For the benefit of those that did not grow up in the Nineties, Saved By the Bell was a high school sitcom centred around the misadventures of smart-alecky teen Zach Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and his annoyingly wacky best friend Screech (Dustin Diamond). While hardly great art the show, which ran from 1989 to 1993 plus two spin-offs no-one likes to talk about, endeared itself to a generation, made teen heartthrobs out of Gosselaar and co-star Tiffani-Amber Thiessen and sparked the formula for high school sitcoms that spread like a virus across American children's television up to the present day.
Produced by Lifetime, the network behind such showbiz biopics as The Last of Robin Hood (2014) and the infamous Liz & Dick (2012), The Unauthorized Saved By the Bell Story belongs to the recent wave of Canadian-made television movies detailing dramas behind the scenes of iconic TV shows. Previous examples like Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of 'Charlie's Angels' (2004) and Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of 'Mork & Mindy' (2005) had the small benefit of interesting angles on show-business. The former detailed the complex contractual negotiations between producers and breakout star Farrah Fawcett while the latter exposed the capricious nature of network TV schedulers. By comparison, The Unauthorized Saved By the Bell Story seems geared solely to nostalgists and fans still hungry for backstage gossip more than twenty years after the fact. As such there is no real dramatic substance nor enlightening insights to entice non-fans. Nor indeed does the film take the opportunity to explain the enduring appeal behind such a goofy, innocuous teen show.
In a nutshell we learn how what began as a vehicle for former Disney star Hayley Mills called 'Good Morning, Miss Bliss' morphed into television's first live-action kid-driven sitcom re-titled 'Saved By the Bell.' Rescued from cancellation numerous times, the show survives to become a breakout hit branding young actors Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Dylan Everett), Tiffani-Amber Thiessen (Alyssa Lynch), Elizabeth Berkley (Tiera Skovbye), Lark Voorhies (Taylor Russell), Mario Lopez (Julian Works) and, of course, Dustin Diamond (Sam Kindseth) as teen idols. With success comes pressure. As Saved By the Bell becomes an important commodity, studio chiefs go all out to protect their 'brand' by pressuring the kids to stay 'clean' and 'wholesome.' This takes a toll on Mark-Paul's secret romance with Lark Voorhies whose strict beliefs as a Jehovah's Witness eventually drive him to an ambiguous 'friendship' with Tiffani-Amber. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Berkley struggles to be taken seriously as an actress. Inspired by an encounter with some starstruck girls, she pressures producers to tackle more challenging drama leading to the show's infamous 'caffeine pill addiction' storyline. On the other end of the spectrum, Mario Lopez takes to seducing teenage girls on the set prompting Dustin to fantasize about doing the same. Increasingly alienated from his close-knit co-stars he goes on drinking binges, punches hecklers out cold on the street until caught on camera smoking a joint and blackmailed by a so-called friend.
As drama it is all very kitsch but then so was Saved By the Bell. It is a gossip-driven story but, as gossip goes, pretty bland and predictable. Based on the unreliable memoirs of Dustin Diamond, who has an executive producer credit, the film skews to his point-of-view to a fault. Diamond, who despite many real life transgressions inexplicably remains for some a tragicomic pop culture icon, seems out to settle a few scores. Early on the film lifts the sitcom's cutesy device of Mark-Paul as Zach Morris being able to freeze time. Only in this instance Diamond steps in to announce this time it is his story. Thereafter the film emphasizes his sense of alienation from the rest of the cast in a presumed effort to contextualize his infamous off-screen exploits. Still it says something about Diamond as a person that in spite of a concerted effort to make him as sympathetic as possible he still comes across like a whiny, insensitive, self-centred borderline sociopath. The film's central message would be appear to be life is terribly hard for teen stars. Though not especially compelling the film draws some sympathy for the Saved By the Bell cast as their popularity with teenagers is counterbalanced by no small amount of abuse, ridicule, typecasting and immense pressure. Of the group Elizabeth Berkley arguably comes off best, portrayed as so sincere in her dedication to dance and acting one can't help feel sorry for what happened with Showgirls (1995). Naturally the contrived wrap-up name-checks that fiasco but glosses over the show's failed final season, 'The College Years.' Even for die-hard fans of Saved By the Bell the TV biopic is only of minor interest and less fun than the recent reunion skit on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.