If I’m honest, I’ve spent much of season five ready to write it off as yet another year of rubbish. I have not been a fan of these last two seasons, and I’ve been pretty vocal in expressing the opinion that the show had, by this point, nearly completely lost its focus, barely being about a band at all but really just existing as yet another TNBC Saved by the Bell knock-off. I was ready to hate every bit of this season and what this series I had once praised as being innovative, especially for an Engel-verse show, had become.
And, let’s face it: for much of the season, that’s what we’re given: stuff about as palatable as the shit in season four. It’s directionless. It recycles so many plots from other TNBC shows it’s unbelievable. It flounders trying to find direction like a fish out of water. Its very special episodes make the Nancy Reagan episode of Diff’rent Strokes look like the finale of M*A*S*H. Perhaps the biggest sin of all: it doesn’t seem to give a shit that it’s about a band any longer, with barely any episodes focusing on them, and only an indirect focus most of the time they are featured. Hell, there’s only one original song this season. That’s how much of a shit the writers gave about this being a show about a band.
It was pretty depressing to watch all season.
And then along came the final episode, and all I could say was, “Damn!” I’m going to come back to why that episode was so good when so much else about this season was crap next week, but it made me realize that, behind all these goofy ass Saved by the Bell rip-off plots, there were confident writers capable of producing really quality television. How do you explain that? It’s like if Transformers 8 turns out to be a BFI Critics Top 100 choice. For all the crap I’ve endured the last two seasons, it doesn’t appear to be because the people either behind the scenes or in front of the camera lacked talent. Well, except Mark. He just sucks.
For how much season five sucked overall, I have to give it credit. Unlike season four, it at least seems to have the overarching knowledge that it was soon coming to an end, and was working hard to try to wrap up loose ends and move towards friends leaving each other. Season four had nothing, including a reason for existence, so it was refreshing to actually see some direction, even if it was contrived at times and ham-fisted. I would rather watch these fifteen episodes again than ever subject myself to season four another time.
I normally try to talk about characters in these recaps, but it’s really difficult to do for this season. You see, one of the major missteps of this season is I don’t feel most of the character change at all. In fact, nothing of consequence really happens this season until the last five episodes. Jake and Tiffani’s relationship is the same contrived fest it was last season. Tony and Sam continue to bore me with why on earth they are together. And Mark continues to be a useless waste of space. Nothing ever changes.
Sure, characters have their own episodes, but they don’t really effect their overall character arc. Jake is ashamed that his dad is the new school janitor? Get him fired and hit the reset button next episode. Tony cheats to get into the honor society and be with Sam? Let’s give him instant forgiveness and never mention it again! Mark nearly kills Tara Reid in a drunk driving accident? No one gives a shit about Mark anyway so we’ll never mention that bullshit again!
This is on top of the fact that characterization is so all over the map I can’t keep up. Mark suddenly has camera shyness after instantly getting over his stage fright two seasons ago. Sam’s suddenly the smartest girl in school even though it had only been previously hinted at that she was that intelligent. And Jake has long since forgotten the greaser motorcycle guy he was originally written as. I dare say any character this season could have been given another’s episode with barely any rewrites. Really, I can imagine Mark being ashamed his dad is working at the school, or Tiffani being the honor society president and Jake getting jealous and cheating to be near her.
Everyone is interchangeable, and that’s a huge problem when you want people to remember your characters. At least the Saved by the Bell gang were cut-out caricatures of high school stereotypes. These people have, at most, one defining thing that you can’t really even call personality as much as something they enjoy, like Tiffani’s surfing or Jake’s motorcycles.
You may notice I haven’t mentioned Sly and Lorena yet. Well, I’m saving the worst of it for these two. The contrivances necessary to get them from barely tolerating each other last season to dating this season are just completely unbelievable. As long as I live, I don’t think I’ll ever understand why the producers felt it necessary to shoehorn in a relationship with only three non-out-of-season episodes left in the series. For fuck’s sake, Screech and Violet got more development in their relationship than these two, and Tori Spelling was only in three episodes of Saved by the Bell!
On top of that, whatever character development they got was random and made absolutely no fucking sense. Sly’s sudden backstory of having a neglectful father really makes him sound like a jack ass for not empathizing more with the teen who wanted to run away last season. Lorena becoming co-manager of the band with only two more new episodes (one of which was an out-of-season episode!) remaining seemed like the writers’ way of acknowledging, “Yeah, she’s had no real purpose here at all since she and Jake broke up. Let’s pretend there was a plan for Lorena all along!” And their sudden decision to go to college together makes me wonder why this, of all the relationships on this show, is the one that’s going to “make it!”
I don’t understand how any of this turned out the way it did, and I will never forgive the writers for trying to make me sympathize with a jack ass like Sly when he does despicable things nearly every episode. They’re not even well-intentioned like Zack Morris most of the time. He just comes off as a greedy son of a bitch except where the writers want me to sympathize with him.
But then I keep coming back to that final episode, and I wonder why it all had to turn out this way? As I said, I’m coming back to that question next week, but I just find it so sad that a show I genuinely enjoyed in its first two seasons and still found likeable in its third got so bad in its last two years. I suspect this was part of the period where Peter Engel admits, in his memoir, he was really phoning it in, putting out crap like Malibu, CA based solely on his success with Saved by the Bell while hoping no one would be any the wiser.
In any case, season five left me with closure, but not much else. I feel like I could have skipped from season three directly to “The Last Gig” without missing a whole lot, and I wouldn’t have had to endure some truly terrible episodes either. Nothing else really to see here. Season five has never been released to DVD, and I have to wonder if it’s because most people have forgotten these episodes in favor of the first three seasons. That’s when the show was at its best and those episodes seem to be the ones fans discuss the most. These just feel like that horrible racist uncle you’re ashamed of came for Thanksgiving and refuses to leave: awkward, and you have no idea how to respond.
So how did the cast turn out?
Jay Anthony Franke now lives in Australia with his wife. According to his appearance on the Jimmy Fallon reunion, he’s still trying to have a career in show business, but with little success. He’s had a smattering of roles since the end of California Dreams, mostly as voices for video games, but nothing terribly successful that you’ve probably seen.
If you’ve seen any of the cast in anything else, it’s probably Kelly Packard. After the end of California Dreams, Packard joined the cast of Baywatch, where she happily destroyed what was left of her acting career before fading into obscurity. She still appears occasionally in films, usually in bit roles, and is married with four children.
William James Jones went on to star in the second season of Peter Engel’s USA High, which means you probably haven’t seen him in anything else. He had a few other bit parts on television and in film nowadays, but effectively retired from acting in 2002. On the Jimmy Fallon reunion, he said he’s a family man now with a wife and two children, and has switched focus entirely to clinical psychology.
Jennie Kwan has been fairly successful over the years, but behind the scenes rather than in front. Nowadays, she’s a respected voice actress, her most famous role being that of Suki on Avatar: The Last Airbender. She also has done some Broadway work, including a tour of Avenue Q, which, incidentally, is an amazingly funny show which you should totally see if you never have.
Michael Cade continues acting to this day, mostly in supporting and bit roles in films you probably haven’t heard of. He did a brief stint on General Hospital in 1997 and has kept busy over the years.
California Dreams was Diana Uribe’s break, but it doesn’t appear she was able to transition into a full-fledged career. She continued appearing in bit roles on shows like Nash Bridges and Strong Medicine before disappearing from the entertainment industry completely in 2001. She didn’t appear in the Jimmy Fallon reunion so I have no idea what’s become of her.
Aaron Jackson has continued to have some bit roles in television and film over the years, including trying his hand at producing and directing. His IMDB bio, which is way more proud of his appearance on California Dreams than it should be, says he’s a motivational speaker now and coaches up and coming actors. Let’s hope he doesn’t coach them into shows that will mark them for life like they did him. Also, you totally need to look at his default IMDB photo. With him completely tattooed and looking rebellious, he doesn’t even resemble the geeky Mark nowadays.
What more can be said about this season that hasn’t been said? It’s time to let it go and move on to examining the series as a whole, which I’ll do next week. What I can say is at least we got a satisfying ending. The rest of the season may be horrible or mediocre at best, but we’ll always have that one, final episode to fuel the question, “Why weren’t more episodes that good?” We may never have an answer, but, then again, most things in season five didn’t have a reason.
As usual, here’s my picks for the best and the worst of the season. Feel free to agree or disagree with me in the comments below.
Two Episodes I Loved:
Episode 2: “Shaken, Rattled, and Rolled”: There was a beagle in this episode. I love beagles. That’s more things I love in this episode than most over the last two seasons. Therefore, I love this episode.
Episode 15: “The Last Gig”: This episode defies explanation. By far the best finale in the Engel-verse I’ve seen, it perfectly ended the series in a mature and realistic manner uncharacteristic for many of Peter Engel’s shows. It brought tears to my eyes, which has happened very seldom while doing this blog and my other one, so I give major props for producing a genuinely good send-off to the band.
Three Episodes I Hated:
Episode 10: “Babewatch”: I really got sick of all the episodes where Sam has to keep assuring Tony she’s not jealous of him noticing other girls and then having Tony not reciprocate such respect. The over-the-top Baywatch spoof that was not at all self-aware that Engel-verse shows succumb to some of the same criticisms as Baywatch pushed this episode over the edge for me.
Episode 11: “Love Letters”: Look, pairing up Sly and Lorena at the last minute just stunk of desperation. At least Saved by the Bell had the self-knowledge to know that having Lisa confess her love for Screech towards the end of the fourth season would have been a really bad idea. This, combined with the fact they seem to have forgotten they already did this plot, with an opposite result, in season four, and you really did waste my time.
Episode 12: “Graduation Day”: The epitome of this universe’s incompetence in handling serious issues, I was cracking up laughing during the over-the-top moralizing about underage drinking. Add to the fact that this was a Mark-centered episode and he was dating Tara Reid, and you have a formula for a truly terrible very special episode.