Why Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Saved by the Bell’ reunion broke the Internet

According to the Internet, Saved by the Bell doesn’t need any saving. Jimmy Fallon made sure everyone knew that—in case they didn’t already—on Wednesday during The Tonight Show. Fallon featured a segment on his show that reunited the MVPs of Bayside High School for a reunion that had almost all of the Internet dusting off their cheerleading pom-poms and throwing them up in the air in panicky excitement.  Fallon’s segment proved that the Internet is one of those special adhesives that only breaks when something really powerful cracks it—such as the release of a new Star Wars trailer, the announcement of a new Ghostbusters cast and apparently a reunion of Saved by the Bell.

While others ‘90s properties have faded (Brotherly Love, anyone?), Saved by the Bell has stubbornly clung to the Internet’s cultural consciousness—and it’s not just because of our blatant love of everything from the decade. To understand the undying popularity of Saved by the Bell, you have to dig deeper and understand why people love sitcoms in the first place.

For a short while, sitcoms relieve us of our daily troubles—it’s an escape from a harsh reality full of economic troubles and political turmoil. Dustin Rowles of Pajiba said, “It would be nice to see [a sitcom] try to tackle the real juggling act that so many of us experience: maintaining and establishing many constellations of friendships, family relationships and professional obligations and managing them as we hopefully grow, develop and change over time.” But if people wonder why sitcoms don’t mirror real life more, that’s because people don’t want them to. Considering the enduring success of The Big Bang Theory and even Two and a Half Men, people often like their comedies manufactured and a bit tacky—which is why Saved by the Bell remains just as revered today among its core audience as it was when it first aired all those years ago.

To understand the tidal waves the Saved by the Bell reunion had on the Internet, one simply has to look at the inspirations that it has created. For example, a group of young filmmakers in Texas infatuated with the show went as far as making a few short films about Saved by the Bell to show their adoration. Sure, they are just movies, but one of them—a short called Saved by the Belding—actually features two alums of the show, including Mr. Belding’s own Dennis Haskins. It’s been making a splash ever since the reunion set the Internet ablaze, with Mario Lopez even tweeting a link to the film itself. As Saved by the Belding co-director Scott Hamilton said, “It used to come on 4 times a day after school when I was a kid, so it didn’t take long before you’d see every episode. Now in adulthood I can still turn it on and enjoy all of the old episodes. The characters feel like old friends.”

The last statement rings particularly true. Sitcoms are popular because they make us feel good, like having your hair braided after a long day at work. Sitcoms offer a level of consistency that’s unchallenging and often comforting. If anything, that consistency can invoke strong feelings of happiness. As Mary Dalton of the Huffington Post said, “Another reason sitcoms … persist on the network schedule is that this type of show can adapt to the times while still offering the comfort of the familiar. And, in these uncertain economic times with rising income inequality and contested cultural values, the sitcom feels reassuring because of its predictable format.”

A lot of what makes a sitcom popular and successful is a proven formula that doesn’t get old or evolve—which includes the characters.

Unlike a drama like Breaking Bad, where Walter White’s transformation was a hallmark of that show, most characters in sitcoms stay the same. As a matter of fact, a lot of what makes a sitcom popular and successful is a proven formula that doesn’t get old or evolve—which includes the characters. Think about it. What if Ross Geller on Friends suddenly changed professions or stopped being so neurotic? He wouldn’t be Ross—at least not the version fans had come to expect. Characters on sitcoms aren’t really people—they are skeletons of people, like fossils. They just barely manage to have the borderline characteristics of someone without having a personality that changes and evolves over time, like real people do. That’s why people can project themselves onto Ross, Chandler, or Rachel—because they feature just enough attributes that people see in themselves.

That’s why networks like CBS will spend millions re-negotiating contracts for sitcom stars, as in the case of Friends of The Big Bang Theory, because they know if they lose even one of those actors, the formula no longer stays the same. If the that fragile balance is in jeopardy, then the entire ship is at risk to capsize. A successful sitcom usually hinges on the chemistry of the cast, so to mess with that chemistry is like playing with fire. It’s the consistency of the routine that keeps us coming back, like when you hope that barista at Starbucks is there to make your Mocha latte because he knows exactly how to make it. Sure, you’ll still drink that latte if someone else makes it, but it won’t taste the same. Human beings intrinsically crave things that will reliably active the pleasure centers in own brain.

A show like Saved by the Bell will do that simply because it never changes. It’s fitting that the cast of Saved by the Bell looks like they haven’t aged a single day 1989 (well, besides Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s brow), because for fans, it’s like the show never ended. Zack, Kelly, Slater, and Jessie are still in high school, wearing with the same clothes and featuring the same personality ticks that they’ve had for 25 years. For everyone who wishes that high school never ended or they could return to a time when life was as easy as carefree as spending your afternoon watching cheesy after-school programming, there’s a bit of wish-fulfillment involved. Saved by the Bell offers viewers a time capsule that gets buried and then dug up, carrying mementos that remind you of the good parts of your childhood. It’s usually the fond memories that get buried, not ones we’d rather forget.

Saved by the Bell isn’t just a time capsule for a previous generation. It helped invent it. 

According to Slate’s Willa Paskin, Saved by the Bell isn’t just a time capsule for a previous generation. It helped invent it. Paskin credits the show with “inventing the tween,” helping inspire the next two decades of youth culture, including shows like Boy Meets World and Salute Your Shorts. After the failure of Good Morning, Miss Bliss, a show starring The Parent Trap’s Hayley Mills, one NBC executive reported that “his daughter loved the teens on the show, but didn’t care at all about the adults.” Paskin writes that the executives then came up with the brilliant idea to make a spin-off show featuring the program’s youth characters: Zack Morris, Lisa Turtle, and Screech, The result was “a show aimed squarely at kids who aren’t quite children anymore, but are not yet teenagers. Without naming the name, the tween is born.” 

For Paskin, the newfound “innocence” of the tween years “is the core of Saved by the Bell’s appeal, an appeal completely disproportionate to the show’s actual quality.” It doesn’t have to be good—it just has to mean something to us.

And the show was incredibly meaningful to the generation who grew up with it, not only the show’s target demographic of 12-year-olds but also their high-school-aged siblings. PopMatters’ Jeremiah Massengale reports that it was an instant hit, with “50 percent of American teenage girls watching television were glued to Saved by the Bell” only a few months after the show debuted. Massengale explains that this was because it was one of the few shows where high school was “cool,” and even if the characters’ problems were dealt with using a certain amount of after-school special gloss, the show treated tweens’ lives like they mattered:

What the sitcom managed to do, in the process, was to make a utopia out of high school life. Kids watching Saved by the Bell undoubtedly thought that was what high school would be like, a realistic blueprint for the years that would follow. You wanted Zack and Kelly to end up together, but you also believed that you’d date someone exactly like them in school. Meanwhile, the show tackled the things that mattered to teens most. It dealt with the everyday, commonplace issues that teens deal with, that seem like the world to them: prom, geometry tests, acne, crushes, detention, summer jobs, first dates, and heartbreak. Even though your friends weren’t as ridiculously attractive as Kelly or Slater, you could relate to the situations.

The focus was on the teens. Entirely. You didn’t see many adults on the show; you hardly ever even saw the main characters’ parents. It exclusively followed the daily life of young people. With rare exception, the adults that the high schoolers did interact with were entirely inept. Bayside’s principal Mr. Belding (Dennis Haskins) was less of a guide to the gang at Bayside and more of a bumbling fool for Zack to outsmart time and time again.

Like Zack says at the conclusion of a season one episode, when he breaks the “fourth-wall” and talks to the audience, “I love school. Too bad classes get in the way.”

In the minds of viewers, the show functioned the same way: It was that feeling of being in school without having to deal with teachers or homework; for anyone that wished home room lasted just a little bit longer before having to rush to class, Saved by the Bell is that extra time between home room and first period—while that first class might be inevitable, it’s so much more fun hanging out with friends (until Mr. Belding catches you in the halls). Like looking through an old yearbook, tuning into an episode of Saved By the Bell on Netflix might inspire a certain amount of head-scratching and thoughts of “What was I thinking?” for some, but for others, it wasn’t just a reflection of our youth. It was our youth, and in today’s digital world, it’s only a click away.

Photo via NBC/YouTube

Dan Marcus

Dan Marcus

Dan Marcus is a geek culture reporter based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in First Showing and Trek Movie.