TV Reviews

Was Lifetime’s The Unauthorized Saved By the Bell Story Too Classy for Its Own Good?

Saved by the Bell’s legacy is best captured by the reactions of two current teenagers featured in YouTube’s hilarious “Kids/Teens React To…” series in which modern kids are shown pop culture artifacts of the past and agree to have their genuine reactions taped.  When shown the opening credits of Saved by the Bell, one bubbly brunette gleefully exclaimed, “Oh, Saved by the Bell!  I love this show!” while another more goth-y girl sighed and muttered, “This fucking show.”

That fucking show indeed.  It debuted 25 years ago, and still plays early mornings on TBS, where it has actually never left the schedule since being sold in syndication.  It is “the shittiest of shitty young adult programming,” but it is somehow still being watched and is the target of immense nostalgia for people my age.  In fact, my similarly-aged sister-in-law’s eyes lit up this past week when I brought up Lifetime’s The Unauthorized Saved By the Bell in casual conversation with her.  She had no idea this tell-all behind the scene movie was a thing that was happening, but her immense joy at this news died the moment I mentioned the movie was based on Dustin “Screech” Diamond’s controversial autobiography.  Diamond had once visited her college for one of those “An Evening With…” speaking engagements some celebrities (like Kevin Smith) do around the country, and not surprisingly he came off as a bit of a douchebag.  This is the same guy who has spent years spreading baseless rumors about everyone involved in Saved By the Bell, publishing them in 2009’s Behind the Bell, featuring a picture of his old co-workers strategically placed over his crotch on the cover:

BehindBell
That book gave us a Lifetime movie.  Thank you?  I wonder if the back cover has a pic of Mr. Belding over Diamond’s butt

A funny thing happened on the way toward converting Diamond’s headline-grabbing book to an equally outrageous TV movie, though: they took out all of the juicy stuff.  That’s right, Lifetime’s The Unauthorized Saved By the Bell didn’t quite stoop to Diamond’s level.  As Ron Burgundy would put it, they stayed classy with it, and I was totally disappointed.

Wait a minute, here.  Am I seriously saying I was bummed that a silly Lifetime movie about Saved by the Bell didn’t include the most tabloid-worthy elements of a poorly written book (Diamond doesn’t apparently understand the difference between “allusion” and “illusion”) which everyone else in the cast has called a complete smear job?   These are some of the most scandalous allegations made by Diamond in Behind the Bell:

  • During the “No Hope With Dope” episode, the cast members were all smoking weed in their dressing rooms.
  • Mario Lopez raped a girl, and NBC paid hush money to keep it quiet.
  • Tiffani-Amber Thiessen cheated on the actor who played the fictional film star character Johnny Dakota simultaneously with Mario Lopez and Mark-Paul Gosselaar.
  • Elizabeth Berkley also did both Mario Lopez and Mark-Paul Gosselaar… but only once Tiffani-Amber Thiessen was done.
  • Lark Voorhies then did them as sloppy thirds.
  • Dustin Diamond had sex with NBC’s VP of children’s programming, Linda Mancuso.
  • Executive producer Peter Engel used to have bisexual threesomes with Tiffani-Amber Thiessen and Mark-Paul Gosselaar in his office

Not a single one of those potential plot points made it into The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story.  Oh, sure, some of them were hinted at, like when Elizabeth Berkley (Tiera Skovbye) shows up at a cast party after she has left the show and sort of sadly shrugs at the site of Lopez (Julian Works) and Gosselaar (Dylan Everett) romancing two random girls, though Gosselaar comes off as a complete gentleman in the scenario.  Plus, the book’s line about how you can look to the show’s on-screen pairings to roughly line up who was dating who and when in real life is repeated in Diamond’s (Sam Kindseth) voice-over narration.  However, the most romance the movie actually offered was some hands-holding between Gosselaar and Voorhees (Taylor Russell), and an initially innocent “Let’s practice kissing so it’ll look real when we do it on-screen” make-out session between Gosselaar and Thiessen (Alyssa Lynch).

The problem here is that while the scandalous parts of Diamond’s Behind the Bell are well-known less well-known is the fact that he has tried to distance himself from it in recent years, admitting he made a lot of it up.   However, everyone assumed Unauthorized was going to have all the crazy stuff from his book.  Heck, even Diamond’s old castmates assumed as much, pretty much disowning Unauthorized sight unseen.  My sister-in-law clearly did the same thing.  The fact that they cut out the juicy stuff since most it was probably untrue, and instead produced a mosty by-the-numbers linear telling of the making of the show does beg the question of what exactly we want from a movie like this, anyway.  We wanted a bad movie with ludicrous plot points we could all make fun of it on Twitter, right?  Instead, we got this:

  • Mark-Paul Gosselaar had a thing for all three of the girls in the cast at some point, but was a stand-up guy through it all
  • Mario Lopez once brought a girl to set to impress her and kissed her
  • Tiffani-Amber Thiessen enjoyed one sip of wine on a publicity tour in Paris
  • Lark Voorhies celebrated her birthday even though she’s a Jehovah’s Witness.  Plus, she was impossibly shy
  • Elizabeth Berkley wanted to leave the show to audition for more serious roles, and was instrumental in influencing the writers to throw more serious storylines their way, such as her infamous caffeine pill addiction episode.
  • They all knew the show was pretty bad, but only Diamond seemed to be completely aware of just how bad it was.  He openly laughed while watching Berkley and Gosselaar rehearse their legendary “So exited, so excited, so scared” scene, but that’s exactly the thing you’d expect from a movie told from Diamond’s point of view

The only real bits of quasi-new trivia the movie offered was that Jennie Garth auditioned for the show, Elizabeth Berkley and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen both auditioned for Kelly but the producers liked them so much they created the character of Jessie for Berkley, and at one point a friend of Dustin Diamond’s attempted to blackmail him into getting more than just roles as an extra on the show.  Plus, after the Good Morning, Miss Bliss season they were originally going to call the re-branded version of the show Wait for the Bell.

You can find that kind of trivia via Wikipedia or on various lists, which will reveal even more interesting nuggets than Unauthorized did, such as how the original Good Morning, Miss Bliss pilot actually featured Brian Austin Green, Jaleel White, and Jonathan Brandis.  That being said, I have to admit I didn’t know the bit about Jessie having been created for Berkley or Diamond getting blackmailed, but is that the kind of stuff I was really looking for from Unauthorized?

So, what exactly does one wants from a Lifetime movie?  As the AVClub observed in its review of Unauthorized, “How do you even judge a Lifetime Original Movie? It is a genre entirely of its own, often characterized by terrible casting, overblown acting, and hilariously bad writing (but takes itself far more seriously than your average Syfy TV movie).” Unauthorized definitely had most of that, particularly with its casting, although the acting wasn’t so much overblown as it was bland.  In truth, Unauthorized was actually my first time watching a Lifetime movie, and I was under the impression they were they the non-science fiction version of the SyFy movies, i.e., intentionally bad.  I had no idea they actually took themselves seriously.  Everyone involved with Unauthorized sure seemed to be playing it straight.  Even Lifetime’s attempts to sync the viewer up with social media by directing us to its Tumblr page during the live airing simply produced mostly sympathetic GIFs, like this:

SavedBellPoorJessie

I’ve never actually taken part in the Twitter-enabled group hate-watch thing before, and Unauthorized was going to be my first go of it.  Instead, what I got was the bane of Mystery Science Theater 3000’s existence so many years ago: a mediocre movie that’s not really bad enough to be mocked.  No, Unauthorized actually genuinely wanted us to feel for these people, especially Berkley, who comes off as a cautionary tale of the sweet girl whose ambitions outraced her talent.  There’s a real emotional resonance they were going for at the end when we watch a slow-motion sequence of each of the show’s actors hugging some kind of adult (parent, fellow actor, NBC exec, etc.) on set immediately after filming the show’s high school graduation episode.  It emphasizes that these were all ultimately lovable teenagers, but are most teenagers really as boring as the group presented in Unauthorized?

The funniest part to me is that the movie ends without ever mentioning Saved By the Bell: The New Class even though it ran for three years longer than the original show, producing some 60 more episodes.  Not only that, Diamond was a part of that cast, and Gosselaar, Lopez, and Voorhies even returned for guest spots.  In fact, Unauthorized ends with the text “The End…ish” as if to hopefully set up a sequel (seems unlikely given the terrible ratings) covering The College Years and New Class.  But I guess who really wants to hear about the John Stamos/Linda Cardellini era of ER when you can instead talk about the golden age of George Clooney/Julianna Marguilies.  However, if Unauthorized is to be believed there was nothing particular golden about the Gosselaar/Lopez/Voorhies/Thiessen/Berkley/Diamond era of Saved By the Bell.  There simply wasn’t a whole lot of story to be told in this Unauthorized Saved By the Bell Story.  For fans of the show, watching Gosselaar appear on The Jimmy Fallon Show in character as Zack Morris a couple years back probably brought more joy than the full 80+ minutes of Unauthorized.

Just for the heck of it, here’s what the cast (sans Diamond) looks like now:

SavedByBellReunion

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