The Big Picture

  • “Running Zack,” a cringe-worthy episode of Saved by the Bell, highlights cultural insensitivity and performative behavior.
  • Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who played Zack Morris, expressed reservations about the episode and acknowledged that it wouldn’t be made in current times.
  • Prior to the Saved by the Bell reboot, Gosselaar had never watched a full episode of the original series and initially struggled to understand its enduring popularity.

Over its four-year run of 86 episodes, Saved by the Bell quickly established itself as a staple of teen-centric ’90s entertainment. Following the angst and antics of six students attending California’s fictional Bayside High School, the series was popular enough to spawn TV movies and spin-offs while serving as a launchpad for the careers of its main cast. Campy yet endearing, and characteristic of the era’s sitcoms with its light tone and humor, Saved by the Bell managed to wade into various narrative and thematic territories without ruffling feathers or landing itself in the cross-hairs of controversy. But as time progresses and sensibilities evolve, even some of TV’s more sanitized content has retroactively stepped on a rake or two. One such example lies in the 13th episode of Saved by the Bell‘s Season 2. Dubbed “Running Zack,” the episode featured the series’ quintessential slacker and schemer, Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), wade into cultural territory that could be deemed contentious.

What is ‘Saved by the Bell’s “Running Zack” About?

Image via NBC

When Bayside students are given a family tree assignment to explore their family heritage, Zack discovers that he has “a distant Indian relative.” Characteristically, he makes a mockery of the task, hoping to whisk by with as little work as possible. Along with Screech (Dustin Diamond), Zack delivers a clownish presentation chock-full of Native American stereotypes. But after his teacher threatens him with summer school if he doesn’t try harder and complete the assignment on time, putting his upcoming track meet in jeopardy, he’s told to contact Chief Henry (Dehl Berti) to learn more about his ancestry. Ultimately befriending the elder Native American, who coins the episode’s titular nickname for his young pupil, Zack develops a sense of curiosity and reverence for Native American history and culture, culminating in another presentation that, although more respectful in terms of content, sees him don Native American clothing, a headdress, and face paint as he speaks in front of his class.

In an era with broadened societal dialogue regarding topics like cultural insensitivity, “Running Zack” certainly dates itself with some of its content. The episode’s cringe factor isn’t limited to Zack’s trajectory, as Jesse (Elizabeth Berkley), distraught over discovering that some of her ancestors were slave owners, professes her guilt to Lisa (Lark Voorhies) ad nauseam. However, despite its shortcomings and elementary approach to highlighting historical injustice, the importance of education, and understanding one’s place relative to ancestry, the episode isn’t a total misfire in its handling of such matters. While Zack’s class presentation is performative and arguably an example of cultural appropriation, the underlying notion permeating “Running Zack” is one of empathy and compassion quashing apathy and ignorance. Sure, like other episodes before and after it, this one hasn’t aged too gracefully, but how many people look to decades-old teenage sitcoms for lessons in morality?

Mark-Paul Gosselaar Literally Cringed Over the Episode

Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Mario Lopez, Dennis Haskins, Lark Voorhies, and Elizabeth Berkley in Saved by the Bell
Image via NBC

Three decades after “Running Zack” aired and a Saved by the Bell reboot series was streaming on Peacock, Gosselaar took a trip down memory lane. According to Today, the actor expressed reservations over the episode. “I cringed seeing myself portraying a white dude being Zack Morris, who is like the all-American, blond-haired white dude in an Indian Native American headdress,” Gosselaar admitted. Elaborating further, he claimed to have a foggy memory regarding the decision to have his character wear face paint and Native American clothing. “I don’t like remember putting on the headdress,” he told Today. “I don’t remember putting face paint on. I don’t remember standing in that awkward way that I was standing where my arms are folded and like a very stereotypical way.”

While revisiting “Running Zack” left the actor with mixed feelings, he was quick to highlight the ever-evolving entertainment landscape, particularly regarding the efforts of content creators to roll back culturally insensitive material in favor of a more thoughtful and nuanced approach to storytelling and representation. “But, again, there are protocols in place to and filters that, you know, like a director, standards and practices, people that I think … we’re much more sensitive now, for good reason, that those things would not happen today,” he acknowledged. “Like, this episode would never get made in current times, and rightly so.”

RELATED: 10 Sitcoms With Content That Hasn’t Aged Well

Before the Peacock Reboot, Mark-Paul Gosselaar Never Watched a Full Episode of ‘Saved by the Bell’

Image via Peacock

In preparing for Peacock’s Saved by the Bell reboot series in 2020, Gosselaar took the time to re-watch the entire original series run. Partnering with writer Dashiell Driscoll on a podcast, Zack to the Future, he candidly discussed his reaction to various episodes, assessing his performances and the series as a whole. Per Variety, the experience wasn’t a wholly enjoyable one for Gosselaar, who revealed, “I feel like it’s a little bit torturous every week for me to go through this process because I am watching my work — and it doesn’t matter that it’s 30 years old, it’s still something that I feel like I can improve. But that’s just the perfectionist in me, which is why I don’t like to watch my work: I feel like I should leave it on the set.”

Perhaps surprisingly, prior to Gosselaar’s deep dive into the original series, he’d never seen a full of episode of Saved by the Bell. “I haven’t watched a single episode in its entirety since I walked off the sets in 1993,” he revealed in anticipation of the Zack to the Future podcast. Furthermore, he expressed a level of befuddlement over the series’ enduring popularity, telling Entertainment Weekly, “I couldn’t wrap my head around an idea that would keep the audience entertained and celebrate the beloved series we created over 30 years ago, mostly because I can’t remember a thing about making it.” But despite the actor’s relative unfamiliarity with the series he headlined decades ago, he ultimately embraced it with a belated sense of enthusiasm and appreciation despite its flaws and occasional moments of cringe. And though it was ultimately short-lived, Peacock’s Saved by the Bell reboot proved there’s still enthusiasm and appreciation for Bayside High School’s alumni.

By mrtrv