Is The Unauthorized Saved By the Bell Story the worst movie that has ever been made for television? Or is it secretly genius, and we were too tired from our Labor Day barbecues to notice?
We’ve been left with little recourse, after spending two hours of our lives watching it, but to believe that The Unauthorized Saved By the Bell is really an avant-garde meta examination of Saved By the Bell. That it is a dramatic deconstruction of the worst elements of the hit ’90s children’s series. That the bad acting, wooden dialogue, elementary plotting, and impotent dramatic tension are actually an artistic wink at those very elements in the original series.
Or maybe, just maybe, The Unauthorized Saved By the Bell is just plain atrocious.
Promoted as a tawdry tell-all about what really went on behind-the-scenes as six hormonal teenagers are tempted by the vices of Hollywood—but about as scandalous as Nicki Minaj in a turtleneck—the Lifetime movie is loosely based on the controversial 2009 memoir Behind the Bell from Dustin Diamond, the actor who portrayed lovable nerd Screech. Since the release of the book, the actor’s been on a mea culpa tour of sorts, retracting much of the book’s sordid stories in interviews, including in a recent one with me for The Daily Beast.
It’s as if the script was really Diamond’s tear-stained diary entries from 1992 reformatted in Final Draft and then mailed to Lifetime.
Nonetheless, when Diamond was announced as executive producer for the new movie and the adjective “Unauthorized” was emblazoned in its title, a nation of gossip-hounds salivated at the thought of a juicy soap opera about the Saved By the Bell stars we fell in love with two decades ago. Behind the Bell, after all, featured a laundry list of sordid (unsubstantiated and later recanted) stories: Diamond picking up thousands of girls at Disneyland to sleep with, Mario Lopez raping a girl and NBC covering it up, the cast members getting stoned during the “No Hope With Dope” episode, and a bisexual threesome featuring Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, Mark-Paul Gosselaar and executive producer Peter Engel.
These stories, however, apparently were too unauthorized for inclusion in the unauthorized story of Saved By the Bell.
Listen, there’s not a person with an IQ higher than a potato chip’s who would believe that any of these tales are true, especially after Diamond has repeatedly refuted them himself. But still, the idea of seeing them play out in a TV movie was incredibly enticing to those obsessed with Saved By the Bell and suckers for guilty pleasure trash TV.
I can’t say I wasn’t warned: When I chatted with Diamond about the salacious details the show’s fans hoped would be in Lifetime’s movie, he promised, “It’s going to be happy!” He wasn’t lying. The Unauthorized Saved By the Bell Story is about as squeaky clean as your average episode of Saved By the Bell, complete with a feel-good narrative about how the cast and producers overcame odds stacked against them to become worldwide phenomenons and, after scattered bursts of discord, best friends forever while doing it.
If there is an edge to the film it all, it’s a bitter one, with so much of the movie serving as Diamond’s own redemption story. Don’t think that’s done delicately, either. Just when it looks like The Unauthorized Saved By the Bell Story is going to cannily begin much the same way every episode of the ’90s series did, with Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Zack Morris breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera directly, the young actor playing Diamond shoves the young actor playing Gosselaar out of the way. “It’s not all about you this time,” he interrupts.
The two-hour cinematic manifestation of a chip on Diamond’s shoulder slogs along, depicting Diamond as the slighted cast member, shunned by his costars because of how much younger he is and whose talents are ignored because the other actors are more attractive and popular. Most scenes are variations on a theme: No one appreciates him as much as they should, and all he ever wants is the best for everyone. It’s as if the script was really Diamond’s tear-stained diary entries from 1992 reformatted in Final Draft and then mailed to Lifetime.
Mario Lopez is seen making out with a fan he gives a tour of the set to. The fan Diamond gives a tour to asks him if he can give Gosselaar his number. Thiessen and Gosselaar are sent to Paris to do press. Lopez is sent to exotic Miami. Diamond is slighted with a trip to a mall in South Carolina.
It’s not until the last 20 minutes of the film that things start getting exciting. Gosselaar and Thiessen make out in his dressing room. Diamond smokes weed and sneaks vodka out of a flask. He makes a casual reference to getting laid. (It happens off camera.)
Besides Diamond, some of the Saved By the Bell characters are portrayed as infallible angels. Elizabeth Berkley must have been extra nice to Diamond during the Bayside days, because she comes off the best: driven, kind, and unfazed by Hollywood. Lark Voorhies, who played Lisa Turtle, isn’t given as much of a personality in this as she is a character description—“Lark is a Jehovah’s Witness”—which she brings up in nearly every scene of the movie. Lopez is portrayed as a douchey cad, while Thiessen and Gosselaar, aside from being slightly vapid, have fewer shades of personality than Gosselaar has shades of blond in his hair.
Even if the movie was merely as intended as a making-of-a-hit, behind-the-scenes project, it essentially failed. Some of the details it “reveals” have long been known: The series was originally supposed to be centered on a teacher named Miss Bliss played by Hayley Mills, Berkley auditioned for Kelly Kapowski and impressed them so much that the role of Jessi Spano was written for her, Berkley and Thiessen asked to be written off the show after four seasons to pursue other projects.
Other details are amusing, if slight and hardly scandalous, like Jennie Garth was up for the role of Kelly, and Diamond had his first kiss with Tori Spelling. The highlight of the movie, undoubtedly, is the depiction of what has become the series’ most famous scene: Jessi Spano’s “I’m so excited…” meltdown while on caffeine pills. During rehearsals, Berkley’s costars were so impressed by her performance that they are moved to tears. Diamond, acting out, laughs. (At least in this Diamond was a trailblazer. He was laughing at the “I’m So Excited” scene before anyone else was.)
Saved By the Bell is funny. It’s one of those pop culture niches that is nostalgically obsessed over by a certain subset of those 20- and 30-somethings born in the awkward gap between Generation X and the millennials. It’s also one of those pop culture niches that has no appeal or charm to those who are not obsessed with it. A blandly written, barely acted sitcom about high schoolers but geared toward adolescents? Is that really what we’re all fussing over?
The Unauthorized Story seemed to make that latter question hard to answer, our obsession hard to defend. Rather than play up the legend that we’ve built the show to be in our mind by fabricating sordid relationships between the actors and soapy behind-the-scenes drama, the faux raunch and scrubbed-off-edge sterility of the TV movie only shines a harsh spotlight on the more staid and cheesy elements of the show.
Saved By the Bell was always aspirational for an audience that was still young enough to be gee-golly—a depiction of what someone too young to be in high school would hope high school would be like. For that audience decades later, now grown as adults, there would’ve been a perverse pleasure in revealing a little naughtiness behind the goody-two-shoes message the series perpetually sent. Instead, we get a two-hour therapy session from Dustin Diamond.
“I guess some part of me will always be Screech,” young Diamond says at the end of the film. “And I guess I’m OK with that.” After chatting with Diamond a few weeks ago, I can attest that he really has begun to embrace that, which is a legitimately wonderful thing. Saved By the Bell is a cherished part of a lot of people’s childhoods, and it should be cherished by the actors who created it, too.
But as a television event, that kind of emotional security just doesn’t quite ring my bell.