The ratings for Saturday-morning kids' shows have been leveling off or dropping during the past couple of seasons. In the hope of stopping that slide and apparently thinking that children have had enough of cartoon shows, NBC offers Saved by the Bell, a live-action sitcom about a group of California high school students. Now in its second season, Bell is a ratings success, but that doesn't mean that it's edifying programming.
Bell features stiff acting, cheap sets, and plots that seem lifted from Happy Days reruns. A recent episode found the show's central character, Kelly (Tiffani Amber Thiessen no, really: Tiffani-Amber!), in a tizzy over whom she should take to the prom. Should it be swarthy, muscular Slater (Mario Lopez) or blond, lean Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar)? This is the kind of quandary Bell can dither over for a full half hour, while sending out many dubious messages. At one point Kelly says, ''Gee, Slater, you're everything a girl could want you're great-looking, a great dancer, a great guy.'' Forget intelligence or any talent beyond hip-swiveling as worthy attributes; in the world depicted on this program, superficiality is everything.
This being Saturday-morning TV, however, Bell does attempt to teach viewers a few lessons. For instance, in that same episode, Kelly's father comes home with bad news: ''World peace has broken out,'' he says. ''Isn't that good?'' asks Kelly. ''Well, yes,'' says Dad, ''but not if you work in a defense plant. I've lost my job, honey.'' Bummed to the max, Kelly selflessly decides not to go to the prom and gives her father the money she was going to spend on her prom dress. High-minded and low-quality at the same time, Bell is depressing. Kids' TV should provide intelligent escapism, not dumb sanctimony.