The Secret History of Saved By the Bell's Insane Caffeine Pill Episode
Gaze deep into the opening sequence of Saved by the Bell -- a chaotic paraverse of clashing pastels, stray squiggles, unmanned skateboards, and plastic flamingoes streaking past like so much ‘90s space trash -- and it’s like a metaphor for the experience of watching the show itself. So pure, total, and overwhelming were the cheery, chummy, good-time vibes at Bayside that it amounted to something like a crushing, unforgiving vacuum of cultural space. Nothing from our world could survive the journey into its swirling vortex of stonewashed suck, and, once there, surely, nothing could ever escape.
Or so we thought. Though its run was short and sweet (1989 -1993) and its doomed empire of spinoffs short-lived (The College Years, The New Class, we hardly knew ye), Saved by the Bell has maintained a persistent presence in the now-grizzled Gen-Y consciousness. And no single utterance from the show has stuck harder than this one:
On November 3rd, it will be 25 years since “Jessie’s Song,” since Jessie Myrtle Spano fatefully dismissed the warnings of her sexist suitor and devoted tutor A.C. Slater, experimented with a potentially lethal combination of caffeine pills, geometry, and high-energy aerobic dance, and channeled the Pointer Sisters as she melted down into the arms of Zack Morris. Never forget.
Not that you stand a chance of forgetting. Jessie’s now-legendary freakout left deep scratch marks down the walls of our pop culture memory. Most recently, we’ve seen her teenage trauma reprised in 2013 on Dancing With the Stars, when actress Elizabeth Berkley warmed up for her routine by overdosing on “Jive Pills.” Two years later, Jimmy Fallon inserted himself into a slightly wrinkly reunion of the Bayside crew for The Tonight Show, a scene that climaxed with the cast egging Berkley into one more unhinged Pointer Sisters paroxysm.
Like any traumatic episode, “Jessie’s Song” can be hard to talk about. Hoping to compile an oral history, I called around the cast and crew, and found that no one associated with it wanted to talk to me. Except, that is, for the man who directed it, Don Barnhart. He remembers “Jessie’s Song” as a standout among the 200-plus episodes of the franchise he directed, both for its then-cutting-edge content (drugs: still bad), but also for the emotional rigors it demanded of his young cast.
“I had to keep holding [Elizabeth] back, because when we got to Wednesday or Thursday [rehearsals], she was ready to let it go,” he told me. “I had to hold her back so that when she got to Friday, it was a fresh, tearful scene.” At one point his voice thins a little. “As a matter of fact, just talking about it 25 years later, I get a little choked up about it.”
Boiled down and preserved in the Internet-friendly packaging of a YouTube clip or an animated .GIF, “Jessie’s Song” has survived the ages in a condensed, highly ironized, and thus, reduced form. Like a bottle fight at a bat mitzvah, Jessie going henshit on caffeine has effectively blocked out most people’s memory of what else happened in the episode. But as Barnhart’s tears hint: this was more than a meme before memes -- it was a moment. And revisiting the full episode reveals that there’s a lot more to “Jessie’s Song” than just excitement, excitement, and fear, respectively.
The agents of Jessie's unraveling
The ninth episode of the show’s second season, “Jessie’s Song” took what then felt like a bold risk in electing to get “Very Special” for a minute and address drug abuse in the broad daylight of Saturday morning.
“It was a stretch for the show,” says Barnhart. “You gotta remember something. In those days, drug addiction and drug use on shows was very, very rare on a half-hour comedy. They would do drug shows on the one-hour format, but on the half hours, it was nil.
Even ABC’s Afterschool Specials had mellowed out somewhat on drug-related topics at the time -- possibly because it’s virtually impossible to follow the PCP-tweaked Helen Hunt throwing herself through a goddamn second-story window in 1982’s Desperate Lives. Suggestive song lyrics and sex ed were among the more pressing adolescent issues of the day, with Tipper Gore’s wagging finger casting a broad, sweeping shadow over pop culture, and Keep Just Saying No! implicit in the air.
But before “Jessie’s Song” could be a hard sell in the outside world, it had to overcome some resistance on set, where Barnhart recalls some of the cast being “too hip for the room.”
“There were a couple of people who teased her," he says. "They didn’t rank on her, they didn’t belittle her, but they kind of teased her. Everyone knew there were bigger drugs out there on the market. Why aren’t we doing a heroin show? Well, we’re not doing a heroin show.”
For the uninitiated, let’s take a light jog down the road to Jessie’s meltdown: we start at The Max, where Zack confides to the camera (as he is wont to do) that the approaching cataclysm of the geometry mid-term is of little consequence to him, since he plans on cheating. On the other end of the caring spectrum is Jessie, whose anguish over getting into Stanford has her forcing down gulps of shitty Max coffee. (Warning signs: know them.)
Though she seems increasingly more scattered as the episode goes by, one thing remains clear: Jessie Spano wants to go to Stanford. Here are some of the things Jessie says about Stanford:
“I want to go Stanford. And there are people with straight A’s who get turned down.”
“I’ll never get into Stanford.”
“Almost is not good enough for Stanford.”
“I want to go to Stanford.” (Belding volley: “I want to marry Christie Brinkley, but it didn’t happen.” Classic Belding.)
Considering that Stanford’s applications in 1990 were actually at a 10-year low, Jessie probably didn’t need to stress this hard.
And considering that she would eventually end up matriculating at Columbia anyway, while her friends piss away their “College Year(s)” for a season at the made-up California University, Jessie’s lack of aptitude with simple geometry seems, in retrospect, highly unlikely. Yet the proof is right there in the pre-mid-term quiz scores that Mr. Dewey hands back: Morris: B+ (cheating); Kapowski: B+; Turtle: B+; Spano: C.
That’s right. Fucking Lisa beat Jessie.
This C sends Jessie into a tailspin, and the first crack in her common sense appears as she agrees to permit Slater -- whose boner for Jessie has been de-pleating his Cavariccis for two seasons already -- to serve as her math tutor (?... OK). At a study date in her bedroom, Jessie’s chronically fickle feminism shows some shoulder (“Will you marry me and take the test for me?”) and she offers Slater a “potentially habit-forming” Keep Alert pill, which she loves because coffee is ew. Slater, noble, is like, no Jessie no. Jessie’s like, maybe Slater maybe. Then she kisses him (?... OK), adjourns him, and returns to popping pills. Sax outro.
Adding to Jessie’s stresses are the demands of her newly formed and fast-rising girl group, Hot Sundae.
Remember that part?
Of course you don't. No one remembers that part.
You see, after hearing Jessie, Lisa, and Kelly launch into an impromptu rendition of “I’m So Excited” at The Max, Zack tosses his nuts on the table by mentioning his dad’s friend, a record producer itching to find an all-girl New Kids on the Block. Undeterred by the girls’ clearly audible no, Zack dispatches Screech (in drag as a cleaning lady named Sinead O’Connor) to the girls locker room (a once-safe space for singing) to record them using a secret microphone mop handle. Yadda, yadda, yadda, the producers love it and want to hear more, Godot is totally on his way over, and now Jessie must balance her budding fame with calculating the area of a rhombus. Pills!
“Jessie’s Song” hits a fever pitch with its centerpiece, the severely leotarded music video for “Go For It!” -- a high-octane, high-waisted blast of motivational pop fire that serves as a Hot Sundae demo, but also a telling meta-narrative of Jessie’s undoing: “A little work never hurt no one/it’s the only way to have some fun.” Is that so, though, Jessie?
Is it though?
With these dual dueling downward spirals set spinning, Jessie’s circle around the drain quickens. Her eyes grow wide; her face feral and snarling. Her once docile fondness for math and music intensifies into hyperventilating twin fervors. Desperate to make it happen, she puts all other things aside, going instead for pleasures in the proverbial night. She’s about to lose control and she thinks she likes it.
This is where she and the episode rear up on the edge. Here are some things Jessie says as she makes for the brink:
“GREAT EARRINGS LISA ASK ME ANYTHING ABOUT GEOMETRY I’M READY I’M READY!”
“GREAT WONDERFUL TERRIFIC CHECK THIS OUT THE SQUARE OF THE HYPOTENUSE OF A RIGHT TRIANGLE EQUALS THE SUM OF THE SQUARE OF THE OTHER TWO SIDES BABY! YEAH!” (Is this even correct? I got a C in geometry.)
“YEAH WE’LL BE GREAT WE’LL BE AWESOME WE’LL KNOCK 'EM DEAD RIGHT? RIGHT? YEAH!”
And moments later, the climax. The collapse. The glow. The scene.
If you were in SBTB’s demographic sweet spot back then, and if, that day in November, you watched “Jessie’s Song” unfold in front of you, one of two things happened when Jessie fell apart: you either laughed a little and choked on a Cocoa Pebble because you were always a little prick, weren’t you? Or, you drew your couch blanket close, certain you just felt the cold winds of change blow through your house.
What was most jarring about Jessie’s crash at the time was the sudden rift it tore in the very fabric of Jessieness. Post-freakout, everything we knew and understood as Jessie had been destabilized. She unwittingly gave us all a glimpse of the darkness, and it wasn’t even noon. Jessie would make a fascinating Showtime antiheroine these days, but in 1990, her freakout caused a rupture in the Bayside continuum.
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.