One thing I’m consistently amazed at when reviewing Peter Engel shows: the horrible ways the producers try to “fix” them after a lackluster first season. The prime example, of course, is The New Class, but Hang Time was a victim as well. In the case of The New Class, they took a mediocre, boring premise (recycling plots from the original Saved by the Bell with new look-a-like actors) and turned it into a horrible monstrosity for season two. Yes, season two of The New Class remains one of the worst things I’ve ever watched on television that wasn’t cancelled.
I bring it up here because I feel like California Dreams is a victim as well, albeit not as bad as The New Class. Last season was fairly solid. The weak part was the Garrison family. So, they wrote all of the Garrisons but Matt out of the show early in season two and add a new, strong breakout character. So far so good. But what do they do then? Why, show the band going to school, because, if ever there was something teenagers were demanding, it was to see what the Saved by the Bell gang would have been like had they also had an after school band…well, I mean an after school band that shows up in more than three episodes.
This ended up being the template for many of Peter Engel’s shows later on:
- The College Years: Saved by the Bell at college
- California Dreams: Saved by the Bell with a band
- Hang Time: Saved by the Bell with a basketball team
- City Guys: Saved by the Bell in the hood
- USA High: Saved by the Bell in Paris
Yeah, you get the point. Peter Engel was a one trick pony and, outside that formula, doesn’t seem to have been able to figure out what made a show work. I complained last season that we needed more focus on the band in a show about a band. If anything, I think this season showed less focus on the musical aspects of the show, and it’s only going to get worse from here. So, this season, California Dreams, a show I praised so highly in last season’s recap, officially became Saved by the Bell with a band.
And, yet, all is not bad with this season. Jake is a great addition, as I’ll talk about in characterization, and it was interesting to see the focus come off the Garrison family. Yet, this season is such a mixed bag. Jenny’s departure was hastily thrown together, Matt and Tony feel like background characters much of the time, Tiffani is officially around just to be a sex object, and Sam is completely underdeveloped.
It’s like Peter Engel didn’t understand what went right with season one so he just started tinkering with everything while missing opportunities for greatness. To give an example, one thing that made the early seasons of Happy Days great was the interaction between squeaky clean Richie and greaser Fonzie. They had the perfect opportunity to keep Matt as the main character and make him the foil for Jake. Yet, they pushed Matt as far to the background as possible and made most of Jake’s interactions this season with Tiffani and Sly. I suppose Sly could work as a foil for Jake as well, but it just comes out of nowhere why Jake would give a shit about Sly.
It also feels like they had no plan for the season, or else the plan was completely thrown out very early on. Richard and Melody were in several early episodes and there seemed to be a genuine attempt to set up a coming romance between Jake and Jenny. Then Jenny abruptly left and it’s like the writers went into “let’s throw everything at the wall and see what sticks!” mode. The worst for me was the Jake and Tiffani romance as it came the fuck out of nowhere in an episode obviously meant for Jenny and fizzled out just as abruptly. Even the opening credits this season look like a green screen vomited all over the camera after last season featured such an amazing looking beach video.
Overall, it’s a very “meh” season.
So, yeah, characters.
Matt’s character suffered the most this season. Many, many times it felt as if he was a minor character when the show was supposed to be about him. They gave him what he needed the most this season, a balancing character, and then completely wasted it for most of the year. I don’t get it. I really don’t. Were they trying to sabotage his character and pave the way for his exit?
Whatever the reason Brent Gore departed at the end of the season, he leaves behind a Matt that was a skeleton of what he once was. Really, most of the time it felt as if he was around to sing the songs and that was it. Maybe that was all the writers cared about given he was the last remaining Garrison on the show. It’s a real shame because, after having already watched a few season three episodes, I find myself missing Matt more and more, but more on that in the season three recap.
Since his departure from California Dreams, Brent Gore has had a handful of acting roles, most recent in 2016’s I’m Not Ashamed, the borderline offensive Christian film that tried to turn the Columbine High School shooting into a martyrdom tale. He’s mostly been performing music, doing some tours as a musical artist, and, according to the Jimmy Fallon reunion, he’s involved with a non-profit called the Los Angeles Performing Arts Foundation. And, let me tell you, he’s aged amazingly. Matt Garrison is still hot to this day.
Tiffani had an interesting year, inexplicably becoming the female character on the show with the most development and actually moving a bit beyond her stupid blonde stereotype of last season. She even got to be in a relationship with Jake thanks to her good fortune that Jenny departed early in the season. Overall, a great year for Tiffani, right?
Not quite. I think almost every, if not every, plot centered around Tiffani this season was all about a guy wanting to get in her pants, and I find this to be completely off-putting. Tiffani has a trait that’s been barely explored: she’s a surfer. Yet, the writers almost completely ignore this and choose, instead, to focus on how she can most titillate the young male viewers. Had Jenny not left, I hate to think what the plan was for her. To be as useless as Matt and Tony? The writers are desperate for us to see Tiffani as the Kelly Kepowski of California Dreams. That she is not. Kelly had personality. Tiffani is just whatever the writers cooked up for her this week.
Look, I get it: Tony’s not supposed to be a main character. But he went from having two of the best episodes last season focus on him to one of the worst this season. And that episode was the only one that had him as a main character. He’s around for laughs because watch the black guy do jive things and shit, and that’s all. I wanted him to do something this season! What more can I say but Tony was completely wasted this season, and that’s the real shame of the year.
Sly is all over the board this season. Early on, he seems like he’s just around fulfilling the creepy comic relief role that he did last season. As the episodes progress, though, it seems like the writers decided to give him more of a significance on the show. In fact, Sly’s importance seems to be directly proportional to Matt’s decreased role on the show, making me wonder if the two are connected.
In any case, I’m still not a fan of Sly. I feel manipulated every time the writers have him on screen and want me to feel sorry for him after he was just acting like an asshole a few minutes previous. I know he’s supposed to be the Zack Morris of the show, but there’s something I hate about in Sly that I don’t despise in Zack Morris, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe it’s that Zack Morris, most of the time, doesn’t intend to harm his friends, whereas Sly just steamrolls right over them and then feels bad later. I don’t know, but I guess I have three more seasons to figure it out.
So I don’t have a lot of negative to say about Jake. Really, he’s a good introduction to the show, providing some balance in the characters that didn’t exist last season and opening up more possible plots. He’s good in the role he’s in, and I’m not even terribly upset they gave him such significance on the show. I’ve stated some of my complaints previously: that they didn’t pair him with Matt often enough and that his relationship with Tiffani was the fuck out of nowhere, but those are really more to do with Matt and Tiffani, in my mind, than with Jake.
Jake could have been the character that took this mediocre series and turned it into something great, but, as I said above, the writers of this show really suck at figuring out how to integrate new elements. Done right, Jake could have brought more rock and less pop to the show instead of coming off as just as much an easy listening dope as the rest of the band. It is what it is, but it could have been so much smoother.
Jenny doesn’t do a lot this season before her very early departure so there’s not much characterization to talk about that I didn’t mention last season. Of course, there’s the future relationship with Jake they were clearly setting up that just came out in a spat of writer’s diarrhea in her final episode, begging why she was written out when they were clearly planning on keeping her in. I’ve heard different conflicting accounts of this, from Heidi Noelle Lenhart didn’t get along with the rest of the cast to she actually went to study music abroad. Whatever the reason, ironically, Jenny is the only one of the Garrisons to get a proper departure episode. Yeah, even Matt only got a throw away line, and he was the fucking main character of the show!
Heidi Lenhart’s done some sporadic acting throughout the 1990s’ and 2000s’, but probably nothing much you’d remember other than a recurring role during the final season of Beverly Hills, 90210. She seems to have mostly retired from acting to focus on being a mother, telling Jimmy Fallon she’s very happy to be the mother of two daughters.
It’s hard for me to review Sam. I really don’t have much against her except when she goes into one of her shut the hell up moments. But she’s a pretty bland character without much characterization other than being from Hong Kong, and that backstory is so easy to poke holes in for anyone who knows anything at all about the territory.
I guess the positive thing is they didn’t make her a complete Jenny copy, but they need to figure out what they do want to accomplish with her. Really, she was in most of the episodes this season and I struggle to remember anything memorable other than the guy she was imagining in his underwear, and that had less to do with her and more to do with an attractive guy in his underwear. It’ll be interesting to see where the writers go with her in the coming seasons.
Of course, we’ve also got to say goodbye to Richard and Melody. They weren’t around much this season, but they popped up a bit in the early episodes before the writers decided to stop focusing on their family. Scaling them back was a very good step for this show, but it’s a shame they couldn’t have them pop up when it was convenient to the plot. They’re not bad characters. They just had nothing to do.
Michael Cutt still sporadically acts to this day, but his biggest role outside California Dreams might be a brief recurring role on 7th Heaven. Sad as it is to say, California Dreams remains the biggest role he’s ever had.
For Gail Ramsey, California Dreams was her final acting credit. Previously, she had a starring role on General Hospital in the ’70s and ’80s and a recurring role in The New Mike Hammer. She dropped off the face of show business, and interviews since suggest that she became a teacher in a Christian school, which, you know, good for her for finding something that makes her happy.
Overall, I’d say, for me, I don’t hate this season of California Dreams, though there sure is hell a lot less to like about it. I’m keeping my mind open for what comes next, though I’m scared what that will bring. It’s a shame because I feel like more seasons with the original cast minus the extended Garrisons plus Jake could have been something very special. We’ll never know, though. All we know is that they made a very boring season out of what could have been the best one of the series, and that is such a shame.
Three Episodes I Loved
Episode 1: “Jake’s Song” Jake’s introduction episode was actually pretty well done and set up what could have been a great comedic relationship between Jake and Matt. Sure, many of the elements of this episode were never followed up on, but it felt like a solid episode, one I’d easily recommend as an example of what’s right this season.
Episode 10: “Vote of Confidence” An episode that provided some much needed characterization and motivation for Jake. It makes complete sense that Jake is the way he is because he felt inferior to his overachieving brother.. If it’s true what some of you have spoiled to me that they forget about much of this later on in the series, it will be a damned shame because it’s a great backstory for Jake.
Episode 13: “Save the Shark“ I struggled with whether to put this episode on the list or not. After all, I was hard on it, and rightfully so, for its horrible capitalist caricature and weak motivation for tearing down Sharkey’s. However, it does provide what may be the only chance this season for Matt to really shine, and, for that, I can’t hate it too much.
Three Episodes I Hated
Episode 2: “Ciao, Jenny” It shows that this was a hastily written episode to provide a departure for Jenny, and that’s no excuse for this to be such a weak episode. The fact that Jenny nearly gives up going to Italy to be with a guy who just declared his love for her is insulting. It’s just a lazy episode that would be forgettable had it not been for the fact a main character left.
Episode 8: “High Plans Dreamer” Easily the worst episode of the series so far as it is nothing but an absolute time waster. There’s no reason for it to exist other than for the cast to play dress-up. What’s worse, they took a character who was the primary in two of the best episodes last season and made the worst this season about him, and that’s just sad.
Episode 15: “Can’t Buy Me Love” I still feel insulted by this episode and its manipulation to try to get me to feel sorry for Sly after he was just acting shitty to a girl. Sure, she was a jerk, but so was he, and I can’t help but think this episode is an example of everything I don’t like about Sly on this show.