In this age of cable television where demographic segmentation runs so deep there is a channel for every type of viewer, networks are specific enough for their content to practically be their own genres. The SyFy Channel movie is synonymous with low-budget Roger Corman supernatural disaster film, for instance. Similarly, Lifetime is the network for female-centric true crime stories and deliberately trashy biopics.
These films may hold little cinematic value and be immediately forgettable, but rest assured, Lifetime movies are an event. From last year’s riot fest “Liz & Dick” starring a spectacularly miscast Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor to the Jodi Arias biopic, Lifetime sure knows how to quickly turn around a doozy of a TV movie.
This year’s controversial entry into their pantheon of cheese is “The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story,” a film based on the on-set happenings behind the beloved teen sitcom that launched the careers of Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Mario Lopez and Tiffani Thiessen. Many of the film’s subjects have publicly dismissed the film, which Lifetime has turned into its primary selling point. Even the title gins up the idea that the film’s content is too scandalous for the stars of the show to cop up to, setting an expectation for what revelations are in store.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, not only is “The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story” not a salacious tell-all about the wild antics that went on while the kids weren’t at Bayside High, it is uncompromisingly sanitized. A swig of alcohol and a fairly innocuous temper tantrum is all that separates these kids from being paragons of youthful decency, which would be fine if the film did not rely on these moments for its narrative trajectory.
To the credit of the young cast, the kids are almost as infectiously likable as their real-life versions were in the early ’90s. Particular attention must be paid to Dylan Everett and Tiera Skovbye, who portrayed Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Elizabeth Berkley respectively. Everett is aggressive in applying Gosselaar’s real life mannerisms to his performance, making up for his disparate physical appearance. Skovbye, tasked with recreating Berkley’s cringe-inducing “I’m so excited!” scene from the original series, does it so convincingly that she almost seems like she is in the wrong movie.
The casting department may have carried its load of the weight, but it cannot make up for the fact that the film is such a bore. Attention has clearly been paid to Martin Scorsese’s latest film “The Wolf of Wall Street,” as both films share a very specific aesthetic in regards to depicting the early ’90s. What works for a $100 million picture from a master filmmaker does not necessarily work for a fast-tracked TV movie; this approach applied to “The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story” does not even carry a hundredth of the energy or kineticism required. Honestly, this movie could not be more limp.
Luckily for Lifetime, fortunate timing allows “The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story” to be tangentially relevant. The film is fundamentally about the struggles people under the spotlight have to face as they try to lead a normal life in the public eye. Their individuality and ability to lead private existences is stripped away from them no matter what they do. In light of recent events that have blatantly infringed upon the privacy of several Hollywood actresses, “The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story” has an unintentionally poignant message. Celebrities are people too, and their humanity should be respected and protected.
As far as it goes, this movie makes that point admirably.
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