By Kate Ward
August 24, 2011 at 05:50 PM EDT
Sure, four seasons doesn't seem like a lot, but considering that cast drama on other shows has been known to start much earlier, it?s an…
Credit: Everett Collection

We all loved Zack Morris. That scheming smile. His blond-streaked hair. His penchant for color blocking. And, of course, that rad, cutting-edge cell phone. In the minds of all children of the ’90s, the only way to be cuter and cooler than Zack Morris was to be named Jonathan Taylor Thomas. But since I began watching TBS’ Saved By the Bell reruns about a year back, I’ve grown to develop a deeper appreciation for its less heralded characters.

There’s Slater, the dimpled army transplant with a soft spot for strong women. There’s Jessie, the caffeine pill-popping feminist who still takes advantage of any opportunity to wear a revealing outfit in front of the boys. There’s Lisa, the spoiled yet mature fashionista who’s just way too big for Bayside. There’s Screech, the squeaky shrimp that’s so insecure, you kind of believe that he would grow up to make a sex tape. There’s Kelly, who’s a bit like a manila envelope — but the hottest manila envelope ever. And, of course, Mr. Belding, the authority figure so desperate to recapture his youth that he puts a little too much “pal” in “principal.” (Remember that episode when Mr. Belding, having trouble with his wife, came to hang out with Zack and the boys in Zack’s room?!)

Sure, Zack might be the coolest character of Saved By the Bell, but the fact that a kids’ show managed to deliver such disparate, multi-layered personalities is a feat unto its own. There was a character everyone could identify with, and not just on a Breakfast Club-esque jock/brain/basket case level. Many of us grew up with the Bayside clan — during the show’s four-season run, we were able to watch our own personalities mature as theirs developed.

Not that we should take Saved By the Bell too seriously. When it comes down to it, Saved By the Bell is just a terrible series book-ended by two horrendous series. (Here’s looking at you, Good Morning, Miss Bliss and Saved By the Bell: The College Years.) But any child growing up in the ’90s felt a certain kinship with the Bayside kids. We wanted to be them. Hell, when we were going through our neon-filled, horrible awkward stages, we were them. We might not have ever created buddy bands, but, no doubt, we all feuded with pals during an enterprising group project. We might not have ever worked at a country club over the summer, but we remember crushing on a cute new friend during summer camp. And we might not have ever solved an oil spill crisis, but, well… we could solve the times table?

Yes, Saved By the Bell offered up plenty of ridiculata — Jessie’s famous caffeine pill freak-out, of course — but its best episodes showcased the simplicity and goofiness of adolescence. Think: “Dancing To the Max” (the episode that brought us “The Sprain”), “The Fabulous Belding Boys” (in which Mr. Belding’s brother, Rod, shows up… and ends up proving how good a principal Mr. Belding is), and, one of my favorites, “The Senior Prom,” in which Jessie and Slater find themselves locked in a storage closet during the dance.

Since I was a Jessie (who desperately wished she was a Kelly), that particular episode led to many a teenage fantasy. If only I could find myself locked in a closet with a handsome boy — surely, he would have no choice but to submit to my wit and charm, right?! Sadly, though, unlike The Girl That Would Be Nomi Malone, the teenage dream never was, I didn’t get my first kiss until I was 18, and am now the type of person who watches Saved By the Bell weekday mornings on TBS. That being said, I’m not licking stripper poles, so I think I turned out okay.

But now I want to know, PopWatchers: Which Saved By the Bell character did you most identify with? Vote in the poll below and share your favorite Saved By the Bell memories in the comments! (UPDATE: For those of you wondering, the bespeckled man in the picture is Max, owner of The Max. Did his magic tricks make no impression on you all?)

Follow Kate on Twitter @KateWardEW

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