Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: In honor of the American Idol series finale, we’re revisiting our favorite television episodes featuring a talent competition.
Saved By The Bell, “Miss Bayside” (season two, episode eight; originally aired 10/27/90)
Competition was a mainstay of Saved By The Bell, whether the gang split up to form rival accessories companies (Buddy Bands were clearly superior) or write a new school song. But Zack Morris and A.C. Slater were engaged in their own rivalry from the get-go, battling it out for the big-man-on-campus mantle, as well as the heart of Kelly Kapowski. The latter objective was the root of most of their initial conflict, although these flames cooled once Slater began dating Jessie.
But in “Miss Bayside,” the prize is bragging rights (and $20). It’s not a routine outing for the group, though, as the girls are at cross-purposes for most of the episode. Kelly’s deemed the obvious frontrunner for the titular crown, but she surprises everyone by joining Jessie’s feminist protest of the event. Cheerleading captain Kelly is moved by her political friend’s impassioned plea, but Lisa ignores them both and enters the contest. After all, a beauty pageant is in clotheshorse Lisa’s fashion wheelhouse. It’s Jessie who eventually wavers in her convictions, though that’s only after a little manipulation.
The guys, of course, aren’t content to be left out of the competition, and go about setting up a contest of their own. When Zack bets Slater that he can lead any contestant to a Miss Bayside victory, he doesn’t imagine making over their dorky buddy Screech to enter into the contest. But because he has a sense of humor and equality, that’s just who Slater picks. It’s one of many instances of Zack underestimating Slater throughout the series—Zack might ace the SAT (in a later episode), but Slater has plenty of brains to go with his brawn.
Zack is often held up—usually by himself—as a master schemer, but Slater proves just as adept at manipulation, as he follows up this little twist by convincing Jessie that the pageant is now a progressive event, which convinces her to enter. This change of heart leads to a falling-out with Kelly and Lisa, but the fight blows over just as quickly as it starts. The girls would find themselves in direct opposition throughout the show’s run, but their distinct personalities gave them room to support each other, for they also had distinct goals in life: Jessie aspired to the Supreme Court, Kelly sought a family, and Lisa dreamed of being the next Calvin Klein.
Zack’s and Slater’s fortunes were much more intertwined, with the preppy often betting on the all-star athlete at various meets. As the (relatively) new kid, Slater chafed at Zack’s oversight and prodding, and tried to strike out on his own. Their series-long rivalry is front and center here as well, so when Slater sees Andrew Jackson slipping away, he signs up for the pageant as well. Zack resorts to cheating, as is his wont, though he has the decency to be ashamed of it later. As much as he’d like to think he has a clear edge on Slater—in this competition and in life—this move just highlights Zack’s insecurity. He left middle school (and Good Morning, Miss Bliss) with the intent of nabbing the girl of his dreams, i.e., Kelly, but he didn’t count on a transfer student upsetting his plans. It’s something he holds against the school’s star athlete for a while.
The day of the pageant comes, complete with a swimsuit competition. The outcome is reliably saccharine and restores the group’s dynamic, allowing everyone to move on without resentment—even Zack.
Availability: “Miss Bayside” is currently streaming on Hulu.