Rants and Raves
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Rants and Raves

Nostalgia Done Right: My Night at the “Saved by the Bell” Pop-Up Restaurant

The second incarnation of Saved by the Max popped up in West Hollywood last month after a successful run in Chicago. My visit was filled with surprises and got me thinking about unique ways Hollywood can cash in on the nostalgia craze.

“Saved by the Bell” cast photo (left; copyright: NBC/Peter Engel Productions); A view of the West Hollywood pop-up (right; copyright: David Miller)

When a Saved by the Bell themed restaurant popped up in Chicago in 2016, I knew I had to go. After all, the series was my original pop culture obsession and my equally pop culture-loving, Windy City-dwelling brother gave me the perfect excuse to go. It was an utterly delightful explosion of nostalgia for us both. Despite my visit to the previous incarnation, my trip to the new West Hollywood location last night was an even more magical experience, right down to the surprise appearance of original cast member.

The Strange History of Saved by the Bell

Saved by the Bell has a pretty unique history by network television standards. Its broadcast history dates back to July 11, 1987 when NBC aired a pilot titled Good Morning, Miss Bliss in the time slot normally occupied by long-running hit The Facts of Life. The pilot starred former child actress Hayley Mills (most famous for her roles as twin sisters in the 1961 Disney classic The Parent Trap) as Miss Carrie Bliss, a compassionate teacher at an Indianapolis junior high school. In the pilot, her students were played by a trio of actors who would go on to great success — Brian Austin Green (Beverly Hills, 90210), Jaleel White (Family Matters), and Jonathan Brandis (seaQuest DSV).

On November 30, 1988 — a full 16 months after the pilot aired — a retooled version of Good Morning, Miss Bliss began airing on the Disney Channel. The series inexplicably replaced the original teenagers with a quintet of fresh faces — Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), Lisa Turtle (Lark Voorhies), Samuel “Screech” Powers (Dustin Diamond), Mikey Gonzalez (Max Battimo), and Nikki Coleman (Heather Hopper) — and brought in a new actor to play the school’s principal, Mr. Belding (Dennis Haskins). The series was canceled after 13 episodes, the final one of which aired on March 18, 1989.

Five months after Good Morning, Miss Bliss was canceled, a retooled version of the series, retitled Saved by the Bell, aired its pilot episode. The revamped series relocated from Indianapolis to the semi-fictional California neighborhood of the Palisades and inexplicably brought Zack, Lisa, Screech, and Mr. Belding 2,100 miles across the country to Bayside High School. The first episode aired on NBC in primetime on August 20, 1989. It focused on a dance contest hosted by famed DJ Casey Kasem and introduced three new characters that would go on to become iconic — Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley), A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez), and Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen). The week following the pilot, the series moved to its Saturday morning time slot where it would grow into a pop culture phenomenon.

Cast photo from the final season (copyright: NBC/Peter Engel Productions)

This incarnation of the series — by far its most famous — aired for four seasons and produced 86 episodes as well as a feature length primetime movie that found the gang visiting Kelly’s grandfather in Hawaii (Saved by the Bell Hawaiian Style was watched by over 17 million viewers when it aired on November 27, 1992). The sextet of Zack, Kelly, Slater, Jessie, Screech, and Lisa appeared together in almost all episodes of the series — save the 10 in which Kelly and Jessie are inexplicably replaced by a “biker chick” named Tori Scott (Leanna Creel). The switch-out occurs without explanation and utterly perplexed fans. In fact, a satisfying explanation for what happened still has never really been provided. Nevertheless, the original sextet was reunited for a graduation episode in primetime that aired on May 22, 1993.

The next fall, not one but two spinoffs of the wildly popular series aired on NBC. Zack, Slater, Screech, and Kelly relocated to fictional Cal U (and NBC’s primetime schedule) for Saved by the Bell: The College Years. The series replaced Jessie and Lisa with Leslie Burke (Anne Tremko) and Alex Tabor (Kiersten Warren) and added former NFL star Bob Golic as their dorm advisor and Holland Taylor (who would go on to win an Emmy for The Practice and co-star on Two and a Half Men) as Dean Susan McCann. The new cast members never really clicked and many fans struggled with the show’s somewhat more mature tone. It was canceled due to low ratings after 19 episodes and culminated in a primetime movie entitled Saved by the Bell: Wedding in Las Vegas, which wrapped up various plot lines and featured the wedding of Zack and Kelly. It aired on October 7, 1994 — just over 6 years after Zack Morris made his television debut.

Eager to fill the vacancy left by Saved by the Bell on its Saturday morning schedule, the executives at NBC gave the green light to a spinoff series that featured Mr. Belding overseeing a new group of students. It was straightforwardly titled Saved by the Bell: The New Class. In the second season (following the cancellation of The College Years), Screech returned to be Mr. Belding’s assistant. The New Class was marked by a revolving door of young actors and was never the ratings hit or pop culture phenomenon of the previous incarnation. Nevertheless, it lasted 7 seasons and 143 episodes.

My Childhood Obsession

I was only 6 in 1990 when Saved by the Bell truly exploded. It was aimed at a children a bit older than me, but I nevertheless became hooked. Borderline obsessed. Watching the series — and the spate of knockoffs it generated (California Dreams, anyone?) — was my Saturday morning ritual. I followed both of its spinoffs, at least for a bit. I purchased and read all 21 Saved by the Bell spinoff novels written by Beth Cruise and proudly displayed them on my bookshelf. I made my mom buy me copies of various teen magazines at the grocery store when the cast would appear on the cover. I owned the soundtrack on cassette and knew all the words to their graduation song, not to mention every word to the epic dream sequence episode where the gang (inexplicably sans Jessie) form a hit pop band known as the Zack Attack (the Season Three episode “Rockumentary.”)

I recently tried to rewatch some episodes of the show a quarter century later and found myself cringing. Like most shows aimed at pre-teens, the jokes are corny, the morals are heavy-handed, the production values are cheap, and the acting is broad. This is especially true of the early episodes; the later ones (as well as the two primetime movies) play ever-so-slightly better. Although the discrepancy between our fond memories of movies and television we loved as children and the reality of rewatching it as an adult is a well-known phenomenon, I still found myself curious about what it was about the show that I fell in love with.

Upon reflection, one of the main attractions for me was the message of inclusion. For a bullied kid who felt like they never fit in, the idea of a school where a rich preppy (Zack) and a beautiful cheerleader (Kelly) were best friends with a Hispanic jock (Slater), a black fashionista (Lisa), a passionate feminist/activist (Jessie), and a hapless nerd (Screech) was akin to utopia. They teased and argued, but they always made up and stuck together.

For a boy who was told he wasn’t normal for wanting to be friends with girls, the show’s normalization and occasionally nuanced examination of male-female friendships was affirming. If it was cool for Zack to be BFFs with Jessie, maybe it was okay for me to sit with the girls at lunch.

The show was also attractive due to the almost complete absence of the characters’ parents, which placed it in mark contrast to the family oriented TV series that were airing in primetime (Family Matters, Full House, etc.) For the most part, the gang had to figure it out for themselves and form a cohesive support system. (Interestingly, the idea of a young, attractive sextet of three men and three women having to navigate the trials of emerging adulthood with only each other as guides and support is also a description of Friends, which premiered on the same network a year after the Saved by the Bell graduation episode aired.)

I also can’t deny that as much as I would like to think I was an atypically sophisticated child, the juvenile humor was genuinely funny to me at that age. Let’s just say that for better and for worse, the creative team knew their audience.

It was also just educational enough to convince my parents that it was a good use of my time. I learned about issues like environmentalism, drunk driving, class divides, homelessness, and — most memorably — the addictive potential of caffeine.

Copyright: Meredith Corporation

And then there’s that cast. No performance on Saved by the Bell was going to be mistaken for truly great acting, but all six of the actors were better than they had to be. They were also charismatic enough to sell (most) of the ridiculous material the scripts delivered. There is no clearer evidence of the show’s superb casting than the realization that each cast member went on to continued success in acting (which is quite the anomaly for a pre-teen sitcom). Mark-Paul Gosselaar was on NYPD Blue for five seasons and continues to act on primetime series; Tiffani Amber-Thiessen had a 136-episode run on 90210 and currently has a show on the Cooking Channel; Elizabeth Berkley followed up her infamous film debut in Showgirls with a number of big and small screen appearances; Mario Lopez made appearances on Dancing with the Stars and Nip/Tuck and has been co-hosting entertainment news program Extra for over a decade; Dustin Diamond played the role of Screech across four series nonstop without a break from 1988–2000; and Lark Voorhies — the one with the least successful post-SBTB career — had a recurring role on daytime soaps Days of Our Lives and The Bold and the Beautiful. The sextet is so beloved that they have been the subject of a trashy tell-all book, an even trashier Lifetime TV movie adaptation of said book, and a highly buzzed reunion on the cover of People and a 2015 episode of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

Saved by the Max

On Sunday, June 24th, I arrived with my husband John and friends Chris and Kevin for our reservations at Saved by the Max’s new West Hollywood location. For even casual viewers of the series, the care that went into recreating the sextet’s beloved burger joint The Max is truly astounding. From the pink neon sign on the wall to the gaudy pattern of the booths to the style of the juke boxes to the design of the menus, each piece is lovingly recreated. It becomes quickly clear that this is more than a cash grab (as has been the case with nearly every other pop culture-themed pop up I have seen). It was a labor of love constructed by people who the show had also meant the world to as a child.

In addition to the recreated Max, there are countless touches that make it a special experience. As you enter there are a series of red lockers that feature one for all 7 cast members (even Tori). Inside each character’s locker there are props that reference specific memorable moments of the series’ run. These include Zack’s gargantuan cell phone, Kelly’s pom poms, Lisa’s crutches, Jessie’s caffeine pills, Slater’s singlet, and Screech’s creepy shrine to Lisa. Across the restaurant there is a display case featuring countless mementos from the series including props from the series, a signed script, and merchandise (including action figures I wish I had known existed and my beloved SBTB novels). There’s even a separate dining room modeled after Mr. Belding’s office.

Fitting with the theme, the menu leans far more toward comfort food than the usual trendy West Hollywood fare. Think burgers, fries, milkshakes not kale and vegan patties. But this is no fast food; each dish is truly inspired with a punny name and high quality ingredients. As we munched on dishes like the Bayside Burger, the Kelly Kapowski (a Monte Cristo sandwich), and the AC Sliders, we started reminiscing about the series, various episodes of which were playing on TVs behind the bar. Following reports of a recent Dennis Haskins/Mr. Belding sighting at the new location, we started joking about who would be the most exciting cast members to have show up while we dined.

Almost on cue, a flurry of activity swept through the restaurant. After a double take marked by utter disbelief, I realized that a few feet away from me was none other than Lisa Turtle herself, Lark Voorhies. She had arrived for dinner with her family and graciously posed for photos with a few tables before taking the best seat in the house — the table right underneath the neon pink sign. She looked far more beautiful and acted far saner than recent tabloid stories would lead you to believe, but she was shuffled through the crowd fairly quickly and barely uttered a word.

Maybe it was the appearance of an icon from my youth or the nostalgic setting or the sugar rush from my milkshake. But whatever the cause, my night at Saved by the Max was a magical one that I won’t soon forget.

What Hollywood Can Learn from Saved by the Max

The era of Peak TV has also become one of Peak Nostalgia with revivals and reboots of countless shows hitting networks and streaming services. But not every classic show can be revived, due to the lack of availability or interest of key cast members or a premise that doesn’t accommodate it. And not every show should be revived, as has been noted by multiple creative teams of TV classics who have refused to jump on the bandwagon out of the (perhaps well-founded) fear they could tarnish the reputation of the original with a misguided or tepidly received revival.

Saved by the Bell falls in the latter camp. It should not be revived. I have no desire to learn about Kelly and Zack’s messy divorce, Lisa’s bankruptcy, Screech’s psychiatric hospitalization, Slater’s journey to wokeness, and Jessie’s #TimesUp activism. But just because it shouldn’t be revisited in the form of new episodes featuring the old cast doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be revisited.

Saved by the Max is a successful endeavor that satisfies fans and generates cash. It is an immersive experience that is at once a museum, a pop culture nostalgia trip, and a unique West Hollywood dining experience. I can easily see this being imitated with the likes of Monk’s Cafe (Seinfeld), Cheers (Cheers), Cafe Nervosa (Frasier), or Central Perk (Friends). As much as I think I want to see a revival of that quartet of classics, maybe what I really want is a night out with friends reminiscing about how wonderful they were.

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Passionate cinephile. Music lover. Classic TV junkie. Awards season blogger. History buff. Avid traveler. Mental health and social justice advocate.