As you may have seen in my review yesterday, I was not a fan of TNT’s “Franklin & Bash,” which debuts tonight. But even though Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s performance trends more towards the smarm than he’s done in a while, I’m still glad to see him working – and, after a few Steven Bochco shows in a row, to see that he’s now just another working adult actor, hireable by various producers for various gigs.
Gosselaar and I are pretty close in age, so when “Saved by the Bell” was airing during my own high school years, the only way I was able to enjoy it was ironically. But I know that people even only a few years younger were genuinely obsessed with that show, in a way that members of Generation X spent way too much time watching “Brady Bunch” reruns, or “Who’s the Boss” or “Full House” or some other show that hasn’t aged well but seemed super-mega-awesome before puberty really hit.
And as the show’s lead – the one whom the producers built the show around after importing a few of the actors over from Disney Channel’s “Good Morning, Miss Bliss” – Gosselaar was a huge part of generating that rabid cult audience. Not a lot of great Zack-centric clips on YouTube (though, of course, Gosselaar is there as the straight man in the most iconic “Saved by the Bell moment ever) but this clip where Zack demonstrates his “time out” power comes vaguely close to summing up what he was about:
I remember interviewing him when he first joined the cast of “NYPD Blue” (for a story that pre-dates The Star-Ledger’s online archives, unfortunately), and it was unnerving how much the mention of “Saved by the Bell” blackened his mood. It wasn’t that he’d had a bad experience making the show, or regretted the time spent there, but the years immediately following the end of his time as Zack Morris were hard.
“It was a tough slap in the face to get off that show and realize I had nothing,” he told me. “I basically had this baggage with me for years. I”d walk into the room and they”d say, ‘Oh, he”s good, but he”s that guy from Saved by the Bell.””
Things obviously turned with “NYPD Blue,” where he was given a better character to play than fellow child star alum Rick Schroeder had, where he got to apprentice with the great Dennis Franz, and where the writers knew what to give him and when. Again, not a ton of clips on YouTube from the John Clark Jr. years, but here’s a scene where John gets some troubling news about his mentally unstable girlfriend:
That gig worked well enough that Bochco hired Gosselaar again for “Raising the Bar.” By that point, there were also no doubt casting directors and development executives ascending into power who had grown up on the show and viewed “Hey, it’s Zack Morris!” not as something to run away from, but something to be excited about. So at some point, Gosselaar learned to embrace his innate Zack-ness, which led to this fantastic appearance with Jimmy Fallon a couple of years ago:
Some child stars wind up with dark endings (Corey Haim), some quit the business (or, in the case of Ron Howard, figure out another part of the business to thrive in), but some like Gosselaar and Neil Patrick Harris eventually find a way to not only transcend their baggage, but have fun with it.
So, for those of you who grew up on “Saved by the Bell,” I’m wondering exactly what your memories of the show were. Did you feel at the time it was incredibly cheesey? Did you think it was great and come to understand later – or possibly even during the run of the show? Do you now think back on the time you spent watching it fondly, or more in a “How many hours did I waste on that?” kind of way? And are you now capable of watching Gosselaar in an adult role without immediately thinking of him hanging out with Screech and Kelly Kapowski?