ghosts, the afterlife, numerology, pop culture cover-ups, historical landmarks, and cartoon pornography. Until now, it's all been a bit of fun, and we've had a jolly good laugh. But now, it's time to get serious. Today, we're gonna look into one of the more arresting phenomena that creeped into our lives nearly 30 years ago and has weighed heavy on our hearts and minds ever since.
I'm, of course, talking about the "Tori" episodes of Saved By the Bell.
If you're not super-familiar with SBTB, I can do my best to give you some kinda overview to give you an idea of what I'm talking about, but this is truly one of those "you had to be there" things -- those who were there can attest to this.
In September of 1992, NBC aired an episode titled "The New Girl" close to the beginning of the fourth and final season of the original show. The episode introduced a new student to Bayside High named Tori Scott (Leanna Creel), a leather-clad biker chick with a wit and charm that would eventually catch the eye of both Zack and Slater. The two guys compete for her attention and in the end she wisely chooses neither.
This wasn't exactly a fresh premise for Saved By the Bell; Zack and Slater (and even Screech) had quarrels over girls in other episodes, forcing somebody or everybody to learn lessons in life and love. It was also common for characters to pop up as romantic interests and then never show up to school again, and this seemed to be the case with Tori, as she did not appear in the following episode, titled "The Bayside Triangle," which finds Screech out for blood when he learns that Zack has eyes for Lisa. Of course, even that premise indicates bizarre shifts ahead; Zack and Lisa? Screech gets mad?
The next episode to air was "Teen-Line" in which Zack asks a girl out on a blind date, but is taken aback when he finds that she's in a wheelchair (indicated to us when Zack exclaims, "You're in a wheelchair!"). This scenario enables Zack to embrace his 'acceptance' of someone who's 'different,' and immediately becomes overprotective of her and has to come to terms with his own sense of proportion. And who else but Tori is there to set him straight and tell him, "Maybe she'd rather be your friend than your cause." It's this brand of articulate, even-tempered advice that only Tori could provide - less self-serving and emotionally-driven than, say, Kelly or Jessie. Which brings us to one of the more notable points of this puzzle: there is no Kelly or Jessie.
Whenever Tori is around, Kelly Kapowski and Jessie Spano don't exist - and not just in a scene-by-scene ratio - they're absent for entire episodes. These episodes are known as the "Tori Episodes," where the original nucleus of six has subtracted two and added one.
Typically, it'd be an all-around bum-out to lose two beloved main characters on a show you've been watching for four years, but this was far from being that simple. Tori would stick around for a few more shows and a romantic relationship with Zack would sorta blossom... and then she'd be gone, and Kelly and Jessie would be back. Then they'd be gone, and Tori would be back, and on and on and so forth for the duration of the season, causing myself and anyone else I've ever talked to about it to ask, "What in the hell was going on there?"
Saved By the Bell wasn't, for the most part, a continuing narrative, but the fragility of the familiarity became achingly apparent when it was compromised in such a deceptive way. And so, I felt it was time to unravel this folk tale that's vexed me for far too long, and hopefully bring the truth to the others who have so desperately craved it as much as I.
I must be spoiled by the times, because the answers I sought were not as easy or immediate as I had anticipated - which was kinda okay because it created more of a sleuthing vibe for me. Incidentally, the facts of this story are vaguely illusive because they're buried under piles of fan theories and 'what-ifs,' each more obnoxious and distracting than the next. But it does make some sense: when people witness a freak occurrence unfold before their eyes, they tend to assign their own explanations to it - however outlandish. Still though, red herrings aside, the explanation presented itself to me pretty quickly, and of course, like any mystery, the resolution was 5% satisfaction and 95% melancholy, and in the case of the Tori episodes, 100% anticlimactic. We all pretended like we didn't know what was going on, but deep down, I think we did.
Saved By the Bell ended on paper after three seasons. In a last minute-type deal, NBC renewed the show for a fourth season, but Tiffani-Amber Thiessen and Elizabeth Berkley opted out of renewing their contracts. As a result, a new character was written into the season to semi-balance out the group dynamic.
Leanna Creel played Tori for 10 episodes, and the rest of the season was padded out with clip shows and a handful of episodes that had been previously shot but inexplicably never aired.
And that's it, really - minus the major details, I think it's more or less what we all assumed. But really, it answers the biggest question: no, there was nothing weird going on in the overly-analytical sense. Kelly and Jessie weren't dead or kidnapped, Tori wasn't a demon or a secret agent, and no other ludicrous fan fiction lent any credence to the truth. Personally, I can say that anyone who applies a clinical, ironic, or "woke" approach to innocuous pop art doesn't smoke the same cigarettes as me. In other words, don't make it more than it is.
So, what is it?
The show's writers and/or producers explained away the inconsistencies with the notion that Kelly & Jessie simply weren't in the same classes as Tori, and so storylines could germinate without them. That's fine, I'll take it. But while that scenario may've come across as too cryptic or lazy for some folks (even though it's just a fucking kids' TV show), I would assert that the invention and execution of the idea of "Tori" was less "open to interpretation" and more clearly defined to a keen eye. Like mine! I, for one, openly celebrate the Tori episodes as some of my favorites, and applaud the writers for not only pressing on with the tone that the show had so wonderfully established, but for creating a new, likable character that gelled in an organic way. And that's the key word: likable. For people who were upset that the integrity of the original structure had been compromised slightly probably don't realize how much worse it could've been. Besides, the #1 attribute of intelligence is the ability to adapt to change -- the students of Bayside did it, and so can you.
In Tori's first episode, there is conflict between her and Zack, which was already infinitely more interesting than if they had written her as just a rainbows-and-sunshine replacement for Kelly. But therein lies the brilliance of the character; not only was she less ditzy and aloof than Kelly, less manic and stuck-up than Jessie, and less self-centered and materialistic than Lisa, Tori was the most level-headed member of the whole group. She managed to retain Kelly's sensitivity and Jessie's strength, and was better at both. She was the friend the rest of them needed but didn't deserve. She was the group's conscience (especially in the "Drinking and Driving" episode) and on some levels, she was the subconscious. (No, not like a Tyler Durden-type thing - we're not gonna get stupid about it.) Without Kelly, Zack became the true star of the show more than ever before, and Tori, perhaps, represented the exact type of person he needed in his life - let alone desired. She knew how to humble his ego and alleviate his insecurities, all while maintaining her own balance of femininity and dominance. This kind of independence was foreign to Zack, and it turned him on.
But, to reiterate, he didn't deserve Tori. Eventually, when reality shifted again, Zack would attend college with Kelly, and they'd eventually marry - because that's what the audience deserved.
I'm not sure if the show is available via any streaming services (I have to assume it's somewhere), but it is on DVD (though for some reason they're spread out in such a way that 'Season Four' is labeled as the otherwise-nonexistent 'Season Five'). Point being that if one were so inclined, they could initiate their own Tori Marathon, binging all 10 Tori Episodes into one satisfying story arch, like a compilation of deep cuts and B-sides. (Trust me, they work best this way.) In fact, even though there's not a list yet, I nominate this stretch of shows as an Honorable Mention for this year's Summer Starter Pack. By the end, you'll be ready to go back to school (whenever the hell that will be) with more confidence and a killer fashion sense.