Saved by the Bell is the show that refused to die for over a decade, but perhaps it should have.
With the end of Saved by the Bell, producers decided that the franchise had become too much of a cult hit to just let die. The decision was made to spin-off the series into two series: The New Class, which would continue the story at Bayside with new characters, and The College Years, which followed four of our original characters to college at California University. The College Years was an interesting experiment. After all, it took the show to prime time and tried to make it more adult oriented for the aging target audience.
For this new series, Jeff Melman was brought in to direct. Melman is real television talent, having directed for series such as Wings, Night Court, Frasier, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. With that sort talent, and the backing of someone at NBC who I’m convinced Peter Engel had blackmail material on, The College Years should have been a success. It had a built-in audience: kids who had followed Saved by the Bell for four seasons. So what went wrong?
From the beginning, it seems as if there was one main problem: The College Years had no fucking clue why it existed. Was it a continuation of the original series with light and whimsical fun? Was it a serious adult sitcom following beloved characters into adulthood? The show suffered from a serious lack of direction, and it shows.
The pilot cast were pretty much mimicking roles from the original series. Leslie and Danielle were cookie cutters of Kelly/Jessie and Lisa respectively, Mike was doing his best to be the Mr. Belding-like authority figure, and Alex may have been the most original thing in the series, which is kind of a sad indictment of their creativity and originality.
Character development was arbitrary and came the fuck out of nowhere. Plots were predictable and trite. There seemed to be no direction the majority of the season. All of these are criticisms that could be levied against the original series as well.
The difference? The College Years was boring as fuck!
Some of you have said you think this show is worse than The New Class. Objectively speaking, I can’t agree with this criticism. The New Class has no clue what it’s doing. The College Years is at least following a cookie cutter formula it’s hoping still works. But I’d rather watch The New Class any day over any episode of The College Years. While The New Class may infuriate me with its incompetence, at least I don’t want to fall asleep with every passing minute of most episodes. If I wasn’t doing this blog, I never would have watched past the pilot of The College Years.
We also get absolutely no explanation why Zack Morris, Slater, and Kelly decided to randomly go to Cal U over the schools they were accepted to in the original series. This is, perhaps, the most unrealistic part of the whole thing. How many of us went to college with a close high school friend? We were usually lucky to know anyone at all. I think the series could have worked had they followed one student from the previous series, but all four was ridiculous.
Going into this, I honestly wondered if The College Years would have been cancelled had it aired on Saturday mornings. I think the answer is yes. This show was destined to die from the beginning. It was a cheap cash-in designed to keep the money train going. It failed. Miserably.
I put off talking about the theme until now because of how long the review for the pilot episode was. The theme song is okay. It’s much more upbeat, conveying a sense of hope and enthusiasm as our characters move forward in life. It’s standard nineties theme song fair. The opening sequence is just scenes of the cast members, what we’ve pretty much come to expect from this franchise. All in all, it’s a good way to set a different tone for this series over the previous. It’s just a shame they couldn’t deliver on the promise of a new direction for the franchise.
Let’s talk characters.
From the original series to The College Years, Zack Morris doesn’t change at all. In fact, if anything, he regresses, stalking Kelly at one point, and going back to a level of sociopathy we haven’t really seen since the early seasons of the original series. He receives absolutely no character development over the course of this series, and I strongly believe Zack Morris is worse for having appeared in The College Years.
If the producers really wanted to do this series, they should have actually advanced Zack Morris into adulthood. I don’t expect him to be perfect overnight, but, for fuck’s sake, he has no consequences for his actions. Ever. Even when he paints an entire floor of the dorm randomly for a one-off event. What was even the purpose of continuing his character into adulthood if you weren’t going to do anything with him?
Things were even worse for Kelly. She was only had two major plots through the series: her relationship with Lasky, an obvious rip-off of her previous relationship with Jeff Hunter, and her return to Zack Morris, which was completely out of nowhere and reduced her character. It feels like Kelly was only there to satisfy sad little fan boys and girls who were upset she and Zack Morris didn’t end up together at the end of Saved by the Bell. On top of this, her sudden desire to practice medicine had no foreshadowing and was completely unbelievable.
If the writers had wanted to actually do something with Kelly, they could have had her get together with Slater. After all, that’s a plot thread that was almost completely forgotten about after she and Zack Morris got together. Show how this effects her friendship with Zack Morris. Take a chance. Do something that could actually propel this show in new and original directions. But this was The College Years and nothing original was ever going to happen.
Out of our four returning characters, Slater is the only one who truly receives character development. And he suffers the most because of it. Slater’s development, if you truly want to call it that, comes completely out of nowhere in the form of his sudden interest in his Latino heritage and his judgmental disapproval of Zack Morris and Kelly’s upcoming wedding. His relationship with Alex comes the fuck out of nowhere, goes absolutely nowhere, and was a wasted opportunity to actually do something different with this franchise.
Much of the rest of the time, Slater’s a yes man for Zack Morris’s antics, except when he’s randomly not. I feel like they were trying to mature Slater, and, as usual for this franchise, they told when they should have shown. I needed to see Slater go through this transformation, go from the guy who had no interest in Jessie’s social activism to a person who wanted to make a difference in the world and who had a bigger perspective on the world. Instead, we got a Slater who came off as an asshole much of the time.
Oh, Screech, you were pointless in this series. No, really, he’s just there to be a dumb ass most of the time. Only one episode centers around Screech, and the events don’t matter to the rest of the series at all. To paraphrase how Dean McMann so eloquently put it: how the fuck did Screech get into college to begin with? Why was he even on this show?
Of course, there shouldn’t be anything unexpected here. Screech doesn’t experience characer development after Good Morning Miss Bliss, and this series is no different. He’s the comic relief that’s not funny but just irritating, and one experiences an unfortunate sadness that his parachute opened when he went skydiving. Seriously, were there people who liked Screech back in the day?
Leslie was obviously developed as a love interest for Zack Morris before Kelly joined the cast. The pilot pushes his interest in her hard, and it’s clear this was going to be a plot thread over the course of the season. When Kelly returned, though, this was quickly abandoned, and Leslie became the most superfluous member of the gang. Really, why they didn’t drop her from the cast when they got Kelly, I’ll never know.
She does often act as the voice of reason and she hates that her parents are rich. Other than that, she shares her personality with Jessie as the super social conscious, reasonable, and smart one of the gang. There’s no reason for her on the show. Hell, they could have created a love triangle between Zack Morris, Kelly, and her and that would have been so much more interesting than anything they actually did. But interesting isn’t the main concern for this writer.
Anne Tremko continued acting throughout the ’90s and early 2000s with minor roles and guest appearances in various movies and television shows, but she never again had a major role. Information on her today is pretty sparse and uncertain. Her last acting credit was a 2003 guest spot on Judging Amy.
I said early on that Alex reminded me most of Vicki from season one of The New Class: they’re both bat shit crazy and need to be committed to mental institutions. That’s pretty much Alex’s character. She wants to be an actor and she dates Slater for a time. That’s about it. As I said, it’s a sad indictment of this show that she’s their most original character. I don’t even know what else to say about her other than I almost wish they’d kept Danielle and got rid of Alex after the pilot.
Kiersten Warren has been in a ton of shit over the years and continues to act to this day. You may have seen her as a regular for a season on Desperate Housewives or in movies such as Independence Day, 13 Going on 30, and Bicentennial Man. She’s married to actor Kirk Acevedo and has two children.
The producers really had no clue what they were doing with Mike. He started off in the pilot as an obvious Mr. Belding-like authority figure with wisdom to impart to the gang. The longer the season went on, the more he became the seventh member of the gang, not enforcing rules that had played a major role in early episodes, and it was just sad. By the end of the season, he was showing his ass to random college students. I have to wonder what the direction for him would have been by the end of the season.
What’s worse, Bob Golic is, by far, the worst actor on the show. I have to wonder if he could play a corpse on CSI convincingly. It’s obvious much of his role was being taken over by Dean McMann by the end of the season, and I have to wonder whether he would have been a part of a second season or whether he would have gone the way of Max. Would there have been much more they could have done with Mike’s character? I seriously doubt it.
Bob Golic was, of course, a real-life former NFL player. His foray into acting didn’t last much longer than The College Years. He had a couple guest spots on Dave’s World and Charlie Grace and in the 1997 interactive adult movie Dreamboat. He’s since been doing radio sportscasting work, something he’s much more qualified for, and has left the acting world behind, thankfully.
What else can be said about Lasky that hasn’t been said already? He had an inappropriate one episode relationship with Kelly after making a big deal about how horrible it would be to date a student and enabled Zack Morris’s sociopathic behavior. I was actually quite surprised that he was bumped to also starring late in the season. Was there anything else they could have done with him at this point? Hell, his last scene was so unimportant it was cut from the DVDs. Maybe he would have caused friction between Zack Morris and Kelly. We’ll never know.
Patrick Fabian is a prolific actor and has been in a ton of shit over the years. You may have seen him in his recurring roles on General Hospital, Joan of Arcadia, Better Call Saul, and Veronica Mars. Or you may have seen him in movies like The Last Exorcism, Bad Ass, and, amusingly enough, Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike. He’s also been in a ton of ads and continues to act to this day.
By the time Dean McMann came around, it felt like the producers were trying to retool the show. Zack Morris needed a real authority figure, not one that was series desperately trying to be as young as those he was in charge of. Enter Dean McMann, perhaps the best character ever in this franchise. Though she’s written horribly, randomly knowing through psychic ability what Zack Morris is going to do and unconvincingly acting like an asshole to everyone around him, she is the only character who sees the gang for the incompetent buffoons they are. I would have loved to have seen her make Screech cry. That would have made this series so worth it.
I think she would have played a larger role in the second season. She would have eventually had a cliche “connecting with Zack Morris” episode, but she would have provided an actual antagonist for the series. If she had been introduced earlier and better utilized, there may have been more tolerable episodes of this series.
Holland Taylor continues to be a prolific actor. On television, she’s had recurring roles in The Practice, The L Word, Two and a Half Men, and All My Children.
What would have been season two of The College Years? One thing is for sure: it wouldn’t have featured a Zack Morris and Kelly wedding. The cliche of getting quickly engaged has been done so often on television it’s become predictable. My theory is the season premiere would have gone much like when Boy Meets World did this: Zack Morris and Kelly would have realized they were too young to get married and would decide to wait to get married, likely until the series finale. They may or may not have decided to keep dating. But it would have given the writers three more years to tease the Zack Morris/Kelly relationship.
The wedding only became the resolution to the cliffhanger because Peter Engel wanted big ratings for the finale of the original cast. I’ll have more to say about this next Friday. But I can’t imagine a scenario where Zack Morris and Kelly would have gotten married in the season two premiere.
Peter Engel’s luck finally ran out with this series. He produced a series completely inferior in every way to the original. In response, the collective viewership yawned. Old Saved by the Bell viewers didn’t like what they’d done with the characters. New viewers were horrified by the boring plot lines and horrible characterization. The College Years was destined for the graveyard of failed one season wonders.
As someone said in the comments, the only thing people typically remember about this series is that it propelled Zack Morris and Kelly towards their wedding. It’s completely unbelievable in every way and has no real justification for its assistance. The prime time experiment in the Saved by the Bell universe was a failure, proving that the franchise should have ended after the original series. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the end of the franchise, and it would continue for another six fucking seasons on The New Class, proving that Peter Engel was still getting good use out of his blackmail of someone at NBC.
I can’t honestly say there are any episodes in this series I truly enjoyed. I don’t hate them all, but, given a choice, I would never watch any of these episodes again. That being said, there are some I do truly hate. Let’s look at the top five.
Episode 3: “Rush Week”: This episode was just boring. I have no interest in fraternity shit, and they really didn’t need to devote a whole episode to reminding me how shallow fraternities are. On top of this, as someone pointed out, this episode had already been done in Good Morning Miss Bliss, and that episode was shitty, too.
Episode 4: “Slater’s War”: This episode did more to damage Slater’s character than any other episode featuring the original cast. Slater’s transformation to social justice activist is completely the fuck out of nowhere and makes no sense. I have nothing against activism, but Slater showed no interest in it at all until he could get laid with it. Zack Morris comes off as an asshole as well. Bonus points for the actress playing Theresa using an anglicized stage name after she preaches at Slater for doing the same.
Episode 6: “The Poker Game”: This one nearly put me to sleep. It has nothing to do with anything . It highlights how Mike’s rules are based on his own personal whims and inability to set boundaries with those he’s in charge of. In addition, the subplot with the girls liking their karate instructor is about as cliche as they come.
Episode 10: “A Thanksgiving Story”: They missed an opportunity to do a special Thanksgiving episode where the gang go back to L.A. in favor of watching Mike mentor inner city kids. Yeah, that makes sense. The pointless cameos by NBC stars of the time were stupid and date this episode significantly, and the subplot about Kelly being homesick was so unnecessary it was cut from the DVDs.
Episode 16: “Love and Death”: There’s no reason for this episode to exist. We’re supposed to feel sad about a one episode character dying. Yeah, right. It seems the only reason it was made was to keep the Zack Morris/Kelly relationship in our face until the end of the season. You could watch the previous episode followed by the next and not miss out on anything important at all. It loses points as well for not killing Screech off in a skydiving accident.
And that’s it for The College Years! But stay tuned this Friday as we conclude an era with the final entry for the original series cast. It’s one for the ages!