The following is a sample from my upcoming Kindle book, So Excited, So Scared: The Saved by the Bell Retrospective, which is out next month, and available for pre-order right now. There are chapters like this on each of the other 85 episodes, as well as detailed sections on the history of the show, what happened next, and a bonus chapter about the Lifetime TV movie. More ordering links can be found at the bottom of this post.
Pinned to the Mat
“He used to be a jock, and now he’s a joke.”
Though most episodes of SBTB feel like something produced by Old White Dudes, the Dudes that made Pinned to the Mat are perhaps the Oldest and Whitest of the bunch. In the whole run of 86 episodes, there’s only a single show with a credited female writer, and it’s definitely not this one. Maybe my own hippie leanings are clouding my judgement, as I take a barefoot wander through the less-enlightened world of 1989, but there seems to be something inherently archaic about the weird gender issues at play here.
Career week at Bayside has everyone talking about their futures. With each unanimously playing to type, Jessie’s going to be a lawyer, Lisa a fashion designer, Screech an astronaut, and Zack a gameshow host — which is a bit he does throughout the episode, fake interviewing people with a ketchup bottle that he comically covers with his hand when they go off topic — while Kelly aspires to be a wife. Or an actress; but a married one for sure. And she also wants to be mom with lots of kids. Slater’s not bothered about the rest of his life, as he can’t see past his upcoming wrestling match against Valley’s undefeated champion, Melvin Nedick — a surname which possibly doubles as a finishing move. Of course, Zack’s got a scam going, and during a Time-Out, where a busy hallway of extras makes a really bad job of standing still, he explains how he’s bet his own dirtbike against that of Nedick, on Slater to win. Zack doesn’t even own a dirtbike, but he won’t need to, cos Slater’s gonna crush that Valley punk. Incidentally, dirtbikes were a real-life interest of Gosselaar’s, and their inclusion here is the result of the forms all the kids filled in when the series began, listing real-life hobbies that could be used in the show.
In a continuing observation, the young Dustin Diamond is a truly horrendous performer, with terrible timing, unclear diction, and speaking every line like someone who’s phonetically repeating words that have no meaning to him, like a stranded alien. This is possibly why he’s rarely given more than a single line of dialogue at a time, and is mostly kept to pulling stupid faces.
The gang’s barracking of Slater, and how he’s ruining his life by not having a career plan, plays on his mind, inspiring one of those now-familiar fantasy sequences. Set at a class reunion in the future — and we know it’s the future because Max has baby powder in his hair, denoting that he is old — the now-adult gang are introduced one by one. There’s Judge Jessie; Lisa the fashion designer; Captain Screech Powers, space explorer, who literally beams down from Mars; and lastly, Zack, who gets a hero’s welcome as the most successful game show host ever. If you’re wondering what Kelly’s done with her life — Teacher? CEO? Deputy Parks Director? then wonder no more, as Zack introduces his wife, Kelly Morris. As a demonstration of her skills, Kelly ‘presents’ a 19 inch CRT television as her gameshow-hosting husband looks on proudly. Dream big, girls.
When Slater enters, potbelly strapped into a leopard skin wrestling outfit, with a Hulk Hogan wig, tash, and voice, they barely remember him. Isn’t that the over the-the-hill loser who’s lost 30 matches in a row? And all because he didn’t didn’t pick a vocation at career day? While that kind of stupid pressure to make very important, arbitrary decisions about your entire life, when you’re barely old enough to sing the low bits in This Jesus Must Die, is still upheld by teachers today; kids, I wouldn’t sweat it. I told my career advisor I was going to be a juggler in the circus, and look at me now; I’m a penniless writer.
After his vivid future-flash, a panicked Slater quits the wrestling team, which is bad news for Zack, whose bet with Nedick is at stake. So, the blonde bastard surfs on the wave of sexism and washes up on the shore of another scheme. Inspired by Max’s tale of his own father quitting his job, only to have his mom drape an apron around his neck and show him where the kitchen is, causing him to run screaming from the house and back to work to avoid her stupid, female nagging, Zack whips out his cellular phone. Putting on his best guidance counsellor voice, he convinces Slater’s dad, the Major, to make his son find an after-school activity to replace the wrestling. The only activity Slater’s interested in is girl-watching, so Zack suggests the one place where you’ll find tons of the little madams shaking their tushes; but such a place will take a special kind of guy to be able to handle it.
“Are you man enough,” asks Zack, “for… the cooking club?” It is a hilarious notion, I grant you. A man in the kitchen. But there are girls there; girls who can be ogled and hit on; so Slater takes Zack’s advice and signs up.
“Slater in an apron?” says Zack, “He’ll be laughed back into the gym!” Just to be clear about what’s being sneered at here; the preparation of food. One of the basic tenements of survival as a carbon-based life-form.
The notion of a guy cooking being so comical, and the kitchen exclusively the domain of girls and pooves, is probably mystifying to younger audiences, but when I was a kid, around the time the show was airing, cookery was viewed as an effeminate pursuit. Along with hairdressing, it was a career choice that would give a dad a fatal aneurysm. Even venturing into the kitchen other than to ask your mam how much longer your tea was going to be, you aul’ bitch, or to have a slash in the sink, was tantamount to whipping your trousers down right there in the living room and camply directing another man’s william right up your pipe. Don’t blame Zack for the crimes of the 1980’s, where chefs were presumed to be homosexuals, before they reinvented themselves as terrifying ogre-men pretending to be really, really angry all the time, in the wake of Gordon Ramsay screaming the bricks from the walls just because someone’s flan was pointing north instead of south or some-such other bollocks.
Zack attends the cookery class too, just for the giggles, where a bubbly teacher has them throw away their recipes! She’s a regular Dead Poet’s Society, singing the instructions like jazz and tap-dancing around the room. Maybe the dads were right all along. What do you know, Slater bakes a perfect cake, and the girls, who’ve increasingly shown themselves to drop into fan-wafting vapour fits at any vaguely romantic deed, are positively simpering at how sensitive he is, because he’s baked one fucking cake. Devastated by the failure of his latest plan, Zack calls himself a “hula hoop.” Don’t be so hard on yourself, buddy.
At Zack’s behest, Nedick himself shows up to taunt Slater for being a girly girl cook, in order to reverse-psychology him back into the wrestling match, which makes no sense, as if Slater didn’t show, Nedick would win the match, and the dirtbike, by forfeit. Regardless, Nedick’s needling only further steels Slater’s resolve, and Zack’s forced to stick Screech in a singlet and offer him up as a replacement opponent, hoping it’ll lure Slater out of retirement. No dice, Preppy, and Screech and Nedick limber up at the gym for an inter-school bout that’s perfectly legal, despite there being about a dozen weight classes between them.
Luckily for Screech, Slater shows up at the last second and instantly pins Nedick with a German suplex that’d make Chris Benoit drop his World’s Greatest Dad mug in jealousy. With about thirty seconds to credits, Slater, who’s not only loved cooking, but shown a genuine natural aptitude for it, throws it all away at the last moment for nothing, as “my quiche blew up and I didn’t care.” Oh, cool then, back to the status quo. To wrap up the out-of-the-blue ending, everyone suddenly agrees that they’re just kids and shouldn’t worry about careers until later. Zack’s winning bet is also for nothing, as Belding informs him that gambling is banned in school and all he’s won is a detention.
There’s a way better ending hidden away in all of this, had they had Nedick confess to Zack that he didn’t really have a dirtbike either, so they were both betting imaginary dirtbikes with each other. I assumed that’s where it was going, because why the shit would anyone need two dirtbikes?