Twenty-five years ago on May 22, after the briefest of stints under the name Good Morning, Miss Bliss and four seasons’ worth of family friendly high school hijinks, Saved by the Bell finally drew to a close. Sure, The College Years and The New Class were yet to come, plus Zack Morris and Kelly Kapowski’s long-awaited betrothal in Wedding in Las Vegas, but today is not the day to honor those. Today, we reflect on the well-worn comedic stylings, the genuine sweetness, and the irresistible charm of “Graduation,” in which Zack, Kelly, A.C. Slater, Jessie Spano, Lisa Turtle, and Samuel “Screech” Powers walked the hallowed halls of Bayside High for the last time. (Aside from Screech, but again, that’s another story.)
“Graduation” follows a formula that applies to about 90 percent of SBTB episodes: a special event occurs, said special event goes awry, the gang saves the day with either abject failure or aplomb, and hilarity ensues. There’s usually a B plot, and it’s often as strong as the A plot. A rare few episodes tweak the formula, leaving out the comedy. (Perhaps the best example, which I watch on my birthday every year, is season three’s “No Hope with Dope.” It features NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff joining the gang to deliver an anti-drug message in a thoroughly unamusing way.) But “Graduation” fully commits the SBTB bit.
As indicated by the title, this is the tale of Zack and his friends’ final days at Bayside High. Within the confines of a high school sitcom, graduation isn’t merely a special event; it’s a milestone that either leads to the series’ conclusion or the series’ transition to college sitcom. (This went off without a hitch exactly one time. Thank you, Boy Meets World.) Here, the specialness is disrupted by the revelation from Mr. Belding that Zack won’t be able to graduate… unless, that is, he can gain one more credit, perhaps by joining Bayside’s ballet class and dancing in Swan Pond. (Kelly, Jessie, and Lisa are already in ballet class, because of course they are.)
But worry not! Slater and Zack, smarmy and charming as they’ve always been, easily convince nerd Big Pete—and it’s concerning that Mr. Belding casually refers to Big Pete and his pals as nerds, right? Are authority figures supposed to do that?—to fake an injury so Zack can take his place. And that’s all well and good until two more dancers, also nerds, get the flu. That’s when it’s up to Slater and Screech to don tights and join Zack onstage.
The resulting Swan Pond performance is full of tired tropes (Zack is a terrible dancer, Slater is surprisingly light on his feet and breaks the fourth wall, and Screech plays a female bird), and yet, it’s still funny. The Saved by the Bell cast perfected the art of overacting, and that’s rarely more evident than when Zack & Co. do something that would be outrageous even if it were played straight.
Over in the B plot, Jessie achieves her dream of becoming valedictorian… but only because Screech, whose GPA is higher, gives up the title since he knows what it means to her. When Jessie finds out, she works it into her commencement address, going as far as to invite Screech onstage to give a speech of his own. Then Screech, aware of his own limits, invites Zack onstage, and Zack’s the one who gives a real humdinger of an address, dropping references to previous plots and emphasizing how much he’ll miss his friends and Bayside itself.
This coda showcases something else, something not at all comedic, that Saved by the Bell did well: sentimentality. Sure, it’s schmaltzy, but it’s hard to deny the appeal of the affection we see among this G-rated version of the Breakfast Club gang and their principal/father figure. In the final minute of the series, Zack and Belding embrace as Belding hands Zack his diploma, dovetailing into a signature move—the fourth-wall break. But instead of quipping, scheming, or time-outing, this one is purely celebratory. “How about that? I actually graduated high school!”
No matter how much you love or hate this silly, dated show, you still feel that triumph along with our high school hero. You sure did, Zack. And a quarter century later, we’re all the better for it.
What’s your favorite SBTB episode? Let us know in the comments!