Today, watching Jessie fall into the arms of Zack’s disproportionate blazer feels like watching one era of television crumble into the next. Beyond The Max’s funky doors, America’s Funniest Home Videos was wrapping up its first year; Mystery Science Theater was in its second; Pee-wee was out, Parker Lewis was in. Somewhere, Tim Berners-Lee was writing the first web page, and Bono was drafting his last decent album. Peak Roseanne was drawing ever closer, and a mounting wave of cynicism was about to sweep the nation.
That is, if Jessie Spano was going to suffer a catastrophic shit-fit due to caffeine pills, it had to happen now. And it did. And it was perfect.
But there’s also a lingering sadness that haunts the scene. We’re not just watching earnest go to camp, we’re witnessing the violent death rattle of sincere television. Like the schlocky, painfully dated, well-intentioned narratives of which Saved by the Bell remains so perfectly emblematic, Jessie was undone by her unsustainable pursuit of perfect representation. Meanwhile, Zack is there to save her, with his smirking asides and self-aware Buellerisms, bounding uninvited through the fourth wall like it was Jessie’s bedroom window. An entitled dick, he’s the perfect forerunner of television’s near future, a poster child for Seinfeldian snark and self-consciousness.
Over 25 years, the bluff between the earnest and the ironic has grown so vast that it may be impossible to experience “Jessie’s Song” as it was intended. Watching Jessie freak out, it’s as though she’s gasping for altogether different air. To watch it is to remember watching it, to feel implicated in its embarrassments; the aesthetic equivalent of finding a picture of yourself in pegged pants.
Over her sobs, Zack soothes the ruined Jessie, stroking her hair and tenderly recounting the fear they shared on a nighttime bike ride they once took together as children. He does this the way you might lull a dying elder to bed. Go toward the light, very special episode of Saved by the Bell. For a moment, you get a flash of what Barnhart felt on set.
“You couldn’t help but get a little chill on the back on your neck,” he recalls. “You couldn’t help it. That’s what television is about. It gets you as an audience. And we got it. We scored.”
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Michael Andor Brodeur is an Austin-based writer, editor, eater, trainer, and maker. He writes the weekly @large column and poetry criticism for The Boston Globe, and his work has appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Thrillist, and McSweeney's. Follow him @mbrodeur.