Given the always stunning amount of idiocy on television, this is probably going out on a limb, but Saved by the Bell: The College Years has certainly come to seem like the hands-down stupidest, least worthwhile series on prime-time TV. When it debuted in 1989 as part of NBC's Saturday-morning children's-programming schedule, Saved by the Bell followed the silly high jinks of a group of high school students-blond hunk Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar); dark-haired hunk Slater (Mario Lopez); nerdy, goofy Screech (Dustin Diamond); and perky, sexy Kelly (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen). Last fall's graduation of the series to a university setting hasn't affected its quality one bit.
Saved by the Bell has always been the sort of situation comedy in which punch lines are recognizable as such only because the enraptured studio audience begins laughing raucously. The humor in the series is primarily on the level of blunt or semi-risqué jokes. ''When it comes to women, you don't know jack, Zack'' gets a hearty studio reaction, for example. Encouraging kid viewers to figure out that ''jack'' in this context is to be understood as the first half of a more vulgar phrase -- and implicitly condoning this usage -- isn't exactly educational.
A sort of dumbed-down, live-action version of Archie comic books, the original Saved by the Bell devoted many episodes to teen flirting and dating. There were also endlessly cute ways in which the protagonists outsmarted their teachers, but from the beginning Saved made a point of stuffing what academic hacks term ''pro-social'' messages into its plot lines -- cheating is wrong, people shouldn't be judged by their looks, that sort of thing.
This ostensible redeeming value kept Saved from being exposed for what it really was: tripe that defined adolescence almost entirely by its raging hormones. The one character supposedly interested in books, who knows something about the world beyond himself, is Screech, yet in both the high school Saved and The College Years he is depicted as a ridiculous, asexual fool. Saved by the Bell's real lesson? Being smart is stupid, man.
The College Years continuation of Saved cranks up the sex and stupidity quotients. Zack, Slater, Screech, and Kelly now attend California University, where Kelly's roommates are rich, hubba-hubba Leslie (Anne Tremko) and ditsy, cute Alex (Kiersten Warren). When Zack wants to impress Leslie, he tells her, ''I've got a brand-new pair of 501s [jeans] that you are gonna loooove tonight!'' and the studio crowd erupts in catcalls, shrieks, and cries of ''Woo- ooo-ooo!'' How gratifying it was to hear Drew Carey, costar of The Good Life, the NBC sitcom that now airs immediately after Saved, say recently that he ''hates'' Saved, that having to ''follow a show like Saved by the Bell, that's like having to go to the prom with your ugly cousin.''
Since the characters are in college, there are more sophisticated references: Professor -- ''Who is Margaret Mead?'' Zack -- ''The cafeteria worker with a hair net?'' Slater, who is also taking this scintillating class, cultural anthropology, turns to the student sitting next to him and says, ''What's anthropology?'' Of course, all is not work for our studious crew; a recent edition found the boys letting off steam at a sports bar where they ogled waitresses whose bust sizes -- the figure ''38 inches'' was tossed around a lot -- were the topic of much erudite palaver, you may be sure.
As far as the luckless cast goes, only Thiessen possesses what passes for range in this series -- that is to say, she can deliver a laugh line with a sense of timing, yet is also capable of uttering a supposedly serious declaration like ''Once again, you were right, Zack'' without bursting into giggles over the banality of it all. The rest of the actors are glib in the manner of most TV performers who are used primarily to posture attractively.
The exception to this is Diamond. During Saved's original run, his Screech became a fan favorite for his wobbly, register-shifting voice. These days, the grown-up Diamond must force his voice to break in order to pull off Screech's trademark sound, and his face is required to maintain a moronic rictus at all times. Diamond could be as good an actor as Dustin Hoffman, for all we know, but rarely has anyone been so utterly trapped by his role.
The one good thing that could possibly be said about this show's seepage into prime time is that some parents seeing Saved by the Bell for the first time may now realize just how bad Saturday-morning TV programming has become and take steps to shield their children from such dreck. At least, that's my dream, and as Zack recently instructed Kelly, ''If you have a dream, you should go for it.'' F