For the next few weeks, Vulture is holding a High-School-TV Showdown to determine the greatest teen show of the past 30 years. Today, Alan Sepinwall awarded Freaks and Geeks an apparent win over Saved by the Bell. In honor of today’s loser, Vulture ranked every episode of the staple of both Saturday morning and syndication.
Saved by the Bell is evidence that nostalgia alone can keep a pop-culture artifact’s flame burning endlessly. A monster hit for NBC’s Saturday-morning programming during its run from 1989 to 1993, the teen sitcom featured little in terms of innovation or quality — its plots were well-worn in cliché, the acting ranged from competent to deplorable, there were very few high-wattage guest stars, and the jokes possessed a staleness that Generation X would presumably wretch at a few years later. The strongest case you can make for the show’s legacy is that it provided a basic bedrock for the success of teen shows that were to come, from the high-stakes melodrama of Beverly Hills, 90210 to the legion of imitators that followed in its wake (we’re looking at you, California Dreams).
Despite it all, though, Saved by the Bell has persisted. Syndication in a pre-streaming era deserves a bit of credit for this unlikely feat, as endless early-morning and late-afternoon airings on TBS in the late ‘90s provided plenty of palatable entertainment for breakfast TV sessions and latchkey-kid hangs alike. We as a culture, inexplicably, retain a level of fascination with Saved by the Bell: human-meme-generator Jimmy Fallon has hosted not one, but two cast “reunions” on his late-night programs in the past five years, while the extremely public flameout of Screech actor Dustin Diamond has provided the kind of car-crash entertainment that the real Saved by the Bell only gave us sparing tastes of (we’re looking at you, overly caffeinated Jessie Spano).
The entire series is still on Netflix, too — meaning that there are most likely teenagers applying the “Netflix and chill” ethos to a show whose characters would’ve preferred a trip to the video store and some root beer. For those interested in digging through Saved by the Bell’s more estimable moments, we’ve ranked every episode of the original series from worst to, well, least-worst.
A few notes before we begin: We’ve combined two-parters into single episodes, ditched Saved by the Bell’s short-lived precursor Good Morning, Miss Bliss, and ignored clip-show episodes with one notable exception (just wait for it). Also, we’ve numbered the episodes by air date — Saved by the Bell, for whatever reason, initially aired out of order and with little to no regard for continuity, so discerning episode numbers in any other fashion gets messy.
81. “King of the Hill” (Episode 14)
Zack Morris starts the first day of school and — wait, why is the 14th episode of Saved by the Bell introducing us to its main characters? This episode was meant to be Saved by the Bell’s pilot, but inexplicably aired out of order on NBC, specifically as the second-to-last episode of the show’s first season. Initial airings featured a flashback-centric voice-over from Zack to give context, but in syndication (and on Netflix) the voice-over has vanished, so if you’re binge-watching, this will come as a confusing one for you. (My advice: Skip it.)
80. “Rent-A-Pop” (Episode 23)
Here we meet James, the Max’s waiter-slash-actor who briefly replaces the “kooky, somewhat relatable adult” void after the Max’s titular, magic-loving owner was written out. James pretends to be Zack’s dad so Zack can go on a ski trip, which leads us to meeting Zack’s real dad, a workaholic with an extremely big cell phone. There’s a lesson in here about talking to your kids more, or something — but really, how many (non-pot-smoking) adults were watching this show when it aired?
79. “Boss Lady” (Episode 44)
Screech looking for buried treasure? Stacy playing “boss for a day” and everything going hilariously wrong as a result? At this point during the infamous “Malibu Sands” arc, where the gang spends part of their summer working at a beach resort, the plotlines have become so unimaginably stale (even for this show) that it practically has the audience begging to return to Bayside.
78. “Save That Tiger” (Episode 16)
Much like purgatory, Saved by the Bell is most effective as an isolated entity, its characters trapped in a scenario they’re doomed to repeat, day after day. So this season-one finale — in which we get a taste of Bayside’s rivalry with the nearby Valley school, complete with lunkheaded students and a prank-happy principal — feels alien and unnecessary. Even a light kidnapping subplot (#SaveScreech) can’t add friction to this failed experiment in expanding the show’s universe.
77. “Breaking Up Is Hard to Undo” (Episode 33)
Everyone breaks up! And then they get back together. Sorry, guys — this is Saved by the Bell, not My So-Called Life. These characters are practically immune to misfortune. An accidentally meta moment occurs when, after Kelly and Jessie break up with their respective caddish beaus, Lisa sighs, “I’m gonna be on the phone a lot tonight,” indirectly acknowledging her own status as a main character treated as an ancillary presence.
76. “Masquerade Ball” (Episode 67)
A relatively perfunctory episode. Slater and Zack make a bet as to who’s going to kiss late-series new-girl-at-school addition Tori first, there’s another dance, Screech dresses up as Gumby, blah, blah, blah. This episode contains perhaps the most stomach-turning moment in Saved by the Bell, though: Specifically, when Zack and Tori hook up at the end of the episode, and Tori lets loose a small cat noise before locking lips with our blond protagonist. The moment only lasts a second, but the revolting awkwardness lingers for what feels like hours.
75. “Model Students” (Episode 26)
After wrangling the school store from a cabal of “geeks,” Zack schemes to boost profits by publishing a calendar showcasing Kelly, Lisa, and Jessie in their bathing suits — that is, using photos taken without their permission. That’s right: Zack Morris invented the creepshot. Take that, Reddit! Kelly ends up landing a far-away modeling gig that puts her relationship with Zack on hold, so maybe Zack learned a lesson about being a bit of a creep? Probably not, since Kelly returns in the next episode (Saved by the Bell didn’t care much for story arcs — a net gain, granted, for its future in syndication).
74. “From Nurse to Worse” (Episode 32)
Siblings come and go in Saved by the Bell, so the opening minutes of this episode include an off-camera introduction to Kelly’s younger brother Kyle, who suspiciously sounds like Seinfeld’s “Bubble Boy.” This episode also features the intermittently humorous return of Bayside’s hearing-impaired teacher Ms. Simpson, as well as a particularly painful flu shot administered to Mr. Belding that, in 2015, might be mistaken as anti-vaccine propaganda (just kidding!).
73. “The Game” (Episode 38)
In this prequel to the classic David Fincher thriller … sorry. Anyway: the “Malibu Sands” arc continues apace with — what else? — a volleyball match against a rival resort. Mr. Carosi bets the rival resort owner that the opposing team will lose, Zack bets Mr. Carosi his car if they win… this gets, uh, confusing, but not as confusing as Zack’s terrible nickname for Mr. Carosi (“Mr. Crotchety”? Really?).
72. “Love Machine” (Episode 71)
Slater has two girlfriends! Kind of: His German bae Jennifer moves to sunny California and threatens his relationship with Jessie. Sounds like a hijinks-worthy plot, but most of this episode falls flat. Two notable moments, though: We learn Slater’s real name (ALBERT?!?) and get a double-dose of drag as Zack and Jessie both dress up as geriatric fuddy-duddys to spy on Slater and Jennifer. Hold on to your adult diapers!
71. “My Boyfriend’s Back” (Episode 55)
By the fourth episode in the “Malibu Sands” arc, you get the impression that even those involved with the show are getting bored of this plotline, as the gang takes part in an ATV race (tres chic!). The college boyfriend of Stacy Carosi (Leah Remini), the daughter of the Malibu Sands’ owner, arrives to make a mess of Zack and Stacy’s budding romance, while Screech’s fighting-with-children subplot is practically a cry for help from the writer’s room.
70. “The Prom” (Episode 17)
Zack and Slater fight over who gets to take Kelly to a dance (right, because it’s their decision), a well that Saved by the Bell returns to far too often in its first season. This episode has a specific wrinkle in its plot, though: Kelly’s dad loses his job, which throws her own dance plans into turmoil. Kelly is a thinly drawn character throughout the show, and this episode doesn’t do much to add weight to her character. Speaking of weight: A scene in which Zack and Slater make fun of an overweight classmate comes across as impossibly, terribly mean. You guys! Be nice!
69. “The Video Yearbook” (Episode 78)
In which Jessie’s favorite snack is finally revealed: French fries with mayonnaise. How European! One of the geeks in the Yearbook Club suggests turning all the pictures in the yearbook into holograms (he was truly ahead of his time), but Zack has a better idea — a video yearbook, in which he pockets the profits by selling footage of all the girls in the class as a video dating tape (meeting people was so complicated pre-Tinder, huh?). You might be getting a sense of déjà vu here, and rightfully so: This plot is basically the creepshots-themed plot of “Model Students,” redux — and it’s not much better than that episode.
68. “Zack’s Birthday” (Episode 36)
The first of the infamous “Malibu Sands” episodes, in which the whole gang works at a resort for the summer. Would you believe it if I told you that Zack doesn’t get along too well with resort owner Mr. Carosi? Well, believe it, buddy. This is basically an introductory episode for the show’s sole non-Bayside-set arc, so not much of interest here — except for the introduction of a young Leah Remini playing Stacy, Mr. Carosi’s daughter.
67. “The Glee Club” (Episode 34)
Hey, it only took 34 episodes to give Screech his own real-deal romantic subplot! (How much longer until they give Lisa one? Stay tuned! Or not.) Meanwhile, the gang joins the glee club for a brief spell to perform something called “The Civil War Medley” — not exactly All-City-Sing-winning material. (Our dubious heroes have more luck with singing endeavors later on in the series.)
66. “Beauty and the Screech” (Episode 10)
So many pre-Jessie-and-Slater episodes of Saved by the Bell lean hard on Zack and Slater competing for Kelly’s affection; this episode introduces a new element into that mix, as Screech tutoring Kelly briefly blossoms into a very innocuous case of teenage puppy love. It’s a decent-enough concept that falters in execution, unfortunately. At least we get a few yuks from Screech’s little-seen home robot (yes, really) Kevin.
65. “The Will” (Episode 74)
Gonna come right out and say it: Zack and Tori’s kissy-kissy puppy-love relationship is revolting. Revolting! Saved by the Bell’s faux-sexy oohs-and-aahs material has long been a target of good-natured derision, but the close cuddles between this short-lived couple are a little too close for comfort. Meanwhile, there are budget cuts, which inevitably lead to a school dance, because hey, it’s Saved by the Bell, and what would an episode of this show be without a school dance?
64. “Fourth of July” (Episode 40)
Saved by the Bell doesn’t really “do” holidays — like, at all. This is kind of surprising, since “holiday episode” is a time-tested TV shortcut, and Saved by the Bell is, if nothing else, a series of strung-together narrative shortcuts. So “Fourth of July,” the third episode in the “Malibu Sands” arc, is an anomaly within an anomaly (the second anomaly being an episode not set in Bayside). Another tired beauty pageant competition, Zack and Stacy finally fall in love (for a little bit, anyway). But what makes this one of the “best” (using that word relatively, of course) of the “Malibu Sands” arc is that it ends in fireworks. Who doesn’t like fireworks?
63. “Day of Detention” (Episode 68)
Zack getting in trouble for using a cell phone in school? What is this, 2004? Nah, it’s just another episode in which Zack lands himself in detention but has to be somewhere else at the same time — specifically, at the Max to redeem a free trip to Hawaii he won on the radio. Needing to be two places at once? How will he do it? As he always does: with a little convoluted help from his friends.
62. “The Fabulous Belding Boys” (Episode 31)
Mr. Belding’s brother: kinda looks like Michael Bolton! He’s not, though — what a shame. In this episode, Kelly admits that her first kiss with Zack was “the best moment of her life,” which is depressing until you remind yourself that they’re teenagers. They have a lot ahead of them! (I hope?) It’s a rare reversal to see Mr. Belding’s feelings get hurt by the students choosing to hang out with his brother instead, but the improv chatter that takes place when said feelings are hurt (around 14:10) is hilariously slapdash.
61. “The Election” (Episode 13)
Zack on running for student-government president: “Me? Run? That’s like asking Roseanne Barr to skip a meal.” Jesus, Zack! Tone down your material, buddy. Naturally, a free trip to D.C. changes our teenage kinda-antihero’s mind (who doesn’t like free stuff?). The deadpan stylings of Mr. Dewey, one of Saved by the Bell’s more entertaining ancillary characters, is the highlight of this episode — while Mr. Belding’s admission that he once skinny-dipped in the Potomac with his wife is just plain spine-tingling.
60. “Teen-Line” (Episode 66)
Saved by the Bell reused plotlines so frequently that it should’ve been considered a crime — and this late-period episode is so egregious in its cannibalistic approach that, if it were a person, it would’ve received the death penalty (that’s right!). “Teen-Line” is a cheap, to-the-point facsimile of early ep “1-900-Crushed,” with the teen-hotline pitch brought forth by new character Tori (I guess she didn’t watch Saved by the Bell’s first season). Lisa manages to fat-shame someone over the phone, while Zack’s short-lived romance with handicapped girl Melissa teaches him a lesson in accepting those different from himself, a distant repetition of his plotline in “Dating Auction.” Essentially this episode is a weird Frankenstein of a creation: all reused parts that come together to form an unappealing monster.
59. “The Babysitters” (Episode 30)
This is one of a few episodes that shows Zack’s softer, non-caddish side — a side that, ultimately, just doesn’t make for interesting TV. The show plays most comfortably when Zack embraces the vaguely amoral compass that is teenage life, so watching him cuddle up to Kelly’s baby brother results in tedium. Not even a diaper-changing scene can save this one.
58. “Blind Dates” (Episode 22)
Zack and Jessie have blind dates — what could go wrong? (Have you seen the show?) An enticing what-could-have-been tidbit occurs when, while recounting all of Zack’s past detentions, Mr. Belding mentions that Zack once sold Bayside to Japanese car company Honda. Hey, why wasn’t that a plotline? It sounds more interesting than most Saved by the Bell episodes!
57. “Miss Bayside” (Episode 24)
“A beauty pageant? What a stupid, sexist waste of time!” Well said, Jessie — also, highly inappropriate for a high school to hold, probably! Nevertheless, the “Miss Bayside” competition triggers a proto–She’s All That plotline in which Zack bets Slater that he can make anyone a beauty-pageant winner, resulting in another Screech-does-drag episode that’s about as entertaining as when Screech’s robot Kevin drinks Zack’s root beer. In other words: kinda enjoyable, but forgettable.
56. “Hold Me Tight” (Episode 54)
There’s a girl in Slater’s hammerlock! Zack and the gang help fellow student Kristy triumph over a sexist coach while trying out for Bayside’s wrestling team. Granted, Zack is pretty much in it to score a date with Kristy, so don’t make him the editor-in-chief of Ms. just yet. Coach Sonski is one of the show’s most cartoonish authority figures — “I get the dames. I watch Oprah!” — while Jessie’s jealousy over Kristy’s teammate bond with Slater causes her to renounce the very principle of equal rights. Pretty depressing.
55. “Fatal Distraction” (Episode 4)
One of Saved by the Bell’s more, uh, peculiar running gags was having characters occasionally dress up in Middle Eastern garb, with questionably tasteful accents to go along with them. This season-one episode practically opens with Zack doing a said impression — perhaps a reflection of the show’s post–Gulf War existence, but still fairly uncomfortable to watch 20-some years later. On the other hand, it’s amusing to hear the girls describe Dennis Quaid and Michael Jackson as “hunks” during a slumber party.
54. “Wrestling With the Future” (Episode 69)
“What if Jessie … became a cheerleader?” That’s this episode’s B-plot, a fish-out-of-water narrative hook so obvious that it’s somewhat impressive that Saved by the Bell hadn’t tried it earlier. Also: Remember Slater’s dad? He’s back! From where … we don’t exactly know, but whatever — all you need to know is that he’s not happy with Slater’s college choices. We also learn that Screech applied to liberal-arts haven Emerson, presumably to start an indie rock band ten years later.
53. “Zack’s War” (Episode 18)
The first episode in which Lisa gets a love interest, kind of: Savor her crush on the ROTC head that visits Bayside, because the show bizarrely avoids giving her any sort of romantic plotline for most of its run. Elsewhere in this episode, plenty of fat jokes and derogatory remarks about women in the armed forces abound, as Zack attempts to recruit for Bayside’s ROTC program to avoid 30 (30!) Saturday detentions.
52. “Screech’s Spaghetti Sauce” (Episode 63)
“I’m teaching communications because being a principal is all about communication.” Guys … I don’t think Mr. Belding knows what the field of communications actually is. After starting a broadcast news program for Bayside students, Slater and Zack attempt to make big cash off Screech’s mother’s spaghetti sauce, which proves about as successful as an interview with Mr. Belding’s pet turtle Pokey. Worth watching for an astoundingly offensive dream sequence in which the gang pretends to be Italian-American, as well as Slater’s utterly perplexing reaction after tasting the titular spaghetti sauce in question: “That’s Italian!”
51. “Driver’s Education” (Episode 20)
This episode practically opens with the revelation that Zack and Kelly are going steady — since when?!? Whatever, continuity isn’t Saved by the Bell’s strong suit, and Slater doesn’t seem too broken up about it anyway. A spell in driver’s-ed class gives the audience some driver’s-safety tips they could probably use (hey, this show didn’t receive the occasional “Educational/Informative” tag for nothing), although Mr. Tuttle’s advice to stick your left arm out the window to signal a left turn seems, uh, dated (that’s what blinkers are for, big guy).
50. “1-900-Crushed” (Episode 27)
Zack’s the target of puppy love from Kelly’s younger sister Nicki (Kelly? Younger sister? Who knew?) after he and Lisa start an advice hotline. Nicki accordingly tries to make that hotline bling with her very first crush. Speaking of rap: TV characters attempting to rap is always cringe-worthy, and this episode’s Cinderella-themed hip-hop dream sequence featuring an absurdly gold-chained Screech, Zack, and Slater makes Vanilla Ice look like Talib Kweli by comparison.
49. “School Song” (Episode 84)
Zack experiences a very, very rare (and short-lived) moment of self-awareness after realizing that his legacy is, in Screech’s words, “Bayside’s biggest goof-off.” Kind of a bummer! But there’s schadenfreude in watching Zack’s pained expressions while realizing how lowly he’s regarded: He’s been a haplessly amoral jerk for the entire series, why not have him eat a little shit before riding out into the sunset? Anyway, his attempts to reform himself in writing Bayside’s new school song don’t last long, as he tries to scheme his way to the top and, deservedly and miserably, fails.
48. “Dancing to the Max” (Episode 1)
This Casey Kasem–guest–starring so-called pilot (technically the first episode to air on NBC, but not the show’s proper pilot) sets up a few dynamics integral to the show: Jessie’s neurotic (and relatable) personality, the sometimes-witty repartee between Lisa and Screech, Zack and Slater’s constant rivalry over winning Kelly’s affection, Screech’s perpetual misunderstanding of situations (when asked to perform a piece in band class: “A piece? Why can’t we play the whole thing?”). This one’s also notable for an hilariously awful MIDI rendition of Bach’s “Minuet in G” that the students pretend to play in band class.
47. “The New Girl” (Episode 64)
Not to mix TV metaphors here, but if Jessie’s long-forgotten step-brother Eric is Saved by the Bell’s Cousin Oliver, then Tori — the titular “new girl” introduced in this episode — is the series’ Nikki and Paolo from Lost: a completely unnecessary addition to a show that didn’t feel like it needed any more added to it. Tori doesn’t meet the same fate as poor Nikki and Paolo (no spoilers!), but her meet-cute clashes with Zack kind of make you wish she would regardless.
46. “The Lisa Card” (Episode 2)
How will Lisa pay back the extravagant charges she’s run up on her father’s credit card? Not a single one of the gang’s scams can get her out of learning lessons about generosity and honesty. The early lesson-focused episodes of Saved by the Bell were as bland as they get, and this one’s no different — a notable episode purely for the first appearance of dream sequences in the show, which would prove a regular narrative device later on.
45. “Save the Max” (Episode 19)
Some truly astounding fashion choices to spot in this episode: Slater’s high-waisted jeans, Screech’s tie-dye pants, Belding wearing fringe (in a flashback, granted). In keeping with the Screenwriting 101 rule “Giving your characters a job gives your narrative purpose,” the gang takes over the school radio station for a spell and are inspired to use their powers to save the Max. Funny to consider Max’s claim that he has to resort to serving slider-sized burgers to cut costs; in 2015, the move would be considered purely artisanal. Max really was ahead of his time.
44. “The Teacher’s Strike” (Episode 75)
Two Beverly Hills, 90210 jokes within the course of five episodes (the second appearing in previous episode “Screech’s Spaghetti Sauce”) is, if nothing else, a rare exhibition of self-awareness from the show’s writers — an acknowledgment that squeaky-clean fare like Saved By The Bell is slowly being eclipsed pop-culturally by edgier, more melodramatic fare. This episode concerns Slater and Zack ginning up enough dissent to cause a teachers’ strike so they can get out of schoolwork — a solid plan until they realize how damaging teachers’ strikes can be to completing your academic year. No one likes summer school, guys!
43. “Running Zack” (Episode 29)
Underground railroad jokes! Screech saying “How” while talking about Native Americans! Jessie having a white-guilt anxiety attack over finding out her ancestors were slave traders! Hey, is this Saved by the Bell or All in the Family? Either way, if you’ve ever wanted to hear Mark-Paul Gosselar say, “Look at a picture of this Indian,” this is the episode you’ve been looking for. There’s some sad stuff about Zack’s old Native American friend dying here — but this single image is the real highlight of this bizarre, “let’s talk about race, kind of” episode.
42. “Cream for a Day” (Episode 8)
Screech’s shock at accidentally stumbling upon a zit-cream formula is somehow outmatched by his shock that Alf doesn’t actually exist. Another get-rich-quick scheme of Zack’s gone awry (and certainly not the last one) — but hey, who would’ve thought that early-’90s jokes about Jason Bateman appearing on the $10 bill wouldn’t come across as dated in 2015?
41. “House Party” (Episode 21)
From the second that Screech’s mom tells Zack that she’d “die” if her prized Elvis bust was broken, you know that shit is getting broken later in the episode. If that doesn’t trigger Risky Business associations, perhaps Screech, Zack, and Slater’s bathing-suit performance of “Barbara Ann” will — so think of this episode as an inferior Risky Business ripoff with no Tangerine Dream and no real dramatic friction. (Well, except for the extremely macabre dream sequence in which Screech’s mother actually dies.)
40. “Student-Teacher Week” (Episode 62)
It’s Freaky Friday at Bayside, as students and teachers swap places for a brief spell, because, hey, what’s high school without a specified week in which students and teachers swap places? Zack becomes “student principal,” which is pretty rich considering this is a high-school student who’s faced the threat of suspension multiple times in previous seasons. Pour one out, too, for beleaguered off-screen ventriloquist “Muffin Sangria,” one of the most glorious fake names ginned up by Saved by the Bell writers.
39. “The Zack Tapes” (Episode 14)
Saved by the Bell does Satanic Panic! Well, kind of. Zack’s plan to use subliminal messages in popular songs to control others’ actions isn’t so much sinister as it is slightly devilish — and, ultimately, ineffective. Zack is, at his core, an entitled little shit of a teenager, so any plotline where his scheming backfires carries its own satisfaction.
38. “Fake IDs” (Episode 43)
Fake IDs?!? What kind of troublemaking is this? Settle down, it’s not what you think — the gang acquires some bogus cards to get into a hot-to-trot club, where the Zack-Kelly breakup plotline encounters a new wrinkle (no spoilers!). Ancillary adult characters on Saved by the Bell typically come across as grating or shiftless — remember Zack’s dad? — but in this episode, Zack’s mom gives off a very natural and comfortable warmth, even when the fake-ID jig is certifiably up. Props to Screech’s piano shirt, too.
37. “Cut Day” (Episode 57)
As far as teen-TV plots are concerned, “high school students orchestrating a school-wide cut day” carries all the ease of an over-the-plate pitch. So you get some prime hijinks here in the form of Zack attempting to simultaneously attend every class AND join the rest of the gang in their class-cutting exploits, as well as some romantic friction when Jessie decides to stay in school while Slater blows off the day. There’s plenty of Saved by the Bell episodes that try to be fun, but “Cut Day” just kind of is without trying too hard.
36. “The Fight” (Episode 61)
After a number of narrative diversions — the “Malibu Sands” arc, murder-mystery plots, Christmas episodes, and the like — Saved by the Bell’s fifth season finally returns to Bayside. That’s longer than most normal summer vacations! As soon as the gang gets back to school, nothing’s changed: There’s a school dance, Slater and Zack are fighting over the same girl, Mr. Belding is still prattling on about Mrs. Belding. The only element that’s different is that the gang are seniors now — a bit of inadvertent commentary that even as you get older, nothing changes anyway.
35. “The Friendship Business” (Episode 11)
The first time in the series where “the gang” coalesces as one functioning unit — that is, until Zack gets greedy while executing an entrepreneurial class project and the group splinters into competing factions. Kelly, Slater, and Jessie’s “Buddy Bands” faux-commercial is fairly GIF-worthy for the Tumblr era, and Zack’s “Friendship Forever” faux-company points to one of the show’s most iconic future moments.
34. “Operation Zack” (Episode 39)
Raise your hand if this episode was the first time you learned what a “candy striper” is. No? Just me? (For what it’s worth, I also learned how to strip wood from reading Archie comic books.) Everyone’s a little bit spooked when it comes to getting surgery, and Zack’s impending knee operation is no different. Meanwhile, Screech attempting to order a broccoli Slurpee at the hospital presages a generation of green-smoothie-slurpers.
33. “Screech’s Woman” (Episode 5)
Screech is lovesick and lonely — and it’s certainly easier to have pity on him than for, y’know, Dustin Diamond himself. Zack’s somewhat misguided attempts to cheer up his woe-stricken friend are endearing, but this episode elicits a much more important question: Why does Mr. Belding use the student bathroom? Are there no faculty facilities at Bayside? Quoth Belding himself, “I’m never going to the bathroom again.”
32. “The Senior Prom” (Episode 77)
Jokes about the economic recession mean that this late-period Saved by the Bell episode is the closest the show comes to resembling an episode of Murphy Brown, as everyone straps on their boots and has themselves a Western-themed prom after not being able to afford … a regular prom? Whatever, it’s Saved by the Bell, it doesn’t have to make sense. Besides, you’re here to find out for the thousandth time if Zack and Kelly will reunite (spoiler: nah).
31. “Earthquake” (Episode 81)
In which we finally meet the elusive Mrs. Belding, Saved by the Bell’s Maris — and she’s pregnant! And she’s trapped in an elevator with Zack and Tori! During an earthquake! And she’s about to give birth! If you were pregnant and stuck in an elevator with Zack Morris, would you trust him to help you give birth? Probably not! Zack and Tori save the day though — maybe a career in midwifery is in Zack’s future.
30. “The Substitute” (Episode 7)
Zack’s still doing all the fourth-wall-breaking, but this is the first episode in the series that gives Kelly, Jessie, and Lisa substantial heavy-lifting when it comes to plot devices. When it comes to moony-eyed students falling in love with teachers, Degrassi: The Next Generation did it better (twice), but Saved by the Bell did it first, somewhat strengthening its relative status as a bedrock for future teen-TV entertainment.
29. “Mystery Weekend” (Episode 60)
Nothing says “quality TV” like a murder-mystery-themed episode, right? Right?! In this one, Zack is suspected to be a killer during a murder-mystery weekend that Lisa wins in a radio contest; he’s sentenced to a lifetime behind bars. If only! Meanwhile, Kelly scolding a murder-mystery participant for smoking serves as a reminder that ‘90s teen shows (as well as TV in general) pushed anti-smoking messages pretty persistently. Don’t smoke, kids — it’s slightly worse for your health than binge-watching Saved by the Bell.
28. “Screech’s Birthday” (Episode 79)
The plot device in which the gang intentionally mistreats Screech withers and dies as the show carries on — but it’s still slightly alive (in Screech’s mind, at least) in this episode where he becomes a tyrannical hall monitor after accusing his friends of forgetting his birthday. Screech as vindictive asshole doesn’t make too much sense when considering the character’s sweet nature; pretend that his behavior is reflective of the adult-aged Dustin Diamond, however, and it becomes much more palatable.
27. “Slater’s Friend” (Episode 20)
Who is Slater’s friend, anyway? He seems to have a lot of friends! The titular friend in question is Slater’s pet chameleon, Artie — a friend that the gang accidentally kills, and tries to avoid accountability for. Another episode in which Mario Lopez pulls some surprising dramatic weight while dealing with his grief. Jocks have feelings too!
26. “SATs” (Episode 46)
“SAT? I’d rather be at the beach working on my T-A-N.” Good one, Zack. In this episode, the Bayside gang explores the institutional bias created by standardized testing and attempt to reform America’s education system. Just kidding! Jessie does bad on her SATs (I know, right?!?) while Screech claims that finding out SAT scores is “as exciting as the People’s Choice Awards.” Who gets excited for People’s Choice Awards? Probably the cast of Saved by the Bell — it’s the only award the show could’ve ever conceivably won. Attention aspirant thespians: James, the Max’s favorite waiter-cum-struggling-actor, returns in this one.
25. “Graduation” (Episode 74)
Would you believe that Zack Morris — a high school student who racked up endless detentions and failed more tests than post–Saving Private Ryan Tom Sizemore — doesn’t have enough credits for graduation? What are the odds! It’s almost as likely a scenario as Jessie freaking out about whether she’s valedictorian, which is not coincidentally the B-plot of this series finale. As you can probably guess, everything ends up okay and the show concludes with a group of cap-and-gown-clad grads throwing their caps in the air, ensuring that Saved by the Bell goes out exactly as it came in: clichéd.
24. “The Gift” (Episode 3)
The show’s first foray into magical realism, as Screech is hit by lightning and may be able to predict the future. Zack tries to exploit Screech’s powers for his own gain, which goes about as well as you think it would; a clairvoyant interaction between Screech and Mr. Belding, meanwhile, makes for some enjoyable back-and-forth comedic exchanges.
23. “Class Rings” (Episode 80)
Class rings are about as dated as parachute pants, so this episode in which Zack tries to get a cheap deal on a primo line of jewelry might as well be set in the Stone Age. A few points thrown to this episode, though, for the astounding name given to the jewelry huckster that clashes with Zack, the slick Gem Diamond, who looks like he just walked out of a Ralph Bakshi cartoon.
22. “The Wicked Stepbrother” (Episodes 47 and 48)
Two things that are constants in Saved by the Bell’s universe: Jessie is almost never the focus of a single episode, and Lisa almost never has a romantic interest. I use “almost” in both cases there because this two-parter is an exception to both rules, as Jessie’s rough-and-tumble stepbrother Eric — a contender for Saved by the Bell’s “Cousin Oliver” designation — causes general havoc and dates Lisa for a spell. It would’ve been more entertaining if Eric stayed full-asshole throughout his brief arc, but alas: Everyone ends up very boringly forgiving him and he even agrees to stick around for a bit (even though he’s not seen much afterward).
21. “The Last Weekend” (Episode 46)
The best of the “Malibu Sands” episodes by default, mainly because it signifies some sort of end to the plotline. Remember, Zack and Stacy: Summer love is temporary, but true love is forever.
20. “Palm Springs Weekend” (Episodes 52 and 53)
Saved by the Bell spends a lot of its fifth season away from Bayside: There’s the “Malibu Sands” arc, a jaunt to the mall, and this two-parter that takes place at Jessie’s father’s Palm Springs resort, as he prepares to remarry. If you’ve seen enough episodes of the show, you know that Jessie has a lot of feelings as everyone preps for the wedding; elsewhere, there’s some retro-mindless exchanges about aerobics and health spas, Kelly and Zack attempting to rekindle their romance, and Slater falling in love with another German girl (remember his German ex-girlfriend Jennifer?). Meine Güte!
19. “Check Your Mate” (Episode 41)
Saved by the Bell is at its most potent when embracing a freewheeling, totally nonsensical plotline. Didn’t know that Bayside has a competitive chess club? Now you do! This episode represents a kind of convergence between a few of the show’s motifs — a get-rich-quick scheme from Zack, Screech enjoying a nerdy day in the spotlight, a dollop or two of xenophobia toward Eastern countries — but stops short at using, y’know, actual chess terminology. (An “Arabian knight trap”? Never heard of it.)
18. “The Aftermath” (Episode 37)
Saved by the Bell’s first multi-episode arc — dealing with Zack and Kelly’s breakup — continues as Zack goes on a dating spree and the rest of the gang tries to deal with the rift between the two of them, not to mention getting along with Kelly’s new boyfriend. Pretty real! As is Zack’s attempts to make Kelly jealous, driving home the truism that hormonal teenagers are, quite simply, the biggest assholes.
17. “No Hope With Dope” (Episode 55)
If the legendary episode “Jessie’s Song” is an incidental don’t-do-drugs PSA, then “No Hope With Dope” is full-on anti-drug propaganda at its most ‘90s. Hot-to-trot teen star Johnny Dakota (great name!) comes to Bayside to shoot an anti-drug PSA … before getting caught smoking pot on the sly. Quelle horror! Maybe he needed to fight the nausea from gobbling up Bayside’s salisbury steak — or maybe he knows that a lot of people in their late 20s watch Saved by the Bell while smoking pot. At one point, Zack mentions that John Belushi died of a drug overdose, which makes you wonder: If John Belushi was alive today, would he watch Saved by the Bell? Maybe!
16. “Aloha Slater” (Episode 6)
Zack’s scheme to get Slater out of his hair for good is confusing and convoluted, but there’s a few emotive moments in this episode that suggest Mario Lopez could very well be the strongest actor in the ensemble. Pour one out for Screech’s ill-fitting pineapple bra — it certainly looked uncomfortable to wear.
15. “Pipe Dreams” (Episode 45)
The Exxon Valdez oil spill took place right around the time when Saved by the Bell went on the air, so it was only natural that the show’s writers would do an episode centered around an oil spill at some point. This will sound cruel, but there’s something comical about seeing Zack — by most accounts an amoral teenager almost exclusively concerned with matters of self-interest — rush into a room, a look of concern across his face, as he carries an oil-covered animal. Also worth viewing for this funny-in-and-out-of-context quote from Mr. Belding: “I know this duck. I feed her every day.”
14. “Home for Christmas” (Episodes 58 and 59)
Hey, another holiday episode! Zack’s mom returns in this two-parter (she finally returned home from that Peter, Paul and Mary concert, I guess), and we finally see his living room too! This one’s a tearjerker — well, an attempted tearjerker anyway, as Zack’s family takes in a homeless father and daughter after meeting the latter, Laura, at the mall. Zack’s first encounter with Laura is the stuff of dopey TV legend: “I don’t know what it is, but there’s something different about her,” he tells Screech after commenting on Laura’s lunch, which consists of an apple. An apple! Word to the wise, kids: When preparing lunch, make sure you pack more than just an apple. Otherwise, people might think you’re homeless.
13. “Date Auction” (Episode 49)
Who says Saved by the Bell isn’t self-aware? After several seasons of pointlessly unclever fat jokes directed toward overweight characters, Zack’s cold, empty heart temporarily thaws after overweight classmate Wendy Parks wins a date to the dance with him in a school-sanctioned date auction. Zack eventually learns the lesson that overweight people should be treated with the same dignity and respect as, oh, I don’t know, everyone else on Earth. Saved by the Bell: very progressive! Although, maybe not — when Wendy cracks a joke that she’s so excited to go on a date with Zack that she “hasn’t been able to eat,” you can practically feel the hesitancy from the guy with the laugh track button. Pretty cruel episode of television! An interesting artifact, too, possibly because of its cruelty.
12. “Drinking and Driving” (Episode 70)
The characters on Saved by the Bell may often come across as judgmental, mean-spirited, and selfish — but they’re also disarmingly squeaky-clean, the notion of bad behavior seldom rising above scarfing a few too many hamburgers at the Max. So this episode, in which the gang gets in a drunk-driving car accident after a party, is, relatively, a breath of fresh air — a rare moment in the series where real-world problems are dealt with, even if the repercussions (a few dings on the car, followed by a stern talk from Zack’s dad) don’t seem too serious.
11. “All in the Mall” (Episode 50)
The first episode following the “Malibu Sands” arc finds our protagonists in another non-Bayside setting — specifically, the mall — but it’s a relatively fun episode after the sturm and drang of Malibu (who would’ve ever thought Malibu would be accurately referred to that way?). Zack and the gang evade robbers while trying to figure out how to get tickets to a U2 concert (teenagers liking U2 — remember the ‘90s?). We also get an anecdote about Zack locking everyone in the trunk of a car while sneaking them into a drive-in, further proving that some of Saved by the Bell’s better plot ideas were never filmed at all.
10. “Rockumentary” (Episode 56)
Casey Kasem returns! This time as the host of this mockumentary-esque episode focused around the group’s imaginary band Zack Attack. (Brief aside: Why is the band named after Zack? Was Tuttle Time taken? Screech alone would’ve made for a great grunge-era band name!) This is an excessively, knowingly corny episode, which is perhaps why it’s more potent than most episodes of Saved by the Bell — it’s all flashing lights and showbiz fantasies, the stuff that true escapism is made of. The original songs featured in this episode are hilariously bad — prepare to have “Friends Forever” stuck in your head for months, though.
9. “Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind” (Episode 28)
Another flirtation with magical realism — specifically, in Screech’s ability to pick up radio waves through his fillings, which lands him in hot water when a tricky armed-forces lieutenant is fooled by the gang’s alien hoax. Points for the Scooby-Doo-esque ending, as well as the fourth-wall-breaking acknowledgement that it’s probably best for the show’s ecosystem if Zack and Mr. Belding don’t join forces too often.
8. “Pinned to the Mat” (Episode 9)
Zack forlornly describing Bayside’s Career Day as “the first sign that our parents aren’t gonna support us forever” cements him as perhaps the first millennial, born way ahead of his time. In this episode, though, Slater’s the one plagued with existential woes regarding his future as a has-been jock — the second time in the show’s first-not-first season in which he’s the only main character dealing with larger problems than having enough money for a milkshake at the Max.
7. “Slater’s Sister” (Episode 76)
Slater has a sister! “Haven’t seen her in a long time,” Zack says. Hey, us either! In fact, we never even knew Slater has a sister — but he does, so there. Tori and Zack’s relationship vanishes into thin air at the arrival of the sister in question, J.B., who proceeds to get a romantic fling going with Zack. Fine, whatever — but this one’s worth viewing for the sheer curiosity of the gang (which, at this juncture, conspicuously features the absence of Kelly and Jessie) forming a doo-wop group for the school sock hop (really).
6. “The Bayside Triangle” (Episode 65)
Saved by the Bell’s later episodes played fast and loose with the conventions set up in its earlier plotlines — more love interests for Lisa, less time spent at Bayside — but this episode notably upends the show’s entire universe by having Zack fall in love with Lisa, the only major female character he hasn’t yet had a romantic dalliance with. (You can imagine how Screech feels about all of this.)
5. “The Mamas and the Papas” (Episode 12)
When Zack has to get fake-married to Kelly for a class assignment, he makes a joke that’s the closest thing Saved by the Bell gets to sexually explicit humor: “It’s the first assignment where I can’t wait to tackle the homework.” Gross, you’re teenagers — get away from each other! The pairing of Jesse and Slater (FORESHADOWING!), meanwhile, gives Jesse her first opportunity to embrace her feminist side (as well as one of the first instances where she calls Slater a “macho pig”).
4. “The Time Capsule” (Episode 85)
This is, without a doubt, one of the most (if not the most) bizarre episodes of Saved by the Bell in existence: a group of new characters that bear vague resemblance to Slater, Screech, Zack, Kelly, and Jessie are briefly introduced to us as Bayside’s Class of 2003, and they join Mr. Belding in watching a time capsule made ten years ago by the characters we’ve come to know and … know more. So yes, this is a clip show, but one worth viewing just to get a load of the character binaries cast to play the Saved by the Bell cast’s 2003 equals — a group of glorified extras that, even more so than the show’s original cast, decidedly comes across as not ready for prime time.
3. “The Last Dance” (Episode 35)
Never underestimate Saved by the Bell’s occasional flair for vaudeville-worthy punch lines. Lisa: “Why don’t you go as the Invisible Man?” Screech: “I would, but I don’t know what he looks like.” Kinda funny! Zack and Kelly previously flirted with breaking up in the episode “Breaking Up Is Hard to Undo,” but that temporary rift was Zack’s fault; this one is, too, kind of, although Kelly’s crush on a co-worker is as much a contributing factor. It’s astoundingly rare that Saved by the Bell comes close to exploring any sort of elemental truth, but this episode achieves it. The too-real moral of the story: Nothing lasts forever, especially your first love.
2. “Snow White and the Seven Dorks” (Episode 80)
Oh my God, this episode. Remember the Cinderella-themed rap dream sequence from “1-900-Crushed”? Imagine if that scene was an entire episode of television. Let me know when you finish cringing. Jessie manages to rap the phrase “sexist pig,” and Zack and Jessie end up getting the hots for each other after practicing their “stage kiss.” Scandalous! Who cares, though — rapping on pre-Empire TV has a long and tortured history of being absolutely terrible (I’d argue that the rapping on Empire is also terrible, but that’s a whole other discussion), and the Saved by the Bell cast’s collective attempt to get jiggy with it is so hilariously cringe-worthy that the entire episode should be showcased in the Smithsonian.
1. “Jessie’s Song” (Episode 29)
Come on, you knew this was going to be No. 1. In a show where the protagonists’ threat level barely breached “pop quiz,” “Jessie’s Song” is an instant classic of overwrought melodrama, as Jessie’s overachieving ways take her to the brink when she develops a caffeine dependency. Sure, in the age of vodka butt-chugging and K2 overdoses, “teenager gets hooked on caffeine while prepping for a geometry quiz” seems tame — but, like, have you even seen the True Life episode “I’m Addicted to Caffeine”? It’s pretty fucked up! Don’t do drugs, kids — like, any of them. Hold your applause (and laughter) for the forever-iconic “I’m so … SCARED!” scene, a fit of hysterical acting from Elizabeth Berkley that gives us a mere taste of what Nomi Malone would bestow on the world in Paul Verhoeven’s trash classic Showgirls.