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Things You Forgot Happened In The Pilot Of Saved By The Bell

The first broadcast episode of Saved by the Bell, "Dancing to the Max," aired on August 20, 1989. The world was formally introduced to the iconic characters that would occupy a Saturday morning time slot (and plenty of mental and heart space) for years to come: Zack, Kelly, Slater, Jessie, Lisa, Screech, and Mr. Belding. The installment isn't really a pilot, more of a standard issue adventure for the gang at Bayside High School in sunny California: When Casey Kasem, famous disc jockey and host of the TV show Dance Party, announces that the program will tape at local teen hangout the Max, all the kids pair up and practice their moves.

It's the first Saved by the Bell, but not the most memorable Saved by the Bell, in part because it doesn't totally play like a regular episode of the show, made familiar by three decades of reruns. Still, the Saved by the Bell pilot is a fascinating glimpse into a reliable hit sitcom before it found its footing and formula. It also offers a fascinating glimpse into the pop culture and teen life of the late 1980s. Here's everything you won't believe (or don't remember) happened on the initial episode of Saved by the Bell.

This isn't really the first Saved by the Bell episode

"Dancing to the Max" doesn't feel like a pilot or introductory episode. No new characters are introduced into a situation, no major character arc begins — it's just a regular episode of Saved by the Bell set in the middle of a school year and all the character dynamics are well-established. This would all be very confusing to first-day viewers in 1989 who were unfamiliar with the show's predecessor series, Good Morning, Miss Bliss. During the 1988-89 TV season, the Disney Channel aired 13 episodes of this sitcom that starred former child star Hayley Mills as a teacher at John F. Kennedy Junior High School in Indianapolis. It was canceled and NBC acquired it, rebooting it as a high school-set series focused on the students instead of the staff. The network also changed the setting from Indiana to Southern California and kept only the characters of Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), Screech (Dustin Diamond), Lisa (Lark Voorhies), and Mr. Belding (Dennis Haskins). In the first episode of Saved by the Bell, Zack and Jessie (Elizabeth Berkley) discuss their long friendship, which entirely contradicts Good Morning, Miss Bliss. In other words, the initial Saved by the Bell isn't actually the initial Saved by the Bell... merely the first one that takes place in its new reality.

The magical world of Max and The Max

In the grand tradition of teen sitcoms featuring some kind of food-serving hangout where all the main characters can congregate (like Arnold's on Happy Days or the Hub on That '70s Show), Saved by the Bell's core group drinks noticeably flat sodas at a presumably Bayside High-adjacent, brightly-colored diner called the Max. This establishment bears no resemblance to any real-life or even televised teen hangout. Inexplicably and arbitrarily, the Max is operated — seemingly single-handedly — by a guy named Max. Not too busy waiting tables or taking care of the thousands of other tasks associated with running a diner, Max lives to entertain his entirely teenage clientele with things the average teen would probably mock. Max does a lot of simple, sleight-of-hand magic tricks and physical comedy bits that are rapturously loved and appreciated by Zack and the gang. The character of Max is so important to this show ostensibly about plucky teens that he appears in the opening credits (where audiences learn he's portrayed by Ed Alonzo, a real-life accomplished magician), and even gets the honor of speaking the first lines of the first episode of the series.

Jessie is self-consciously tall

Virtually all teen-oriented shows in television history include stories about true-to-life teen issues — relatable content pulls in viewers and engenders empathy. 

Saved by the Bell was just not that kind of show. 

Rarely did the Saturday morning sitcom produce an issues-oriented or "very special episode," and the very first installment, "Dancing to the Max," houses an emotional core of a story about Jessie Spano feeling uneasy to the point of panic about being... slightly too tall. After Bayside's students receive word that Casey Kasem is bringing his hilariously generically titled dance party TV show Dance Party to the Max for a taping, everybody seeks out the perfect date. A boy not in the core Bell gang floats the idea of going together to Jessie, and while she's moony-eyed and intrigued, she turns him down after she stands up and realizes she's a couple of inches taller than the guy (which she apparently never noticed before). This sends Jessie on an anxiety spiral, and she's the subject of the first of Saved by the Bell's many fantasy sequences. In this case, a succession of boys ask Jessie to the dance, but she says no because she's growing grotesquely taller by the second.

These friends are not friends

Zack Morris and his group of friends from Bayside High School eventually become so close that they form a band, let Zack call it the Zack Attack, and write a song called "Friends Forever." But in the first official Saved by the Bell episode from 1989, this social circle is yet to establish its familiar rules and trademarks. Zack and Kelly (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen) ultimately become a couple, as do Slater (Mario Lopez) and Jessie, while Screech forever pursues Lisa to no avail. In "Dancing to the Max," Zack and Slater aren't the close pals they'd eventually become, instead begrudgingly getting along with each other to keep the peace in their friend group. Their simmering romantic rivalry even fires the episode's plot: Zack and Slater are both interested in Kelly and both ask her to be their partner in the dance TV show's dance contest. All three agree to a bizarre Zack vs. Slater dance-off to determine who will win Kelly's company. Meanwhile, Bayside's three female students aren't exactly tight with each other either. In a locker room scene, Jessie confides to Kelly and Lisa her insecurities about being tall, and they respond by teasing her. Kelly calls her "a flake" and mockingly tells her to cheer up because "everyone looks up to you," while Lisa tells her to just practice her basketball skills. Perhaps feeling slighted, Jessie later makes fun of Kelly behind her back to Zack, implying that she's a vapid and superficial princess type.

Screech's weird one-man dance party

Many elements of what made Saved by the Bell its unique self would arrive later in the show's run, but in this very first episode, writers hammer it home right away that Samuel "Screech" Powers is the show's resident nerd, a guy so hopelessly uncool and strange that he deserves to be gently laughed at for his attempts at amusing antics that would likely get him beaten up at a real high school, if not outright rejected from polite society. 

While "Dancing to the Max" does not reveal exactly why, friends, foes, and staff members address the character by the curious nickname of "Screech," viewers are made to understand that the guy has a long-standing crush on Lisa. He asks her to the dance, and she unmistakably and definitively turns him down with some cutting remarks — something which would become a hallmark of Saved by the Bell. Undeterred (as he always would be), Screech tries again to show off what a good date for the teen-pop dance show he'd be by showing off his vaguely ballroom-style dance moves. He shows up to Bayside wearing one of those hilarious-in-the-'80s tuxedo-print T-shirts and a top hat and dances up a storm with a near-life-size rag doll. This is all creepy and strange, but the studio audience gives actor Dustin Diamond a rousing round of applause... and Lisa still rejects Screech.

They're with the band

Saved by the Bell isn't known for over-the-top comedy or elaborate set pieces. Perhaps the show's writers and cast got it out of their systems — or realized it didn't really work for the series — after doing both things in a very long and very wacky sequence in "Dancing to the Max," which also has next to no bearing on the development of the plot. 

Viewers find the gang in music class. Their teacher lets them know that today's lesson will be a little weird because he's simultaneously teaching another class during that period. He goes on to direct his musicians in this room in a slow, sour, amateurish take on a familiar classical piece. Once they're off and running, he jumps over to his other class... and left to their own devices, Zack, Slater, and the rest of the gang turn into highly-trained musicians and skilled improvisers who rework the piece into a rocking, professional-level performance. (There's even some broad comedy — Zack blows a bubblegum bubble out of his trombone somehow.) It makes no sense why they wouldn't show off for their teacher — who's presumably in charge of giving them a grade for their effort and hard work — or why this scene is even in the episode, or why none of these Bayside students demonstrate or ever again exploit their tremendous musical gifts.

The musical talents of Mr. Belding

Second only in both length and irrelevance to the band class scene is the two-man comedy routine that results when guest star Casey Kasem visits Bayside High School principal Mr. Belding. While Belding would ultimately interact with Zack's friend group so much that he'd become an unofficial seventh member, he doesn't talk to the kids at all in the first episode of Saved by the Bell, with most of his screen time taken up by his scene with Kasem. The Dance Party host wants a Bayside banner to hang at the Max during the taping, but Belding has other ideas, gunning to be featured on the teen dance show. Mr. Belding shows off for an unimpressed and uncomfortable Kasem by doing the twist and singing Chubby Checker's craze-capturing song "The Twist," explaining that he won a twist contest in the early '60s. The sequence is obviously supposed to characterize Mr. Belding as square and out of touch, but the studio audience howls with delight at his little musical interlude.

There's a lot of dancing

An episode about a dance-off that's part of a TV show called Dance Party is necessarily going to involve a lot of dancing. Zack and Jessie, next door neighbors and close friends since early childhood, grow close and temporarily even a little romantic when she teaches him how to dance — he's challenged Slater to a dance contest despite not actually having the skills to do so. Slater, however, can cut a rug and bust a move, and he shows off in the Max in the episode's early moments. Jessie shows what she can do too during band class, and both student's moves are not only similar to each other's, but curiously outdated, incorporating a lot of gymnastic-like choreography and ballet-esque twirling. It's impressive, but not exactly the kind of thing teens were doing at school dances in 1989. Also odd: Both solo dance sequences are underscored with generic, saxophone-based instrumental music which is recognizable as the background score used throughout Saved by the Bell's long run.

They all danced happily ever after

Apparently 1980s teens — or at least fictional 1980s teens — took televised dance show contests very seriously. By the time Casey Kasem shows up to tape Dance Party at the Max, Zack has decided he doesn't want to take romantic ideal Kelly in favor of Jessie, because she's such a good dancer (and despite her worries that she's too tall to be a viable partner). Viewers never see Slater and Kelly rehearse, but they apparently utilize the very brief window of preparation time they're given after Zack cedes defeat in the fight for Kelly. They thrill the crowd with their choreographed dance routine that they perform in coordinated costumes that are simply not appropriate for minors — Kelly wears a slinky red dress that reveals a lot of skin, while Slater rocks a snug one-piece that leaves little to the imagination. Jessie and Zack also manage to throw together matching outfits and even one-up Kelly and Slater in the "not okay for high school kids" department. Billing themselves as "The Powerhouse Preppies," Jessie and Zack adorn conservative yellow sweaters but then hit the dance floor with a routine surprisingly heavy on the slow body-grinding.

There's a brand new dance, and it goes like this

Nevertheless, neither of those provocative and competitive couples actually wins the Dance Party dance-off. Lisa, having passed on the chance to attend the event with Screech, accepts an invitation from a one-off character named Byron. Offscreen, Lisa, ever the doyenne of fashion and makeup, sees an ad for Revlon that announces her favorite nail polish color is discontinued. Pay no attention to the fact that TV commercials don't really work that way — Lisa gets so enraged that she kicks her TV and seriously sprains her foot, requiring a cast and a pair of crutches. Lisa returns to school, and once Byron sees what happens, he dumps her — he apparently had little interest in Lisa romantically or personally and just figured she'd improve his chances of winning the dance contest. Lisa is understandably crestfallen, but it all works out for her by the end of the episode. In a surprise twist, she attends Dance Party with Screech, and they introduce a brand new dance move called "The Sprain." It consists entirely of Lisa hobbling precariously while Screech just sort of sashays in her vicinity. All the kids in the Max are inspired to copy the dance, and thanks to Slater encouraging the assembled to clap loud and hard, Lisa and Screech's moves go off the chart on Max's silly "Applause-O-Meter" and they win Dance Party.

Zack Morris isn't a creep yet

Saved by the Bell might as well be called The Zack Morris Show, because most episodes focus on his exploits, be they some way to scam his classmates, fool his principal, or try to get a young lady (whether she's Kelly or someone else) to go out with him. In the universe of Saved by the Bell, he's even blessed with some powerful gifts — he can pause time, and he can use that time to comment on the action to the audience, meaning Zack has near-god-like abilities. All of that would come later in the series, however — there's little evidence of it in the first Saved by the Bell episode. 

"Dancing to the Max" is an ensemble piece, with every major character receiving an almost equal amount of screen time. If anybody is the main character, it's Jessie, what with her fretting about her height and her scenes teaching a willing and eager Zack how to dance. Over the span of the episode, Zack only talks to the camera once, and only for a few seconds, and never once freezes time. As for his con man tendencies, those are only briefly alluded to — he brings Jessie a bouquet of flowers she recognizes as having been picked from her own yard, and she mentions the time he tried to sell his parents' house.