Monday, July 21, 2014

Through an Introvert's Lens: Saved By the Bell

For the previous installment, go here.

And so we continue to the next installment of the Introvert series, to a show that no one takes seriously, yet seems indelibly etched into our collective brain.  That would be Saved By the Bell, the original series that ran from 1989 until 1993.

Saved By the Bell followed six high school students on their daily adventures.  The series was a spinoff of a failed Hayley Mills star vehicle, Good Morning Miss Bliss, which aired in 1988.  Audiences were underwhelmed by the show's tepid humor and moralizing, and Good Morning Miss Bliss headed for the chopping block.  Yet instead of swinging the axe, NBC decided to buy the rights and rework the show, turning it into Saved By the Bell.  Among the "saved" were lead characters Zack Morris, Samuel "Screech" Powers, Lisa Turtle, and the principal, Richard Belding.  Gone were Miss Bliss, the rest of the cast, the Indiana location, and several IQ points. 

Set at Bayside High in Southern California, Saved By the Bell revolved around good-looking budding sociopath, Zack Morris, and his band of supporting players: easygoing jock, A.C. Slater; cheerleader "dream girl" Kelly Kapowski; brainy, neurotic Jessie Spano; vain, fashionable Lisa Turtle; and nerdy human punching bag, Screech Powers.  Hovering along the edges were doofy, disapproving Mr. Belding and a cast of teachers so oblivious that if someone replaced their brains with chia pets, no one would notice the difference.

Good Morning Miss Bliss was not an intelligent show by any means, but it did attempt to keep the characters grounded in reality.  Adults were flawed, but generally well-meaning.  The kids could be smart-mouthed and self absorbed, but also kind and thoughtful friends.  The characters were tepidly drawn, but they still felt like people as opposed to oversized cartoon characters.  Whereas Saved By the Bell was like "Pffft to all this nerd stuff!  I'm too cool for school!"

Saved By the Bell episodes followed a pattern with little variation.

  1. The school would hold an event or assign a project.
  2. Zack would develop a scheme to profit from it.
  3. Zack would convince his reluctant friends to join in.
  4. Zack would either outsmart the slow-witted school guardians, or learn a valuable lesson.

Saved By the Bell fancied itself a latter-day Ferris Bueller's Day Off.  Except in Saved By the Bell's case, it was an ordinary person outsmarting animated cardboard cutouts.  That Saved By the Bell worked to the extent it did had much to do with the fun performances delivered by its young cast.

As popular as the show was, I doubt even its tween audience took it for an accurate representation of high school.  So why bother to consider how Saved By the Bell deals with introverts?  Because though its viewers might not have bought the entire premise, certain attitudes the show carried may have rubbed off on them.  Think how many Saved By the Bell moments live on in popular culture.  I only have to say "I'm so excited!" for you to know exactly where I'm going.  It is worth seeing what messages the show imparted.

Are There Any Introverts On Saved By the Bell?

Does a show that's all about being bright and shiny and fun even know what "introvert" means?  Again, an introvert is someone who is generally

  • reserved
  • interested in big ideas rather than small talk
  • needs to be alone to replenish after socializing
  • thinks before he/she speaks
  • prefers to observe rather than be the center of attention

Is there anyone like that on Saved By the Bell?  Bueller?  No character fits perfectly, but the one who comes closest is Screech.  And how does Saved By the Bell treat him?  Not well.  

Screech is the perpetual tag-along, existing to make clueless statements that the others respond to with scorn that frequently crosses the line into cruelty.  Lisa is the worst offender, but Zack, Slater, Jessie, and even Kelly have gotten in their digs.  Some examples:

Jessie: Eh, I hate coffee.  Suzy, can I have another cup please?
Zack: So why are you drinking it?
Screech: What else is she gonna do with the coffee Zack?
Zack: Use your head as a doughnut and dunk you in it.


Lisa: I made these friendship bracelets in Fashion Club.
Screech: Did you make one for me?
Lisa: For you, I'm making a friendship muzzle.
Screech: I'm speechless.
Lisa: That's the idea.


Screech: You hooligans.  You demolished my song.
Lisa: No we didn't, Screech.  It still says "Bayside."
Slater: Yeah, and we even left the words you put in: "it," "and," "the," "Bayside."
Screech: Oh... well in that case, it's okay then.

At the beginning of the series, Screech is a socially awkward nerd, but by the end, he is a caricature.  Though a science genius, his intelligence is given almost no respect, except for when the episode needs it to serve the plot.

He's not an awkward mess when he's in his element, 
in this case tutoring Kelly in "Beauty and the Screech."
Instead, Screech's most defining trait is his worst: his obsession with Lisa Turtle, who clearly despises him.  Despite Lisa telling him over and over and over that she is not interested in a relationship, Screech continues to pursue her.  To make matters worse, the one time his friends "encourage" him, it is to tell him to not take Lisa's "no" for an answer! 

Screech is occasionally given dignity, such as the story arc where he dates a fellow nerd, Violet Bickerstaff.  Although their geekiness is played for soft laughs, their love and their goals are taken seriously.  And shockingly, Screech goes from being a joke to a romantic and loyal partner, such as when he saves Violet from stage fright in "Glee Club."

Too often, though, Screech is given far less respect than the other characters.  He is portrayed as socially out of his depth and dense.  The other characters' reactions are always followed by a laugh track, suggesting that their nasty remarks are an acceptable response.  His "friends" rarely take his interests seriously; with few exceptions, they are just more fuel for derision.   

Does Saved By the Bell Value Anything Introverted?

So Saved By the Bell punishes its most obviously introverted character.  But what's more disturbing is the way it also seemingly punishes "introverted" ideas.  

The second-most caricatured person on the show is Jessie.  She is an unlikely introvert, being frequently outspoken and unafraid of the spotlight.  Yet she is also the only character besides Screech who is brainy, well read, and cares about big ideas.  On Good Morning Miss Bliss, her counterpart Nikki Coleman was fairly low key.  By contrast, Jessie is portrayed as a shrill and self-righteous killjoy whose values are openly mocked by "cooler" characters like Zack and Slater.

Yes, Jessie.  I too am offended.
That's not to say only introverts care about big ideas, but they are generally more associated with deeper thinkers, who are more likely to be introverted.  If this were a better show, I'd think Saved By the Bell was calling Jessie a poseur for believing that just because she adopts some heavy slogans, she is on the same level as the deep thinkers who made real sacrifices.  Instead, the show's mentality is more likely: "Nyahh!  Girls who care about stuff are stoopid!"

It's noteworthy that the one time Jessie's concerns are taken seriously, it's because Zack shares them.  In the episode "Pipe Dreams," Zack and company dismiss Jessie's concerns about the hazards of drilling for oil on the football field until an oil spill kills the animals they just freed.  Zack then gyrates from being gung-ho for oil riches to leading a resistance against the oil company.  It seems like the episode intends for us to go on a similar journey: we're supposed to think Jessie is just her usual shrill bitch self, and therefore worth ignoring, until Zack, sees the Truth.  Only then is it safe to think that environmental destruction is a not so good thing.

But otherwise?  Women's equality?  World peace?  The environment?  If you care, you walk alone, and Saved By the Bell will stick out a foot to ensure you trip.

Then Again...

Can you really criticize a show that brazenly stereotypes everything?  There's your howling pack of pocket-protector-wearing nerds, your dumb jocks, your bimbo cheerleaders, and so on.

That's an argument that South Park leans on heavily.  Yet as with South Park, a careful viewer can observe that even on shows that mock everything, certain things are treated with more respect.  On Saved By the Bell, Zack and what Zack stands for are the gold standard.

Zack is good looking, smooth talking.  He has great clothes and hair (for the early 90s) and has the latest in high-tech gadgetry (in his case, a shoebox-size cell phone).  His peers listen to him, look up to him.  He stands for fun, no rules, "too cool for school."  He is, in short, the ultimate extrovert -- if not the ultimate embodiment of the heterosexual white male in all his glory.

Yeah, yeah, you're awesome.
We, the viewers, are supposed to care what Zack thinks.  More than what Screech thinks, or Jessie thinks, or Slater, or Lisa, or Kelly.  We are supposed to care when he learns.  In the world of Saved By the Bell, if Zack doesn't support your beliefs, you can't just ignore him.  You must work to make him change!  And when he says he has changed, we are supposed to believe that he is sincere.  He is the sun around which the show revolves.

Note that it didn't have to be this way just because Zack is the main character.  Plenty of shows have main characters who are awkward and yearning for an ideal just beyond their grasp.  But here, Zack is the ideal.  Unless he goes through one of his routine "completely convincing changes of heart," if he does not share your values, your values are worthless.

In some ways, he's an extreme version of the Power of the Extrovert that we saw in Wicked.  Elphaba was worth mocking until Galinda decided it was time to stop.  Here, Jessie's causes or Screech's cares don't matter unless Zack decides that they do.  The extrovert gets to define who the introverts are and whether their beliefs are worthwhile.  And plenty of tween introverts who tuned in to Saved By the Bell would have learned that they were not.


To sum up, how does Saved By the Bell treat introverts?

Number of Introverts: One

Is the Introvert Prominent?: Mostly

Is the Introvert Active?: More reactive

How Do Other Characters Treat the Introvert: Like an ape that has just been lobotomized.

What is the Introvert's Reward/Punishment Compared to Others?: Constantly mocked, whereas the less introverted characters get treated with more respect.

Aw hell.  One for the road...

The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.  The Zack .gif is courtesy of lolslater.

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