The Enduring Legacy of Saved by the Bell

Mr. Belding himself discusses why the teen sitcom continues to captivate 20 years after it went off the air

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Saved by the Bell
Paul Drinkwater / NBCU Photo Bank / Getty Images

(l-r) Tiffani Thiessen as Kelly Kapowski, Elizabeth Berkley as Jessica 'Jessie' Myrtle Spano, Leanna Creel as Tori Scott, Dennis Haskins as Mr. Richard Belding, Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Zachary 'Zack' Morris, Dustin Diamond as Samuel 'Screech' Powers, Lark Voorhies as Lisa Turtle, Mario Lopez as Albert Clifford 'A.C.' Slater

The TV show Saved by the Bell went off the air in 1993, after four seasons. The College Years edition lasted till 1994, and the New Class till 2000 — but the show is still very much alive.

This week sees the release of the 22-disc Saved by the Bell: The Complete Collection DVD set, out Nov. 5, which includes every episode from the first five seasons as well as behind-the-scenes features. In addition, E! announced on Nov. 4 that their new morning programming block would include daily airings of SbtB reruns. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the network will air a marathon on Nov. 11, followed by two-hour weekday blocks that will go through the series’ episodes in chronological order. And, just a few weeks ago, SbtB star Elizabeth Berkley referenced the show during a performance on Dancing with the Stars. There’s even a new-ish Saved by the Bell-inspired hardcore punk band called Death to Slater.

Not every 20-year-old sitcom about a group of teenagers making their way through high school would be able to hold that level of audience interest. So what’s Saved by the Bell got that keeps its early-’90s audience coming back, even when they themselves have aged out of high school, and (E! hopes) can still attract new viewers?

Dennis Haskins, who played school principal Mr. Belding throughout the show’s run, has a few ideas. (Haskins also played Mr. Belding is the New Class, after the original show ended, and SbtB precursor Good Morning, Miss Bliss.)

“The energy, you could see it right away,” Haskins tells TIME. “There wasn’t anything else like it. [Viewers] embraced it in a way no one could imagine.”

(WATCHSaved by the Bell + Dancing With the Stars = So Exciting)

Saved by the Bell‘s differences weren’t just a matter of the chemistry between the core cast members (Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Zack Morris, Mario Lopez as A.C. Slater, Dustin Diamond as Screech Powers, Lark Voorhies as Lisa Turtle, Elizabeth Berkley as Jessie Spano and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen as Kelly Kapowski). Haskins also cites the show’s MTV-era fast pacing, its unusual place in its original Saturday-morning programming slot — a time dominated by cartoons — and its universal messages delivered in a non-preachy way. “The show was about firsts, things we all go through, like having your dad lose his job or hurting your best friend’s feelings,” he says. “We didn’t hit people with a hammer. We hit people with a feather, with the message.”

And of course, there was Mr. Belding: though Haskins played the only adult in the show’s main group, he says that he’s since learned how his character’s presence helped young audience members filter what they saw the teenage characters experience, by creating the safety net that comes from a caring adult. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘you raised me.’ Well, holy cow! To have that kind of impact on somebody is something you can only wish for,” Haskins says. “When it comes true, it’s a miracle.”

Accordingly, Haskins’ personal favorite episode of Saved by the Bell is Season 2’s “The Fabulous Belding Boys,” in which Mr. Belding’s brother subs for a Bayside High teacher. While his brother is cool but irresponsible, Mr. Belding saves the day by being there for the students in a pinch.

So Haskins isn’t that surprised by what he calls the Saved by the Bell “renaissance”— but the extent of enduring love for the show is something that was hard to predict while he walked the halls of Bayside. And though some of today’s interest in the show is slightly tongue-in-cheek, he’s not ashamed to be associated with something that people have loved for decades and continue to embrace.

“As you look back on things it’s easier to figure it out than when you’re doing it,” he says. “I’m very proud to be Mr. Belding, and will be for the rest of my life.”

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