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The College Years Is an Interesting Time Capsule

That transition from high school to college is rough. Not everyone handles it well, especially when someone goes from being the most popular person in the hallways to nobody important. The elite from Bayside graduated, leaving Mr. Belding and the teachers behind, but that didn’t mean their adventures were over, as the Saturday morning sitcom spun off into primetime. It was pushed into a fresh start, a new setting, and a chance for the audience to see (almost all of) their favorite characters from Saved by the Bell go through The College Years.

It’s hard to say that this was a good jumping-on point for new viewers, but that didn’t stop the producers from picking up where the original Saved by the Bell left off in several ways. Everyone’s favorite preppy, Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), rejoins with his high school chums, A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez) and Samuel “Screech” Powers (Dustin Diamond), to start their college adventure. It’s evident from the beginning that this isn’t Bayside anymore and the guys are going to have to adjust, while also getting to know their new suitemates. There’s a new love interest in Leslie Burke (Anne Tremko), an adorable goof named Alex Tabor (Kiersten Warren), and Danielle Marks (Essence Atkins), who fans wouldn’t be given enough time to know, as she was only in the first episode.

How Saved by the Bell: The College Years handled its cast

If anyone can make waves it’s Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen), the fictional heartthrob of so many young people. Those who didn’t want to be with this beauty dreamed of being the head cheerleader who asked that we pardon her perkiness. Originally, Thiessen wasn’t sure she wanted to reprise the role, but agreed to come back at the last minute, causing the show to dismiss Atkins. There are different takes on how these events went and whether it was more of a firing or polite parting of ways, but the dismissed actress certainly had some supporters. However, Kelly’s return was seen as a big boon for Saved by the Bell: The College Years and changed the direction of the relationships moving forward. This unfortunately meant that the writers had a bit less for the character of Leslie to do after the first few episodes, who was already having a tough time being a stand-in for Jessie Spano from the original show.

Zack may have been a bit older – and a little bulkier, as Gosselaar had intended to play football before deciding to pick up the role again – but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t still up to his same antics, schemes, and helping other members of the cast find themselves in strange situations. That meant there was a need for administrators, such as Mike Rogers (Bob Golic), who acted as the dorm’s RA (resident advisor) and played a character that somewhat resembled his real-life football career. Then there was Professor Jeremiah Lasky (Patrick Fabian) who was determined to teach Zack a lesson, even if that meant stealing his girlfriend, and finally, we had the true movie stereotype of the cold-hearted Dean, Susan McMann (Holland Taylor). The cast was set and it was solid, but that doesn’t mean the characters were working.

There was already a few problems with just having everyone attend the fictional institute of Cal U, as that premise didn’t gel with the continuity from the end of the original series, but there was also the problem that the writers didn’t seem to know what to do with all of the students they had. Kelly benefits the most from her brief time in college, not only finding her career path and learning to stand up for herself more but facing a troublesome adult relationship with Professor Lasky as well. I distinctly remember when those episodes aired and how angry that storyline made me.

We all grew up thinking that professor was a jerk. Slater was also given a lot to work with, from realizing he was no longer the star athlete and barely keeping his position on the team to taking his studies more seriously, the big man on campus had been humbled. A.C. also received an interesting scenario where he dove deeper into his heritage, something he was barely familiar with before, and proved that some things were more important than parties and ski trips in life now. For most fans, Kelly and Slater had the two most memorable arcs and these events helped to flesh them out more in a few episodes than they had been in any year at their high school.

Alex was certainly the best of the new characters. The wannabe actress mostly found herself in humorous moments, but was also given some enjoyable dramatic scenes, especially when she began dating Slater, even if that relationship doesn’t reach its full potential. She fits in well with the existing group, but it’s hard to think she wouldn’t have been an excellent addition to the original show with her performance here. Mike also gels after a bit. Although some didn’t like his acting, he found a good spot as a Belding-type figure that spent more time relating to the main characters, especially as the series went on and he befriended them, putting the responsibilities of thwarting Zack almost squarely on Dean McMann.

Screech is unfortunately the character who doesn’t look to have much growth in these 19 episodes. He fights for a girl and stands up for himself a bit more, but Powers did that in the previous show as well. Not everyone changes, however, and in truth, though Zack seems to have matured slightly, without his scheming there isn’t much of a show. We see him understand his friends a bit more and instead of just pursuing Kelly, there is a glimpse that he understands at the end, at least a little bit, why he should fight for his high school sweetheart and hold on to her, even if he still goes about it oddly.

Everything seems to pan out, even though the show was canceled after only one season. Thankfully, we see an ending in Saved by the Bell: Wedding in Las Vegas, a made-for-TV movie that brings the gang back together once more so the star couple can elope and even has them on the run from mobsters. It’s wild and Zack screws up again, but their love seems more substantial having gone through everything and it truly looks like those crazy kids might make it after all.

Although Saved by the Bell: The College Years was trying a new direction with some extra drama, a couple more serious themes, and a slight tonal shift after moving from Saturday morning television to Tuesday nights, no one seemed to appreciate the growth. Most critics weren’t impressed with the college exploits, but some downright loathed the new show, while Executive Producer Peter Engle said that the biggest flaws with The College Years were that it “lost its innocence” and he should have pushed harder to get the whole Bayside gang on the new program. The College Years was scheduled as counter-programming to Full House, which was seen by many as the NBC higher-ups having no faith in the show and setting it up to fail. This was also at a time when Brandon Tartikoff, one of the show’s biggest supporters at the network, had left, so much of the support the original show had was gone. The ratings were low, not horrible compared to the original series, but being in primetime now, that just wasn’t good enough.

The College Years had a lot of marketing behind it, with commercials, interviews, a series of books I’m about to purchase off of eBay, and these awesome trading cards all a part of promotion and merchandising. Even if the show seemed quickly forgotten, it certainly had many diehard fans who hated to see it go. Some of the sets were reused for a few scenes in Saved by the Bell: The New Class, and the recent continuation of Saved by the Bell even added a fake memory to The College Years, inserting Jessie, so it wasn’t completely erased.

Why it wasn’t a success

Look, Saved by the Bell: The College Years was just as problematic as its predecessor and lacked some of that charm and chemistry that kept the original going, but there is still an enormous amount of enjoyment to take from the show, especially for fans. Sure, the theme song is dumb, but it’s also quite catchy and fits the series, even if it could never hope to rival the original. It was great seeing the bloopers at the end of episodes as well, getting a glimpse behind the curtain of these actors we had grown up with. As for the characters themselves, maybe they weren’t ready for college.

The actors tried, but some people have trouble growing and are truly their coolest in high school when we can excuse some of those silly antics and awkward moments. When everyone is outside of those sacred halls, it’s harder not to see the blemishes and call the bullshit for what it is. Saved by the Bell: The College Years was a show that tried to tweak the formula and grow itself up fast, but it was at a time when the core audience was changing as well (even if younger), and those notable differences are just too much. I love the show, but I don’t recommend it to anyone (though I did make my wife watch it with me). This is a piece for people who were already Saved by the Bell fans, who like to remember the whole journey, and who might want to recall how their friends ended up. 



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