How do you even judge a Lifetime Original Movie? It is a genre entirely of its own, often characterized by terrible casting, overblown acting, and hilariously bad writing (but takes itself far more seriously than your average Syfy TV movie). In that regard, The Unauthorized Saved By The Bell Story is a total success. But Lifetime movies are also characterized by crazy, unbelievable dramatics—especially when they are based on true (or true-ish) stories—and though, if Dustin Diamond’s autobiography is to be believed, Saved By The Bell was apparently rife with this sort of drama but the movie skips over most of it and becomes boring.
The draw of The Unauthorized Saved By The Bell Story is not learning more about the behind the scenes origins of the show (we have Wikipedia for that) but to be “shocked” by the scandals and joke about how the coked-up orgies ruined your perception of a beloved childhood show. Lifetime waters down everything significantly and turns a gleeful hate-watch into a yawn-inducing mess. There are definitely plenty of things to hate/love about the movie: the clunky dialogue, the laughable acting, the constant reminders of when the show takes place (including a reference to the Seinfeld pilot in which an executive deems it “too Jewish, too New York”), realizing how annoying it is that both Mark-Paul and Tiffani-Amber went by two first names, the fact that Lifetime must have blown the budget on the soundtrack and therefore could only afford to hire a blind casting director, and the dedication to mimicking some stylistic choices from the show (the aspect ratio when recreating SBTB scenes, the fuzzy pink border around a horrifying fantasy sequence, and the time freezes). At points, the movie is the fun kind of bad—but mostly, in comparison to many other Lifetime movies, it’s lacking.
The previews promoted the scandalous nature of the movie and how we were going to watch these six kids succumb to their hormones and ruin their lives, but really? Lark Voorhies and Mark-Paul Gosselaar held hands under a table. As for the drunken debauchery? Dustin liked to put vodka in his soda and Mark-Paul tried—and did not enjoy—a sip of wine while in Paris. The book tells stories of Diamond’s, ugh, sexual prowess (over 2,000 women, he claims), a rape accusation against Mario Lopez, and threesomes with Peter Engel. The movie depicts a push-up contest, awkward kissing, and Mark-Paul Gosselaar dyeing his hair blonder.
Maybe this is because The Unauthorized Saved By The Bell Story isn’t a story about Saved By The Bell. No, this is Dustin Diamond’s Crybaby Tour of the ’90s. This is supposed to be Diamond’s redemption story of sorts—explaining to us why we should care about this poor nerd outcast who was in over his head and drowned his sorrows in a bit of vodka and some karate. It is entirely Diamond’s story, so much so that he is the one who calls “time out!” and freezes time to break the fourth wall and tell us all about how his life is changing. There are points when I’m sure the movie is trying to get us to feel sorry for him but that can’t possibly be right because, well, at the end of the day he is still Dustin Diamond.
Unauthorized goes a little too hard when it comes to depicting Diamond as a sympathetic nerd. In his real life, his weirdness is what caused him to be picked on; in the world of Saved By The Bell, his weirdness is why people like him. Or at least that what he thinks at first, before he realizes that he’s still the childish outlier. Lopez romances women on set while Diamond plays immature pranks; Gosselaar gets so mobbed by teen girls that they rip his shirt while Diamond gets a bespectacled geek with wishful thinking about Lisa; the kids are sent to Paris, Miami, and New York while Diamond is relegated to South Carolina. The movie hits these beats over and over again but it’s impossible to care. Diamond starts boozin’ and smokin’ which leads to him being blackmailed by some guy who wants a part on the show. If it sounds like I’m glossing over what is expected to be a main conflict, it’s because the movie glossed over it as well. The entire thing is resolved by it not being resolved: Gosselaar is basically like, “Whatever, Diamond, we’re cool!” as if that fixes anything and then they shoot the graduation scene and we never learn what happened with the video, if anything ever did. It’s just shoved haphazardly into a lazy script to fill up time just like scenes featuring Mark-Paul Gosselaar riding a dirt bike to prove he’s a rebel (“I don’t really read contracts”), Lark Voorhies mentioning her religious conflicts with birthday gifts, or Elizabeth Berkley showing up at a party and shrugging sadly.
For all the pointless scenes that seem to exist for no other reason than to pad the script, the movie has an extremely rushed ending. I suppose the end game here is for us to demand a sequel (the movie cheekily ends with a card saying “The Endish”) that covers that one college year, or Gosselaar’s battle with hair dye, or Diamond’s continued descent into the very deadly world of marijuana, or even whatever happened with that Seinfeld show they referenced. But The Unauthorized Saved By The Bell Story doesn’t make a compelling case for a sequel. It doesn’t even make a case for its own existence.
- Insider look at TV brainstorming sessions: “Nobody has ever done a live action comedy with just kids!” “Everyone wants to go to school close to the beach!” “We’ll call it: When The Bell Rings!”
- There were lots of unintentional meta scenes such as Kelly saying “We have to figure out how to be funnier” (if you’re going to go camp, go all the way, Lifetime) or a review of the Saved By The Bell pilot that mentioned “wooden acting” and “cheap sets.”
- Nice touch that Diamond first tried alcohol immediately after Berkley’s caffeine pill breakdown scene.
- The only bright side of the casting decisions: Dylan Everett gives me a chance to talk about Degrassi.
- I can’t believe Franklin & Bash didn’t get a shoutout.
- “You get to dress up like a lady janitor!”
- So, are we all ready for Lifetime’s fucked up Brittany Murphy movie?