Exploiting the Archives, Paternity Leave Edition: Control Nathan Rabin: The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story
In 2011, I wrote about Dustin “Screech” Diamond’s 2009 memoir Behind the Bell for my Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club over at The A.V. Club. It was possibly the most obnoxious, toxic and insufferable book I’ve ever read, and I have read The Art of the Deal in its entirety. It made an indelible impact on me, in the same way having your testicles bitten off by a rampaging alligator might.
“Revisionist” doesn’t begin to do justice to Behind the Bell’s surreally sordid depiction of life on the set, behind the scenes and in front of the camera on Saved By The Bell. Diamond makes the taping of the iconically terrible tween sensation seem like a cross between Caligula and Boogie Nights, but with infinitely more sport-fucking and drug abuse.
You’d think that there’d be no going back after you write a libelous and heavily fictionalized book like Behind the Bell depicting the cheeseball pop culture landmark you’re known for as a non-stop fuck-fest interrupted intermittently for drug abuse and egregious personal misbehavior.
You would, astonishingly, be wrong.
Because five years after Behind the Bell shocked and mortified the tiny subset of the population fascinated by the emotional life of the guy who played Screech, Lifetime made The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story, a TV movie about the making of Saved by the Bell told from the perspective of Dustin Diamond, who regularly breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly, Zack Morris style.
And because I am a morbidly fascinated motherfucker, I decided that for the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin, the column where I give the living saints who contribute to this website a choice on two punishments to afflict me with, the choice this time would be between Bad Johnson, a recent comedy about a dude with an angry talking penis, and The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story, a schlocky TV movie told from the perspective of a man whose memoir feels like it was written by its author’s angry talking penis.
In Behind the Bell, Diamond blows square’s minds by revealing that life on the set of Saved by the Bell was nothing like the squeaky-clean show itself but rather an oversexed viper’s pit of narcissistic teen monsters fighting and fucking their way through adolescence. In Unauthorized Saved by the Bell, however, Diamond has decided that, actually, life on the set of Saved by the Bell was exactly like the show itself, fun, light and relentlessly bland, a good time, but also with some important lessons to impart.
In this bizarre new take, the show isn’t hot garbage elevated to iconic status by its tween and pre-tween audience’s terrible taste but rather ground-breaking, important and substantive television. When creator Peter Engel tells his cast towards the end of the film, “We created something unique, that touches people’s hearts. We made the whole world sit up and pay notice” the movie enthusiastically cosigns his sentiments whereas the Diamond of Behind The Bell depicts Engel—who is never anything other than a nice guy and kindly patriarch, albeit dressed throughout in a 1980s Nerd costume and afflicted with a terrible combover—as a dude who may have enjoyed bisexual underage threesomes with his cast.
The biggest change between Behind the Bell and Unauthorized Saved by the Bell comes in their depiction of Diamond. The Diamond of Behind the Bell is a proud troll who brags endlessly about the literally thousand of women he’s fucked in the most disgusting, guttural terms. He angrily dared audiences to hate him.
The diminutive, adorable Diamond of Unauthorized Saved by the Bell, in sharp contrast, spends all 87 tedious minutes of the movie begging the audience for affection. The repellent, oversexed and profane Diamond of the book is replaced by a big-eyed boy who just wants to be loved and accepted but is continuously overshadowed by his more attractive and confident costars.
More than anything, the Diamond of the movie is sad. Emo Screech is sad because his daddy is an overbearing jerk who yells at his son for reading them them “funny books” instead of playing football. Emo Screech is also sad because all of his costars got to do cool promotional events in sexy, international cities while he was reduced to signing autographs while buzzed on vodka in a shit town in the south. Emo Screech is similarly sad because Saved by the Bell isn’t intensely focussed on the friendship of Zack and Screech like he thinks it should be. Lastly, Emo Screech is sad because executives aren't interested in his exciting ideas about new, less geeky directions to take his character.
Yes, Emo Screech is sad, even as he realizes just what a magical and wonderful experience Saved by the Bell truly was, and how it changed not only his life, but so many people’s lives for the better. In The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story, the show is upgraded from an abysmal, laughably terrible piece of shit Diamond is embarrassed to be associated with to a wonderful, generation-defining piece of pop culture he could not be more proud of.
The Lifetime movie diligently tracks Saved by the Bell’s strange, singular evolution from its embryonic beginnings as Good Morning, Miss Bliss, a sitcom set in a high school in Indiana that served primarily as a vehicle for former Disney child star Hayley Mills, to Saved by the Bell, which did away with Mills’ character, moved the action from dreary old Indiana to glamorous, sexy California and focused on students rather than one particular teacher.
The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story provides a ridiculously hyperbolic origin story for Saved by the Bell that treats the decision to make a live-action Saturday morning sitcom for children just as inane and juvenile as the most mercenary cartoon as a development with the importance and significance of Elvis or the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show or the release of The Jazz Singer.
Diamond is ostensibly a stand-up comedian these days, a professional joke smith, so The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell’s complete dearth of humor comes as a surprise. What’s even more surprising is the TV turkey's incredible earnestness. It’s aimed at an audience that doesn’t just like and identify with Saved by the Bell, but considers it important, a seminal part of their childhood and adolescence.
When Diamond reflects that as it progressed and evolved from its origins in Good Morning, Miss Bliss, Saved by the Bell became “Louder and crazier, but we were also more like real teenagers” he sounds like the flummoxed makers of Itchy & Scratchy responding to pint-sized focus group respondents’ request for something that’s insane and impossibly far-fetched but also grounded and relatable.
The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story tries to have it both ways at times. This is more glaring during a stretch that treats Elizabeth Berkley’s intense desire to have the show tackle more adult and serious social issues, like drug addiction, as fundamentally noble, while also depicting her over-acting during the notorious speed pills episode as so impossibly over-the-top that Screech is right to laugh at it.
That unintentionally mocking laughter is one of the only times in the film that Emo Screech behaves in ways that are not honorable and kind. He suffers and suffers and suffers. Isn’t he entitled to a chuckle every now and then?
Throughout the course of 87 minutes that pass like eighty-seven days, Emo Screech and the rest of the gang—Kelly, Zack, A.C, Lisa Turtle, Turtle from Entourage, the Turtle Guy from Master of Disguise, Johnny Drama, Mario, Luigi, Marlon, Tito, The Gorch—are shocked and delighted to discover that Saved by the Bell inspires an almost Beatlemania level of hysteria and delirium among the tweens of the early 1990s.
Fans made Saved by the Bell a pop culture phenomenon. Their boundless, wildly disproportionate enthusiasm for lazy hackwork made garbage like this possible so it’s not surprising that fans of Saved by the Bell are a fairly central character here. Because of the nature of the project, they’re just as bland and superficially drawn as every other character.
In Behind the Bell, Diamond is a gross, leering predator who fucks and drinks and smokes away his despair over being younger and more awkward and angry than anyone else. The Diamond of Unauthorized, is never anything other than a victim. While Unauthorized skips gingerly past Diamond’s claim to have fucked over two thousand women, some of them on the set of Saved by the Bell, it does have a few scenes offering a PG-13, safe for TV version of the hard-R debauchery at the heart of Behind the Bell.
In this revisionist take on Behind the Bell’s revisionism, poor, innocent, puppy dog-like Dustin Diamond, in his quest for friendship and acceptance, is coldly and sadistically taken advantage of by an attractive, older Asian extra who offers the clean-cut young entertainer a few swigs from his flask. It isn’t long until Emo Screech is experimenting with marijuana, although the TV movie’s very TV movie conception of out of control early 1990s debauchery consists of a stoned Emo Screech mumbling catchphrases from Wayne’s World while his asshole friend tapes him with a mind towards blackmailing him with the footage.
The Diamond of Behind the Bell is so apoplectic about the notion of being permanently associated with Screech, that awful character he played on that shitty show he hates, that he seems ready, even eager, to strangle to death with his monster cock anyone who dares call him Screech, even in jest.
Emo Screech of The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell, however, ends the film by warmly and nostalgically reflecting "I guess some part of me will always be Screech. And you know what? I’m okay with that."
When you expose your ugliness and cruelty to the universe the way Diamond did in Behind the Bell you can’t go back and re-write history to make you look like a nice guy. Yet that’s exactly what Diamond attempts to do here.
It’s ironic, really, that the word “unauthorized” is in the name of this surreally terrible exercise in cheeseball pop mythologizing, because I could not imagine a movie that treated Saved by the Bell in a more respectful, even reverent fashion. It’s a goddamn lie is what it is. Then again, so was Behind the Bell. The truth probably lies somewhere between these two extremes, and I suppose I will discover it when I tackle Mario Lopez’s memoir for Nathan Rabin’s Literature Society, which is totally something I intend to do, and sooner rather than later.
Emo Screech is a singularly unreliable narrator but my man A.C Slater? As the many Peabody’s he’s picked up for Extra attest, he’s a paragon of truth, as well as one of our greatest journalists. I cannot imagine a journalistic story bigger or more important than the making of Saved by the Bell.
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