On Nov. 25, 1990, Saturday morning’s favorite scholar, feminist and entertainer, Saved By The Bell’s Jessie Spano, freaked out on caffeine pills while preparing for both a geometry test and a big audition. She wound up collapsing into the arms of friend and neighbor Zack Morris while singing The Pointer Sisters.
In the quarter century since, Jessie’s big meltdown has become both a punchline and a meme. (Elizabeth Berkley, who played Jessie, has made reference to the scene on both Dancing With The Stars and The Tonight Show.) In an age where even the good kids are popping Adderall and Concerta like it’s no big deal, a caffeine related freakout seems kind of quaint.
In a new article on Thrillist, however, Michael Andor Brodeur argues that the episode marked a major change in how kids’ TV talked about drugs, and a loss of innocence for Saturday morning as a whole.
What was most jarring about Jessie’s crash at the time was the sudden rift it tore in the very fabric of Jessieness. Post-freakout, everything we knew and understood as Jessie had been destabilized. She unwittingly gave us all a glimpse of the darkness, and it wasn’t even noon. Jessie would make a fascinating Showtime antiheroine these days, but in 1990, her freakout caused a rupture in the Bayside continuum.
Today, watching Jessie fall into the arms of Zack’s disproportionate blazer feels like watching one era of television crumble into the next. Beyond The Max’s funky doors, America’s Funniest Home Videos was wrapping up its first year; Mystery Science Theater was in its second; Pee-wee was out, Parker Lewis was in. Somewhere, Tim Berners-Lee was writing the first web page, and Bono was drafting his last decent album. Peak Roseanne was drawing ever closer, and a mounting wave of cynicism was about to sweep the nation.
That is, if Jessie Spano was going to suffer a catastrophic shit-fit due to caffeine pills, it had to happen now. And it did. And it was perfect.
But there’s also a lingering sadness that haunts the scene. We’re not just watching earnest go to camp, we’re witnessing the violent death rattle of sincere television. Like the schlocky, painfully dated, well-intentioned narratives of which Saved By The Bell remains so perfectly emblematic, Jessie was undone by her unsustainable pursuit of perfect representation. Meanwhile, Zack is there to save her, with his smirking asides and self-aware Buellerisms, bounding uninvited through the fourth wall like it was Jessie’s bedroom window. An entitled dick, he’s the perfect forerunner of television’s near future, a poster child for Seinfeldian snark and self-consciousness.