An Unauthorized Response to Lifetime’s Unauthorized Saved By the Bell Story
When I found out that Lifetime was shooting a behind-the-scenes, made-for-TV movie about Saved By the Bell, I had mixed feelings. The same kind of mixed feelings I might get about making a trip to Taco Bell at 2 in the morning for six dollars worth of value meal food and four dollars worth of botulism. For a little while, it’s going to be a great idea. But it’s not going to end there.
The SBTB itch hasn’t been scratched since The College Years more than two decades ago, and I want to wolfishly consume as much of Zack, Kelly and the gang as possible. At the same time, maintaining the naive innocence of the characters is a crucial element to enjoying the show. Plus, after the New Class, does anyone really think that another trip to the well is warranted?
Admittedly, there was never a time when I wasn’t going to watch it. I had some realistic expectations about what I was going to get, but I still had it set to DVR a week before its debut.
If you haven’t seen the Lifetime story yet, it’s basically a television version of Dustin Diamond’s get-out-of-debt, tell-all book from 2009. Dustin Diamond was actually an executive producer of the show, and from all accounts I’ve seen, he’s the only person associated with SBTB to have any part in creating the final product. I haven’t read the book, but there was apparently a bunch of inter-cast canoodling and some underaged narcotics; the kind of thing that’s more or less commonplace today. It may have been a big deal 20 years ago on a squeaky-clean teen show, but today it’s kind of mainstream for young stars to be embroiled in things like that.
The Screech-centric Lifetime movie is mostly about how how he felt alone and unspecial and all of the other kids were attractive and popular and he didn’t get any of that. To top it all off, he didn’t even get to experience the normal awkward teen life of a non-celebrity. He had to go to class with the other uber-famous actors and lament that he wasn’t finding the same kind of success with the ladies that Mario Lopez and Mark-Paul Gosselaar enjoyed.
It was kind of hard to interpret what we were supposed to get out of the whole thing. It was a movie about a show about teenage reality, which is pretty far removed from actual reality to start. Some serious Inception-level double- and triple-think. The Lifetime story made SBTB out as a show that did well with teens because it portrayed real conflicts teenagers had, but it’s hard to tell how much of that is genuine and how much is exaggerated.
To top it off, it seems like there’s plenty of line-blurring between the on-screen roles of the five non-Diamond stars and the off-camera personas. In other words, most of the time, it feels like Dylan Everett is playing Zack rather than playing MPG playing Zack. It also seems like there’s extra-special attention to the real-life fling between MPG and Lark Voorhies, something that seems even sadder because we don’t really know if it’s Screech or Dustin Diamond who is obsessed with Lisa (or is it Lark?). And just how close are MPG and Dustin Diamond? Is this really his close friend stabbing him in the back or is that strictly an on-camera thing?
We’re supposed to see some kind of ironic dichotomy in the personal lives of the actors being noticeably less squeaky clean what Disney delivered into teen and pre-teen television sets on Saturday mornings. In a show that is known for being “about real life,” the actors were having off-screen maturations far different from what should really be happening. On TV, big beefy Slater got drunk off that one beer and crashed Lisa’s mom’s car. It was a huge deal; I remember watching that episode growing up and remembering the earth-shattering magnitude of that one beer. Off screen, Screech is doing actual drugs and drinking vodka by the bottle.
The point of the Lifetime story is to make us look at Dustin Diamond’s life more sympathetically. He didn’t have a normal teen life, or last least that’s what he wants us to believe.
But hold on a minute … He was upset because he wasn’t getting the female attention he thought he deserved? He felt like the girls he was attracted to were interested in other, less-deserving boys? He felt like a loner because he was living in a unique existence that no one else could understand? His parents were unappreciative and controlling?
That sounds EXACTLY like a normal teen life.
It seems like the Screech story was more or less the inverse of what made SBTB resonate. It was a show made by Hollywood about regular people. Dustin Diamond is just a regular person going through exactly the same struggles as teenagers except he’s doing it in Hollywood. He isn’t some ultra-special case, he doubled back through the looking glass and came back out like the single, pimply, awkward kids who were watching him.
And here’s where the Lifetime story goes off the rails. For a moment, the whole thing might have had a saving grace. It could have been a story about how Hollywood stars, even after they’ve made it, still have the same problems as the fans who idolize them. It could have been about how all people are united by these same highs and lows and how perceived problems are manufactured into real problems. But it wasn’t.
It was a run at a shocking story that didn’t really even end up that shocking. Screech got into drinking and some people pretended to be his friends to try to cash in on his fame. Boo-Hoo. I feel for him, but his four or five years of perceived strife led to an entire life’s worth of relevance. Maybe it seems like his problems are understated because Lifetime kept the gloves on for television. Maybe we shouldn’t really feel that bad for someone who experienced a few years of loneliness and got a lifetime of fame out of it.
If I’m supposed to feel sorry for him, I don’t. You don’t. No one does. We’ve moved on.
At the end of all of it, I still ended up a little bit more cynical toward Dustin Diamond. He can’t move on. The other actors/actresses did. He didn’t. He’s just stuck. And the worst part is that to him, everything is still so relevant.
There’s a part in the Lifetime story where SBTB’s producer Peter Engel’s daughter is being shown around the set by Dustin Diamond. She calls him Screech and Engel says something like “Call him Dustin, Screech is only a character he plays on TV.” Dustin Diamond took the girl’s hand, led her off to see the set and said “Screech is fine.”
And for him, 20 years later, it still is.