- Saved by the Bell -Revisiting 'Saved By The Bell's "Jessie's Song," A Case Of Classic, Acid-Washed Camp
Welcome to Retro Recaps, where we revisit your favorite old shows and give them the modern recap treatment that they always deserved. We've done Buffy's silent episode, Friends' 18-page letter, Sex and the City's Fleet Week episode, and The O.C.'s Chrismukkah episode. Today, we dive into Saved By The Bell. Caution: snark ahead.
There was nothing better than coming home from school in the early ‘90s to eat a two-pack of Funny Bones while watching at least an hour of Saved by the Bell reruns. I say this because it is what I did every day, and my younger brother and I would sing along to the theme song and then know exactly what episode we were in store for as soon as the first lines started. It was like Name That Tune, but with SBTB episodes. “I can name this episode in three Miss Bliss-es.”
There are a bunch of episodes that I always looked forward to seeing, like the one where Screech sells pasta sauce, the one where Zach is coached by a Native American spirit guide, or the one where Mrs. Belding gives birth in the school. But there was no episode better than the one that has loomed large in the minds of fans for decades: the episode we like to call the, “I’m so excited. I’m so excited. I’m so [dramatic pause and crumpled crying face] scared” episode. It’s officially known as “Jessie’s Song” and is the ninth episode of the show’s third season which originally aired in 1991.
It opens, as all things do, at The Maxx, the four-foot Swatch wall clock that turned itself into a restaurant. Zach Morris, as blonde and Californian as a pair of OP short shorts, informs us that this week they have a Geometry test, but he’s going to get through it by sitting next to some smart nerds who will let him cheat. Ah, remember when it was cool to feign stupidity on national television?
Jessie is telling Zach and future porn star Screech that she’s a lot more worried about the test because she wants to get into Stanford and feels like if she doesn’t get straight As then she’s not going to be accepted. Slater comes over to join them and sits down in a chair backwards, a move that showed BDE before the internet even knew what that was. He is wearing a pair of acid-washed pleated jeans with at least two belt buckle enclosures. These pants are at least 45% waist. He’s dressed like Yakko Warner from The Animaniacs but with a shirt on.
Kelly and Lisa come in and put a karaoke version of the Pointer Sisters’ hit “I’m So Excited” on the jukebox. To get Jessie in a better mood about potentially failing her geometry test, they start singing along and get Jessie to join them in. It’s like a choir of angels singing, like something that would be in a holiday ad for Claire’s. Zach tells the girls that his father has a friend who is looking for a group that is “like New Kids on the Block, but girls” and that he will be their manager. But they tell him that “we just sing for fun in the locker room.” I immediately have a flashback to Teen Witch and the post-PE iconic “I Like Boys” number. (Note to Riverdale writers: why has there not been a Teen Witch episode yet?)
When Screech hears this, he tells Zach that they should just bring a producer into the girls’ locker room to hear them sing. This seems like a joke but we live in a post-#MeToo world — we know that is totally how bands got discovered back in the day. Zach and Screech come up with an even better plan: Zach dresses Screech up as an Irish janitor woman — who looks exactly like the charwoman from The Carol Burnett Show — and sends him into the locker room to surreptitiously record the girls singing.
There are about 13 different levels of the girls not giving their consent here. First of all, there is a man dressing up like a woman to victimize girls, which is J.K. Rowling’s and every TERF’s nightmare. Then, he’s recording them without their permission, which I am sure is against California state law. Then, he’s lying to them about who he really is and saying that his name is Sinéad O’Connor. No, not that Sinéad O’Connor. That’s his niece, and he taught her everything she knows…about scrubbing toilets.
Later that night, Jessie is at her house, where Slater is mansplaining geometry to her because we find out that Jessie only got a C on her test. Isn’t she supposed to be the smart one and Slater the dumb jock? In the middle of their study sesh, Jessie’s neighbor Zach shows up by climbing a tree in her backyard and coming in through her window. Has anyone ever seen this in real life? This happened all the time on Clarissa Explains It All too, but I swear it is the insane invention of children’s sitcom writers. Could you imagine if your bestie was always popping in through the window what a shit fit your mother would pitch about the bark and dirt she was vacuuming up off your rug?
Anyway, Zach tells Jessie about the recording and she says, “You violated our privacy. Isn’t that disgusting, Slater?”
“Yeah,” he says, standing up for her. “And next time, why don’t you invite me, Preppy.” Slater is an anti-feminist jerkface this whole episode and I can’t understand what it’s all about. I remember watching this and thinking, “God, he’s so wrong about all this,” so maybe the joke was that his thinking was outdated even back then? But maybe I was just a feminist before it was cool. Maybe he’s really supposed to be pulling for a white picket fence and Jessie barefoot and pregnant at home while he cheats on her with a woman named Crystal who serves shots at the bar next to the factory where he works. I can’t tell what is sincerity and what is parody. It doesn’t help that he’s wearing a pair of pants with a cargo pocket that stretches almost the entire length of his leg.
Zach tells her that the record exec loved their recording and now she has to practice for the band and study for geometry at the same time. She decides to take Keep Alert pills, which are habit-forming caffeine pills. But you can buy them over the counter, so no big whoop. Slater advisers her against them, but they are certainly less potent than the pre-workout juice he takes every day and cause half as much flatulence, so maybe he should just undo the 13 buckles on his belt and just chill.
The next morning, Jessie is having breakfast at The Maxx with Mr. Belding, which honestly seems like some sort of punishment. She’s worried about getting into Stanford and he tells her that he will write her a great letter of recommendation and she shouldn’t fret at all. But then he tells her that there are plenty of good universities out there, and she’ll get into one of them. You know, like DeVry University, University of Phoenix, or Trump University. All great schools. All not total scams. Totally just as good as Stanford.
In the Bayside hallway, all three girls are sitting on the stairs, which is totally annoying because how is anyone supposed to use the stairs when the girls are just chilling on them reading and filing their nails? Didn’t their mothers ever tell them not to play on the stairs? Zach comes up and tells them that the record exec loved their recording but they are considering three other girl groups: Buns on the Run, The Earlobes, and Zit Hit Machine, which all honestly sound like shows that are currently on TLC after 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way: Ever After: Visa Season: 90 More Days: With Stacey and Lacey and Macy.
Zach tells them two important things: the first is that they are going to make a music video to get ahead of the competition; the second is that their name is Hot Sunday. Or is it Hot Sundae? Is the band named after a day of the week that is so sunny, it’s making everyone sweat? Maybe it’s like they’re at mass and they’re all sweating because they’re whores in church? Or maybe they’re an ice cream treat that has been left out on the counter overnight? A Hot Sundae sounds appealing, but wouldn’t it just be a soupy, sugary mess with some sprinkles bleeding their color into the vanilla churn and a neon red cherry sunk to the bottom? Either one of these scenarios doesn’t sound appealing, and sadly we will never know which one is accurate because Zach never spells out these homophones.
We then see the music video, and if it could be framed and hung in the Smithsonian, it should be. It should get a posthumous Peabody and be added to the official EGOT Wikipedia page. The song is called “Go For It!” and features Jessie, Kelly, and Lisa in two different neon leotard ensembles each and it switches from one to the next in the middle of a frame in an effect that is supposed to be cutting-edge but is really just like ingesting a handful of red pills from The Matrix. We also get some stop-motion image blurring, and a section where we can still see the girls dancing in the gym but also see half-transparent closeups of their faces. It’s like every single effect in a Lionel Ritchie video but on a public access budget. I can say, with almost perfect certainty, that this video made me gay.
“Go For It!” is also a complete and total jam. If this was on the radio even now, it would be my favorite song. Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, and Dula Peep should do a cover version of it. I just say that because, aside from making me like boys, this song also crystalized my musical taste for the rest of my life. Well, it was this, every Misfits song on Jem and the Holograms, and the theme song to It’s A Living. That is my Spotify algorithm.
To get through all of her studying and making this video, Jessie is taking more caffeine pills than ever before. Zach tells her that the record execs loved the video and they’re coming to see the band sing at The Maxx the next day. Seriously? They’re record execs and they’re going to go to a two-bit high school diner to see a concert and not just invite these girls up to their office in L.A. where they have, like, a recording studio or some shit that would be a much better venue? Jessie is torn between studying for the geometry test and rehearsing with the girls. Oh, why not do both? She can definitely do both, with the help of her Toxic Tic Tacs (patent pending).
The next day, Jessie shows up for the test and she is talking fast, being loud, and turns in her exam faster than anyone else. Yes, it is clear that Jessie Spano is hopped up on goofballs and I have never seen anything more amazing in my life. She’s equally erratic at rehearsal after school at The Maxx.
But that night, when it’s time to leave for the concert, Jessie is passed out in her bed. Zach, who apparently remembered how doors work, enters through the house like a normal person. She can’t remember taking the test. She doesn’t know they rehearsed “Go For It!”. She has no idea that Lisa is bringing the costumes that night. Zach is worried about her, but that is when Jessie says that she can still make the gig, all she needs are… her pills!
When Zach finds out about her drug use, they get into a tussle and Jessie spills her dolls all over her bed and is trying to scoop them up and shove them into her face all at once. She tells Zach she can definitely do it and... that is when it happens. The moment that we’ve all been waiting for. “I’m so excited,” Jessie starts singing atonally. “I’m so excited. I’m so… scared.” She collapses into Zach’s arms.
That, right there, is when a whole generation discovered the meaning of camp. This is something that is supposed to be serious, that is supposed to show how difficult Jessie’s life is on these drugs. It is supposed to be a fine display of her acting skills, but instead it’s just… comedy. No one believed it. No one thought she was in peril. No one thought that Hot Sundae was really going to take off and that there were actual stakes here. This whole thing is just a joke, but the sincerity of the moment turns it into something that doesn’t understand itself. It is not only an American Studies thesis waiting to be written, it is also grotesque in an English major kind of way.
The only bit left of the episode is the performance at The Maxx, where we finally get to see the costumes that Lisa cooked up for the occasion. They are acid-washed jean jackets, open to the navel, with sleeves made out of magenta lace and white bandeau tops underneath. There is a matching pink lace flared skirt over a pair of knee-length white leggings and, though we do not see their shoes, I am 100% positive they were wearing pink jelly shoes. We also discover that Screech is filling in for Jessie, and it would have been hilarious to put him in that same costume, but I guess one drag ensemble per episode was already asking a lot of the early ‘90s.
The episode ends with the girls and Zach’s dreams of stardom dashed, Slater delivering flowers to Jessie in bed, and Jessie telling us that she’s going to get counseling for her drug addiction that was dreamed up and then immediately dispelled within 22 minutes. It was an absolute miracle, but, just like DARE, I think that this episode did more to turn kids on to drugs then turn them off. Jessie’s breakdown, as dramatic as she thought it was, seemed like a whole lot of fun. After all, she did ace that geometry test, and if the only side effect was a little bit of fear — easily dispelled by Zach telling some dumb story about riding their bikes in the dark — then get me a bottle of Keep Alerts, a two-pack of Funny Bones, and set me loose in the ‘90s.