The genius of Saved by the Bell stems from the unique interplay between the direction and writing on the show. SBTB’s writing eschews the sitcom archetype requiring a strict adherence to narrative continuity extending from episode to episode. Instead, while the characters remain (fairly) constant, their circumstances, background, and environment are malleable to the needs of the writer. This refusal to be constrained by convention provides the SBTB writer a freedom not often seen in the sitcom form.
At the same time, the director creates a rich subtext to each episode. Unlike the lack of narrative continuity, which provides the writers freedom, the unique circumstances of SBTB requires the director to paint the picture behind the picture, so to speak. SBTB aired on Saturday morning, restricting the subject matter that could be addressed explicitly. In order to allow the story to go where it needed, the director needed to paint a shocking picture implicitly, without letting any of the colors from this dark palette reach the surface of the episode.
In the episode “Screech’s Birthday,” originally airing on January 6, 1990 on NBC, writer Stephen Langford plays artfully with his freedom from continuity while director Don Barnhart skillfully creates a dark presence looming just below the surface of the story. While Mr. Langford flouts convention, Mr. Barnhart weaves a dark tale of sexual predation that Saturday morning viewers would only sense and never glimpse.
The plot itself is straightforward. The gang forgets Screech’s birthday. Screech is crestfallen so Zack comes up with a way to make it up to him: a surprise birthday party in Mr. Belding’s office. Making this challenge tougher, Mr. Langford has created a new antagonist, Neil the Bullying Hall Monitor. Mr. Langford wisely ignores the fact that Bayside does not have a hall monitor in any other episode.
Mr. Langford also creates an impending drama festival in order to dispatch Mr. Belding from his office. Lisa, Kelly, and Jessie call Mr. Belding on the phone and each use their character from the drama festival to convince Mr. Belding that they are all one girl suffering from split personalities (“My other two personalities are holding me hostage at the mall”). The bumbling Mr. Belding, ably played by the consistent Dennis Haskins, falls for the rouse and leaves to pick up the psychotic girl at the mall (“Wait for me outside the corndog stand”).
The hall monitor situation causes a larger problem. After tape recording Neil insulting the gang, Zack plays the tape in Mr. Dewey’s class. Mr. Dewey, believing that the tape recording is Neil insulting him, loses his temper and dramatically strips Neil of hall monitor status (”I’m so angry I could spit nails”). Zack then starts a Screech chant, ensuring that Mr. Dewey will name Screech the new hall monitor. What he does not anticipate is that Screech will deputize his robot Kevin, and become drunk with power. Timid at first, Screech gains confidence after Mr. Dewey tells him he must visualize himself as tough. Following the pep talk, Screech begins sending everyone to detention, inadvertently, and unbeknownst to him, putting his own surprise party in jeopardy. In the end, the gang has the surprise party in Mr. Belding’s office and all is forgiven.
Looming just below the surface of the plot, the subtext of “Screech’s Birthday” is disturbing. First Mr. Barnhart chooses to cast Jesse Wilson in the role of Neil the Bully Hall Monitor, a powerful choice considering Mr. Wilson appears to be 32 years old. The mannish Neil is every youngster’s worst nightmare, hulking and menacing. Neil floats in the nether regions between man and child. Though clear enough to the student population, teachers at Bayside fail to recognize that Neil is a full grown adult. Neil stalks his prey undetected by the authority figures. He is a wolf in wolf’s clothing traversing the halls. Indeed, the authority figures at Bayside make Neil a hall monitor putting him in a position of power over his intended victims. Notably, the gang has no recourse against Neil’s abuse of power except to resort to artifice. Undoubtedly, Mr. Barnhart is making a powerful statement regarding sexual predators in the school system.
Further demonstrating this subtext is the fact that Screech remains the victim even when he becomes the hall monitor, the same position of power Neil used towards his sick ends. In a sharp contrast to the hulking Neil, the hall monitor sash and armband do little to save Screech from his tormentors. Screech only becomes powerful after having a bizarre vision in which he is Roboscreech, hall monitor of the future. In this dream sequence, a bully is attempting to force himself on Lisa. Roboscreech puts a stop to this assault and is about to kiss Lisa when Neil confronts him. Roboscreech fires a laser at Neil, reducing him to ashes.
Mr. Barnhart, and to an extent Mr. Langford, create a powerful message. Screech’s dreams of escaping his victimhood involve a desire to become a robot. Roboscreech is physically powerful, but ultimately unfeeling, unable to suffer the emotion from his torments at the hands of Neil. Later, continuing the robot motif, Screech deputizes his robot Kevin, allowing him to subdue an angry Slater. Screech’s delusions, and obsession with robots, further demonstrate this desire to be reborn in a body incapable of feeling emotion.
Mr. Barnhart is clearly a master of his craft.