by Gabriel Valdez
I mean, aside from “Why am I doing this?” and “Who else could bring us this magic but Lifetime?”
Yeah, it’s bad, but I knew that coming in. Why is it bad, though? Bad movies can be awful in so many different ways. What special route does The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story take?
1. It’s occasionally narrated by Sam Kindseth’s Dustin Diamond, who played Screech. It’s all based on Diamond’s tell-all book Behind the Bell. I hope you’ll forgive me that I’ve never read it. Certainly, if you’ve read it, I probably won’t forgive you.
It’s a smart move on paper, since Diamond had the most tumultuous post-Saved by the Bell career, involving drugs and a porn appearance. Kindseth sells us Diamond, more or less, but during the film-within-a-film re-enactments of specific Saved by the Bell episodes, he falls very short of emulating Screech. This is actually where most of the actors fail. We’re willing to buy into the idea that they’re believably embodying the real-life actors they’re meant to portray. Yet they rarely feel up to the task of delivering on the specific character roles in Saved by the Bell. That disconnect is pretty crucial, and is the single biggest weakness in most behind-the-scenes bios about actors.
2. Dylan Everett does a pretty solid baby Mark-Paul Gosselaar, but Gosselaar filled out across the show more than any other cast member. Make-up and costume do a solid job of making the rest of the cast mature, but a bit of darker hair color is all Zack gets. He looks more and more like the baby of the cast, which doesn’t fit reality or the direction the plot takes regarding his developing into a leader. His lack of aging feels very off, especially when it’s so correctable through make-up and costume. You can’t make an actor taller, but you can have him stand on off-screen platforms, or stick lifts in his shoes.
3. Alyssa Lynch plays Tiffany Thiessen, who played Kelly on Saved by the Bell. She looks very little like Thiessen, and acts even less like her. If you’re making a Saved by the Bell biopic, your Zack and Kelly ought to be compelling in some way. Everett’s vaguely solid, but Lynch is a plain miss. It’s not her fault; she’d be fine in any number of other projects. You have to lay most of the blame on casting and the sheer lack of energetic directing.
4. The ones that work: Taylor Russell does a pretty good Lark Voorhies, who played Lisa. She gets the syncopation of Lisa’s voice and her weird stances down, while showing some range in the behind-the-scenes muckety-muck.
5. If this whole thing were about Mario Lopez (who played A.C. Slater), Julian Works wouldn’t pull it off. In short bursts of story, though, Works embellishes on the actor’s easy charm and self-confident air. He’s well implemented as flavor for the rest of the story.
6. Tiera Skovbye. That’s where this whole thing’s at. She doesn’t look all that much like Elizabeth Berkley, who played Jessie, but man does she seem like Elizabeth Berkley. That’s what we call the Oliver Stone effect – to seem so much like a real person that you can convince an audience you look exactly like them, even when you clearly don’t.
Skovbye nails a re-enactment of the famous “caffeine pills” scene in which Saved by the Bell addressed drug addiction. Looking back at that scene, I can see how it gave kids pause and why it became important. In the best decision this movie makes (and there aren’t many), they don’t show us Skovbye re-enacting Berkley’s scene during filming, but rather rehearsing it in front of her fellow cast. This allows her to play the scene slightly differently, and Skovbye nails it in a way that gives you real, momentary hope for the film as a whole. Most of these cast members are just emulating real-life actors. Skovbye’s the only one owning her role and making it into something new.
7. So if you’re going to rank this thing in terms of “feels like a real person,” you go with Skovbye’s Berkley, you wait a bit so that everyone understands what a giant gap there is between her and the other actors, and then you list Works’s Lopez, Russell’s Voorhies, Everett’s Gosselaar, Kindseth’s Diamond, and then finally Lynch’s Thiessen. It’s weird then that the movie focuses on Everett, Kindseth, and Lynch. Yeah, there’s a script to follow, but for something as wooden as this, you’ve got to create opportunities for the actors who really nail their characters: Skovbye, Works, and Russell. The filmmaking behind this is by-the-numbers as can be, however. That’s a critic’s polite way of saying it’s unbelievably lazy. I think Unauthorized realizes what it has in certain actors and doesn’t have in others. It just couldn’t care less.
8. Among other things, I learned that Mark-Paul Gosselaar is a quarter Indonesian. This is what I mean when I talk about not judging an actor’s ethnicity unless you’ve truly done your research. (I’ve fact-checked this and, yes, he is.) In my mind, Gosselaar was only ever Caucasian. Never assume when writing or commenting on an actor’s ethnicity. Always do your research.
9. On a long list of glaring mistakes: After Thiessen and Berkley quit the show – I’d say it’s a piece of backstory I was never aware of, but that’s true for the whole thing – they spot their replacement as they leave the set. This would be Leanna Creel, who played biker Tori.
I realize you don’t want to pay for another starring role, and Creel only appeared during the last season…but having two actresses point at someone off-screen and talk about her for a scene while never showing us who they’re looking at screams out, “We’re being super-lazy here, folks. In fact, we just don’t care about our audience by this point because you’ve already watched 90% of the ads.”
If it’s budgetary (it’s not), there are a number of crowd scenes. Certainly, you can cut one extra out, fit a curly wig and leather jacket on her, and have her dress like Creel. I’m sure most people watching this (especially after two hours of it) are fans who remember the show fondly. A single cutaway to an actress playing Creel, speaking silently to a PA, wouldn’t have cost much (or anything), and is the kind of fan service for which a project like this exists. Failing to include Creel isn’t a mistake on its own, but centering a scene in which two characters talk about her from across the room while never showing her? That’s representative of the amount of effort put into this whole, shoddy project.
10. So how would I make a Saved by the Bell expose? I’m glad you asked. Let’s get the obvious out of the way. First off, I’d reveal something worth calling this mess an expose. We hear about the actors’ bad behavior after the fact, but we never get to see it. This causes quite a few scenes of high-drama scolding. Ooh, glad I stayed up to watch infant Zack (I’m beginning to think Everett is a real-life Benjamin Button) get yelled at!
Honestly, Saved by the Bell took more risks than its expose ever does. There either isn’t enough material in the show’s backstory to create a compelling two hours, or Lifetime didn’t want to upset fans by using it. Alternately, if you’d centered this on one character, like Diamond, and really pushed home his coming-of-age story, you could make something. Unauthorized makes empty gestures toward that, but it hardly cares enough to find a way to make it work.
Or you could have made this whole thing less of an expose and more about fan service, re-enacting more famous scenes and pushing the glossy side of the actors’ lives. If it’s not about schadenfreude, make it about nostalgia. It wouldn’t have made the movie better, but it could have made it more fun, and “watchable” would be a monumental improvement. This was never the script and hardly the cast to do that, but it is an alternate option should anyone ever seek to tell this non-story again.
But how would I do it? I’d David Lynch the bejesus out of it, that’s how. It wouldn’t be a Lifetime movie then, but who cares? The whole thing already has a film-within-a-film element going, and when faced with a cast that’s pretty incapable of performing, you’re guaranteed something worthwhile just by screwing with them. When are they acting? Are you Zack right now? Are you Mark-Paul Gosselaar? Are you Dylan Everett being fitted for the Tiffany Thiessen wardrobe? Why are there miniature Germans running around in dumpster trash? BECAUSE I’M DAVID LYNCH, THAT’S WHY!
Are the mobs of people outside the studio here for you, or are they – like you – just a figment of Mr. Belding’s imagination? As is all the world. Best of all, you stick a neon pink frame around it and use cheap, shimmery dream effects for the fade-out, and you pretty much have a Saved by the Bell episode right there.
Look, maybe it was late and The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story was the most interminable piece of dreck I’ve seen this year (and I’ve watched The Strain), but I’m confident a little Twin Peaks storyline mixed with cotton candy editing could have livened this wreck up. Either that or give it to the guy who did Sharknado.
The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story comes out on DVD/Blu-ray on November 3, brought to you by Lionsgate. So that’s what they’re doing with all that Saw money. Prepare your best drinking games, America, for this is the very reason they exist.
Don’t click on this, whatever you do: