So Excited, So Scared — Teen Line
The following is a sample from my Kindle book, So Excited, So Scared: The Saved by the Bell Retrospective, which is AVAILABLE TO BUY 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.
And for more samples from the book:
“This young lady is handicapped…”
The opening of this Universe-T episode sees Zack saunter down the staircase, steal a bite of a nerd’s breakfast, get distracted by a girl’s ass in tight jeans and follow her, giving her a well-received nod of “well done for the nice ass,” before sliding into Belding’s office, in one of those ‘get this cool guy’ introductions.
It’s time for the kids to decide on the annual seniors community service project, and while I’m sure Zack and Slater would prefer to dole out free door-to-door breast exams, Tori suggests a teen line and rap room. Much like the teen line in 1-900-Crushed, it would allow kids to talk to other kids anonymously about their problems, while a rap room — a phrase that thankfully results in no misunderstood rhyme-dropping — is a face-to-face version of the same concept.
With the teen line in place, Tori runs off a list of rules, barring its operators from asking for real names, home phone numbers, or to meet the callers. A blackboard visible at the back of the classroom lists eight different phone numbers for the various issues on which to call the untrained, unqualified highschool kids.
CHILDREN OF DIVORCE
Yeah, that’s who you want to confide in when you’re necking a bottle of sleeping pills because your father molested you; Screech. Zack’s probably manning the sexual abuse line so he can jerk off over the deets. Proving that he should never be left in a position of authority, Zack’s first call, from a girl called Melissa struggling with her overprotective parents, sees him complimenting her on her sexy voice, and telling her to set back all the clocks in her parents’ house to sneakily extend her curfew, which is the same scam the Gremlins used to get fed after midnight. Then he finds out where she lives and talks her into a date at The Max.
Tori scalds him for breaking the rules, but ain’t nobody getting in the way of his excitable wang. Zack arrives to find Melissa already waiting for him, and sat at a table. He tells her how pretty she is and invites her over to the jukebox to pick out some music. When he turns around, in a moment used as the cliff-hanger break to commercial, it’s revealed that she’s in a wheelchair.
“Whoa! You’re in a wheelchair!” gasps Zack, setting the tone for his open-mouthed, fumbling attitude to disabilities; an issue he approaches with the awkwardness of Ricky Gervais, a man whose unending fixation with tiptoeing around the supposed social minefield of interacting with minorities is meant to be observational humour, but just exposes his own weird hangups (“Isn’t it awkward when you meet a black person? We never know how to talk to them, do we, guys? Guys?”). Similarly Zack seems near to collapse, in a room-spinning daze, and having to lean against the jukebox just to keep himself from falling. Having used the teen line so that a guy could get to know the real her before he saw the chair, Melissa tells Zack she’ll understand if he wants to leave. While he does look desperate to make a bolt for it, it’s likely the only thing stopping him is the worry of rubbing a crippled girl’s nose in the sight of a pair of functioning legs as they speed towards the exit. So, they continue their date.
When the rest of the gang shows up, he introduces them to Melissa with the stern announcement that she’s handicapped but comfortable with it, so just get over it, okay? None of the others are remotely awkward in the least, and treat her just like a regular person, although you’d think someone would have to explain it to Screech considering he didn’t know what homeless meant. Incidentally, there are no ramps in The Max, which has two giant steps inside the entrance, and is really cramped, so I’ve no idea how she took her spot at the booth.
Actress Jennifer Blanc, not in a wheelchair in real life, racked up a prolific set of acting credits post-Bell, before moving into the producing of b-movie horror flicks. She’s also married to action legend Michael Biehn.
Now part of the gang, Melissa’s invited to see the teen line headquarters, where Zack wheels her around, even though she can do it herself. Having stumped Zack and Slater — even though Slater dated lanky Jessie for almost three years — a girl who hates herself because she’s tall finds comfort in the wise advice of Melissa, impressing Zack no end.
“Even though she’s handicapped, she gave Cathy perfect advice!”
“Zack, my mind’s not handicapped,” she replies.
“You can say that again!” says Zack.
His sensitivity continues on a date at the movies, where he makes a big public scene because someone’s illegally parked in the handicapped space. Now a lectern-pounding crusader for the less fortunate, he rants and raves about the evils of a world that can’t find it in its heart to care about disabled people, by reminding them their legs don’t work every five seconds. He protests the lack of wheelchair access in the bathrooms, and the fact Melissa has to pay full price when she’s not even using one of the theatre’s seats, finally making a guy sat in front slump down because “my date’s in a wheelchair!” leaving Melissa with her brave little head in her brave little hands.
The next day, Zack takes offence when Slater asks how the date went — oh you mean because she’s handicapped? — before Mr. Belding comes in with some bad news. The school budget’s been cut, meaning the end of all non-essentials, like teen line.
Meanwhile, Screech’s sub-plot involves him brushing off a kid in the rap room, who came into moan about his annoying little brother, to witter on and on about his own lonely life as an only child, and using an inflatable doll as a pretend sibling. The kid returns to dump his younger brother — Tommy — onto Screech, who lugs him around for the rest of the episode as his new little bro. A nine-year-old should be in school during term time, making this merely the most recent instance of child abduction on Screech’s lengthy rap sheet. Of course, the little boy is a monster, abusing Screech in increasingly psychotic ways, working his way up from the classic hand-buzzer, to stealing his clothes and a scary biker’s motorcycle helmet, and tying him up like one of John Wayne Gacy’s victims. Though we’re now well into the final season, while waiting for his turn to speak, Dustin Diamond can be seen lip-syncing other character’s lines again.
When Tall Cathy drops by The Max to tell them she’s got a date this weekend, it only proves how valuable a freak-helping service teen line is, so they pledge to raise enough money themselves to keep it open. Melissa happens to play basketball in her driveway — Screech asks if she can dunk — so the gang decide on a charity wheelchair basketball game, followed by a dance, because Bayside’s restless students will burn this place to the ground if there isn’t at least one ball a week.
Mr. Belding, with a say no to drugs and alcohol poster visible over his shoulder, introduces the two basketball teams in the school gym. The competitors wheel themselves in; reds — Slater, Tori, and Lisa — vs. blues — Melissa, Zack (doing a wheelie) and Screech (in a Stephen Hawking electric wheelchair, which is cheating). Screech’s new little brother has outfitted his chair with a turbo booster, signposting physical comedy yuks coming to your screen real soon.
As we’ve seen before, sports scenes are hard to realistically choreograph at the best of times, but six non-wheelchair-using actors playing wheelchair basketball, on a tiny gym set there’s barely room to move around on; let’s just say the thumping soundtrack suggests more excitement than comes across onscreen. Zack spends the game repeatedly asking an exasperated Melissa if she’s holding up okay, in a query that would be better served in one of his asides to the audience. Honestly, Zack, no I’m not. When Screech finally gets the ball in this interminably long sequence, Tommy, who’s sat in the crowd, pushes the turbo button to send him careening backwards out of the gym, living out the fantasy of every SBTB viewer. Screech will later appear whooshing across the top of another scene.
Tori gives a post-game speech, proudly announcing that the $1,000 they raised is enough to keep teen line open (though it’ll never appear again), before Zack takes the mic and gives a little shout-out of his own.
“I want another round of applause for the real star of today’s game, the only one who has to be in a wheelchair the whole time, Melissa Donahue; come on, guys!” Everyone applauds the smallest girl in the world, who gets the zoom-in reaction shot to underline her utter humiliation. No matter how many times he cites The Apartment, there’s no way the entire oeuvre of Gervais wasn’t hugely influenced by Teen Line. Zack’s whole speech is classic Brent/Millman/Everything He’s Ever Done.
Zack’s stunned when Melissa brushes straight past him after the game, demonstrating that even though her legs don’t work, her cold shoulders definitely do.
“Do you have to keep reminding the world that I’m handicapped?” she says, which still doesn’t get through Zack’s confused, blond head, until Tori throws in her two cents.
“Maybe she’d rather be your friend than your cause.”
Screech is still in possession of nine-year-old Tommy at the dance, which is some days, or even weeks, after he first gets palmed off on him. Has he been living with Screech? He certainly hasn’t been going to school, and when his brother finally comes to collect him, it’s because he “misses chasing him around at home,” suggesting he’s not been back there the whole time. Presuming his parents aren’t laying in a crack stupor, Screech has been harbouring a missing child while his distraught family assumes he’s been fucked to death and left in a ditch. Considering where he’s really been, it might have been better if he had.
Tall Cathy brushes off her date for Slater, pulling him into a light embrace he sells like she’s Godzilla, rather than barely an inch above Jessie. When Melissa shows, Zack’s moping by the cheese and pineapple. Zack says he’s sorry, and she explains that she just wants to be a normal teenager.
“I’m just an ordinary girl. Maybe I’ll never win a rollerblade race, but I’m still capable of doing most things. Don’t treat me like I’m broken.” All Melissa wants is for Zack to act the same way in person that he did on the phone; like a cocky prick. So he does, and they dance. Like Ricky Gervais did that time.