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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

30 years on, Saved By The Bell’s grotesque nerds are a relic unto themselves

Graphic: Libby McGuire (Screenshots: Hulu)
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It’s embarrassing how much I loved Zack Morris when I was a kid. I watched Saved By The Bell obsessively in elementary school. I wrote my own episodes. I acted them out with friends at school. Zack and Kelly fell in love in all of them. I played Zack. My friends played Kelly, Jessie, Slater, Screech, and Lisa. Nobody wanted to play the nerds. Who could blame them? They were a grotesque gaggle, a foil to the effortless cool of our central heroes. I was obsessed with them, too, but not in a way I’d have ever admitted.

The thing about Saved By The Bell, which celebrates the 30th anniversary of it premiere this month, is this: It is the laziest shit ever made. That’s, in a way, part of its charm—the cartoon, pastel-caked nature of its California high school is built almost exclusively on the stalest, most absurd stereotypes: preppy, jock, cheerleader, brainiac, and, of course, geek. If Fonzie pointed a finger at the nerd as it exists in pop culture, and Revenge Of The Nerds gave us an enduring visual accompaniment, it was John Hughes who gave it depth in movies like Weird Science and The Breakfast Club. What’s significant about Saved By The Bell is that it overlooks Hughes’ nuance entirely, essentially turning every nerd into a version of Grease’s Eugene Felsnic.

With names like Herbert, Melvin, and, my personal favorite, Ronald Geekman, these oodles of effeminate dorks speak in high-pitched squeaks, waddle like penguins, wear tape over their glasses, and speak at length about pocket protectors. They’re rarely portrayed as smart, but strange. Kelly, Lisa, and Jessie recoil every time they’re near; not even Screech cosigns them (unless, of course, it suits the plot). If they were at all overweight, their lines would inevitably be about food and when they can eat that food. Plotwise, they were often presented as an adversarial force for our popular heroes, villains to be conquered. And, y’all, the pocket protectors: In one episode, when the class is tasked with inventing something, the nerds create a “pocket protector protector,” and the nerds who run the school store are ecstatic when a new shipment of “fluorescent pocket protectors” arrive. Jokes for days.

Now, it’s precisely that utter lack of effort that the writers put into these bits that makes them so funny from a modern perspective. In a way, it also serves as a fun comment on the banality and absurdity of the archetypal bully. But, as I continued to revisit the series throughout college and, let’s be honest, the entirety of my adulthood, I began to identify a kind of comical disdain that’s applied more to the dorks that any other subgroup—not even the meathead jocks, who are, for the most part, played as lovable lugs. It’s as if the writers enjoyed bullying these dorks as much as Zack and the gang did. When a nerd accuses Slater of shoplifting, asking what he’s hiding up his sleeve, Slater replies, “Muscles. I get ’em from bench-pressing nerds.” In “Model Students,” an episode where Zack takes over management of the school store from the nerds, he laments how their best-selling item is “flesh-colored Band-Aids for nerds—extra pale.” Earlier, while gazing over their stock, he declares that “there’s nothing in here any normal person would buy!” I know we’ve established that Zack is a piece of shit, but Jesus, man.

It’s that word “normal” that sounds the alarms. Saved By The Bell, like so many teen properties of the ’90s—think Beverly Hills, 90210, R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike’s teen lit, the TV and film work of Kevin Williamson, She’s All That—posited popularity as the de facto “normal,” which, in retrospect, seeped into my impressionable brain more than I ever thought. In middle school, I began rebelling against my own tendencies. Because I was nothing like Zack Morris or A.C. Slater. I wasn’t popular at school. I was bullied by kids whose names I wish I still didn’t remember. I played sports, but all I really wanted to do was read and write and, well, watch Saved By The Bell. I liked comics and video games and having shirts that didn’t get ink all over them. In fact, I was so prone to chewing on pens that they often began leaking in my pockets. I needed pocket protectors. The nerds were my people, not the cool kids, but all I wanted was to be Zack. I found myself bullying the kids I thought I had social leverage on. I made fun of kids for liking stuff I secretly also liked. I was basically Dawn Wiener from Welcome To The Dollhouse. If there’s one lesson I wish I could have taught myself, it’s that one cannot will their own popularity into existence.

I learned that lesson, eventually—Freaks And Geeks helped, honestly—and I find myself heartened by living in a culture where the curiosities of the “nerd” have not only been normalized, but also reflected in mass-market entertainment like Marvel and Star Wars. Now, if someone does make fun of you for liking anime, there’s a community of people online to remind you that anime is good, actually.

Image for article titled 30 years on, Saved By The Bell’s grotesque nerds are a relic unto themselves
Screenshot: Saved By The Bell

This Chris Hardwicking of culture isn’t all good, of course: The Big Bang Theory, for example, is basically what would happen if the Saved By The Bell writers tried to write a show about nerds. And it’s beyond exhausting when the superfans start petitioning the studios for not upholding the sanctity of Star Wars. But, on the other hand, look at the canceled-then-resuscitated A.P. Bio: Allisyn Ashley Arm’s bespectacled Heather pretty much embodies the tics and fashion sense of one of Saved By The Bell’s nerds, and, by leaning so hard into it, subverts the stereotype with a twisted sense of humor and some ravenous hormones. She even gets to romance a jock in a way that isn’t played for humor!

If there’s a benefit to the breadth of entertainment options these days, it’s the opportunity to somehow, somewhere find a story that speaks to your reality. You can still watch the popular kids be hot and popular on shows like Riverdale, but they’re no longer the “normal.” That word’s lost most of its power, anyway.