Ridin’ Low in My Chair: “Dancing to the Max”

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January 4, 2014 by billysparrow

On August 20, 1989, a grateful America was introduced to the kids of Bayside when “Saved by the Bell” made its debut on the airwaves of the National Broadcasting Company. The nation would never be the same again.

In the 25th anniversary year of this monumental television program, we here at A Trifle Further will offer our own special tribute by watching every single one of the 86 episodes of “Saved by the Bell” proper (we’re excluding “Good Morning, Miss Bliss” and “College Years” episodes and are as yet undecided on what we’re doing with the movies) and writing an accompanying essay (for lack of a better term, and to make this endeavor seem more literary) in a series titled “Ridin’ Low in My Chair.” That means, give or take, 86 blog entries (we’ll probably do the two-parters in one piece) on “Saved by the Bell.” Yes, I know what you’re thinking and to address your thoughts in order: (1) I am growing more comfortable with the idea of dying alone, so please don’t worry about me; (2) I do so go outside and talk to people sometimes; and, finally, (3) you’re welcome.

We’ll be tackling the episodes based on the air dates listed on the “Saved by the Bell” DVDs (and the seemingly random way in which these episodes were aired will feature prominently throughout). Thought was given to writing about the episodes in the order in which they should have aired, but, I mean, that would just be nerdy and wrong.

So here’s essay #1 of 80-something that I’ll be writing in the next year about a Saturday-morning TV show.

Episode #1: “Dancing to the Max”

In a haiku nutshell: Slater’s “hot” dance moves/And Casey Kasem’s sweaters/Lead up to “The Sprain”

Trivia question/answer to impress, well, no one probably: Q: What performer at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival (where Dylan “went electric”) appeared in the first aired episode of “Saved by the Bell”? A: Hamilton Camp, who plays music teacher Mr. Margolies conducting the students in their rendition of Bach’s “Minuet in G Major.”

Many television shows take a while to get their footing, to truly lay out a moment that sticks with the viewer and will forever serve as a reminder that this is something not to be forgotten. Some shows, in fact, never find this moment and simply plod along until the viewer stops caring and points the way to cancellation.

Let it be noted that when the TV watcher flipped over to NBC on August 20, 1989 (a Sunday; this episode might have aired in prime time), it took a little less than three minutes for the first iconic “Saved by the Bell” moment to be dropped right in the viewer’s lap. Once such a sight was seen, it could not be unseen.

I mean, seriously, what the hell was that? And then the pretty girl declares that was “hot”? And why is that mulleted guy in the red T-shirt in the background so into it?

With that many questions up for grabs, how could a human being not be roped into this world? What’s that, you say? “It’s pretty easy really”? OK, you’ll have to leave. Right now. Come back in 2015. I’ll more than likely still be here.

As for the rest of you, the ones I like (don’t tell the other guy I said that), let’s take a look at the world we are thrown into in that first episode, keeping in mind that there were 13 “Good Morning, Miss Bliss” episodes preceding it that featured four of the same cast members, and that this clearly does not make sense chronologically as the first episode anyway. “Saved by the Bell”–such a mystery.

The first main character we are introduced to is the owner of The Max, whose name, astonishingly, is Max. Max does not, of course, make it very far in the series’ run, probably because the producers realized that preteens and, especially, teens have a very clear threshold when it comes to dealing with magicians, let alone restaurant-owning magicians. But he’s all over the first season (even appearing in the open credits) and is given a pretty big push at the start. But, with no disrespect to Ed Alonzo (and I say that only because I want to interview every minor SBTB character before the year is out, and he’s on the list), a little of Max goes a long way (Alonzo is still doing the magic thing on cruise ships, and recently helped out with Britney Spears’ new Vegas show).

We don’t get much insight into Slater (that dancing really gives us plenty), Kelly, Screech, or Lisa in the first aired episode. Most of the exposition scenes go to Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, as if you didn’t know) and Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley; see previous parenthetical aside). Zack is quickly depicted as the schemer, the one who wants to woo Kelly away from Slater and his hot dance moves. He is very clearly the star of the series and, at least in the first episode, seems likely to go after Jessie if the whole Kelly thing doesn’t work out. Of course, this simmering tension finally comes to a boil toward the series’ end, when the ideas start to become less plentiful and it is decided that Zack might as well take a shot at Jessie (and Lisa). But we are, so help me God, several dozen essays away from addressing that. So let’s table that discussion for now. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Jessie, we learn very early on, is a touch neurotic. Not only does she have a complex about her height (a neurosis explored in the very first “Saved by the Bell” dream sequence), but the walls of her bedroom feature not one but two posters pointing out the harm of nuclear radiation, which is probably two more than any other teenager had on his or her walls in 1989. And, you should be so excited to know, we have only just begun to explore the neuroses and political activism of Jessica Spano, who also, unsurprisingly, digs The Cure, too.

Truth be told, the real star of the first episode of “Saved by the Bell” is Casey Kasem, or, more accurately, the sweaters of Casey Kasem. Yes, that’s plural, for Mr. Kasem, whose entrance is greeted with so much studio applause that it makes me wonder if I have misremembered the year 1989, is not content with one dazzling ’80s sweater. For after blinding us with this one

DSCN1098

he comes back for the big finale with this equally impressive gem

DSCN1101

For a radio guy, he sure knows how to grab your eye (or Wardrobe did, as they throw a similarly vibrant sweater on one of the kids in Jessie’s dream sequence, and Mr. Belding gets bodaciously besweatered, too).

Anyway, that second sweater competes with the world’s most suspect Applause Meter for your attention in the episode’s thrilling conclusion, where the Spandex Twins (Kelly and Slater), the Powerhouse Preppies (Zack and Jessie), and Screech and Lisa (late entrants and thus, one supposes, unable to come up with a punchy name) battle to win Dance Party. For the record, the Spandex Twins beat the Powerhouse Preppies (so much for true friendship beating all…nice lesson, writers), but both rally the crowd to cheer Screech and Lisa on to victory with their brilliant dance.

And so the “Saved by the Bell” rocket, sheathed in an eye-catching, multicolored sweater, has taken off, charting a straight course into the stratosphere. Please be sure to return as I continue to follow its journey and/or lose my mind. Either way, I promise it’ll be interesting.

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