to Peter Engel’s attempt to keep the Saved by the Bell cash train going.
As usual, I encourage you to agree or disagree with my picks in the comments section below.
Five Episodes I Loved:
1. “Earthquake” (Episode 21): There’s no question in my mind this is the best episode of the season. It showcases Zack Morris simultaneously at his best and worst and really shows him stepping up to help both Mrs. Belding and Tori. The whole gang really steps up in this episode and it was a quite enjoyable, solid episode.
2. “Teen Line” (Episode 6): I don’t buy the concept of the gang running a teen line, but I like this episode for Zack Morris being forced to confront his own prejudices. It actually shows a rare bit of growth on his part and it’s a nice change.
3. “Slater’s Sister” (Episode 16): Ignoring the inconsistent characterization of Zack Morris and the fact Slater’s sister has never been mentioned before, this is actually a pretty good episode on its own. Slater’s animosity about Zack Morris dating his sister is actually a bit justified and it’s nice to see Slater actually do something.
4. “Masquerade Ball” (Episode 7): Another nice Zack Morris growth episode. If only more could be more episodes could be more like this one. On top of this, Tori proves she’s not one to be fucked with and both Zack Morris and Slater receive much earned comeuppance.
5. “The Bayside Triangle” (Episode 5): FINALLY a good Lisa episode. I heard Lark Voorhies and Mark-Paul Gosselaar were actually dating at the time of this episode, and it shows: the chemistry is there and right and I actually found myself rooting for a Zack Morris/Lisa relationship. The only reason this episode doesn’t rank higher is because of Screech’s idiocy. There was no reason for his jealousy and it’s actually stalker-like behavior for him to control Lisa when she’s never shown a bit of interest in him.
Three Episodes I Hated:
1. “Snow White and the Seven Dorks” (Episode 20): I hope whoever thought this would be a good idea for an episode was fired. I never wanted to see a rap version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and it just comes off as completely stupid. If I bought a ticket to the performance, I’d walk out. Oh, and the Zack Morris and Jessie possible romance was so forced it wasn’t even funny.
2. “Screech’s Spaghetti Sauce” (Episode 3): Punky Brewster comes off as a caricature of a gold digger and what’s sad is she really doesn’t do anything worse than Zack Morris has ever done. On top of that, the fact the gang actually believed Screech could make them money just showed how much they never truly learn.
3. “Video Yearbook” (Episode 18): This one is just stupid. If Zack Morris really gave girls’ contact information away to possible delinquents, he’d receive more punishment than a “GOTCHA!” He’s at his worst in this episode and, what’s worse, Screech is just as bad as him and gets no punishment.