March 16, 2015

Running Zack in Saved by the Bell

I didn't watch Saved by the Bell when it was on the air. But every long-running show has to have an "Indian" episode, it seems, and Saved by the Bell had one too.

Here's the basic idea:

Running Zack (24 Nov. 1990)If Zack wants to run the track meet, he better prepare his ancestry report where he gets help from an Indian.Running ZackZack fails his family heritage presentation. Unless he can make it up, he is off the track team. His teacher Miss Wentworth arranges a tutor for Zack named Chief Henry, who happens to be a Native American. Zack soon learns about his own Native American heritage, but does not feel like going to the upcoming track rally when tragedy strikes.From what I read, fans seem to think Running Zack was one of the worst episodes ever. The whole series seems to be written for juvenile pre-teens, but I don't think Running Zack is worse than other Native-themed episodes I've seen. I'd say it's mediocre rather than terrible.

Let's go through the major plot points and compare what the critics have said:

episode #29 ‘Running Zack.’

Saved by the Bell Season 2, Episode 13: “Running Zack”

Running Zack

to my impressions.

First presentation

  • Miss Wentworth's students have to do a family-tree presentation, which involves talking for 30 seconds in front of the class. That's more like something you'd do in 3rd grade than in high school, but hey...this is a compressed TV sitcom, so never mind.

  • Zack finds an old photo of an Indian. His mother told him the Indian was a distant relative. That's good enough for Zack to base a half-assed report on.

    This is roughly the rationale given by wannabes such as Ward Churchill, Elizabeth Warren, and Johnny Depp. Claiming Native ancestry based on a hypothetical ancestor in one's family lore is common. If a kid is lazy and doesn't do his homework, he could easily seize on such a story for a class report.

    A couple of people said Zack is clearly Nordic (or Anglo-Saxon, or Aryan) and couldn't be Native. But he didn't declare himself to be Native because of one ancestor. He could have a distant Native ancestor in his family tree. And since the assignment apparently was to talk about one of his ancestors, he was doing what he was told.

  • Zack gives a perfunctory talk using Screech as his assistant. Zack draws "war paint" on Screech and gives him a toy tomahawk. Screech stands like a cigar-store Indian and talks like Tonto.



    Yes, it's a stereotypical if not racist presentation. But Zack is supposed to be ignorant about Indians at this point. Since Running Zack aired two years before Dances with Wolves, and kids are still dressing and acting this way today, it's not an terribly unbelievable report. Many people, especially naive youngsters, really are this dumb and foolish.

  • Meeting Chief Henry

  • Miss Wentworth sends Zack to meet her friend Chief Henry. The critics wondered how they could've met. Perhaps at UCLA, since he said he went there. It's totally normal to meet Indians in everyday life, especially in an urban environment such as Los Angeles. The real issue isn't how they met, but why people are questioning it.

    Critics also wondered about his "Chief Henry" name. Yes, it's a stereotypical name for someone who isn't a chief. But it could just be a nickname. If that were the only problem, I'd call the episode a success.

    More important than these points is the overall impression Henry makes. He's played by Dehl Berti, a Chiricahua Apache actor. That's good; no redface casting here. He dresses and acts like a beach bum, not a wise elder or shaman. He punctures Zack's ignorance about Indians several times--for instance, saying he learned beading in a class at UCLA, not from his elders.

    Except for the minor details noted above, and too many Native artifacts lying around, I'd say this is an above-average TV portrayal. In fact, I'm not sure I can think of a better one in a sitcom before 1990.



  • Zack finds his ancestor's photo in a book and goes back to Chief Henry to learn more. Again, the Indian confounds Zack's expectations. Henry gives Zack a beaded headband and the name "Running Zack" before heading out to surf.

    Critics complained that Running Zack is a stereotypical "Indian name." True, but Henry knew Zack was a runner. I think Henry was playing with Zack--giving him a faux name to match his hobby. I don't think it was supposed to be a genuine naming ceremony.

  • Second presentation

  • Zack does a makeup presentation in a full buckskin costume, headdress, and warpaint. This is perhaps the most offensive thing in Running Zack. He's read the books and learned about his ancestor...but he still comes to class in the most stereotypical outfit possible? He apparently hasn't learned a thing about how Indians look.

  • Despite the ridiculous outfit, Zack gives a decent summary of his ancestor, who turns out to be Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Zack names a real Indian from a real tribe and gives his real history, including his "I will fight no more forever" line.

    That's a nice dollop of history for a lowbrow comedy. It's more than you'll get from most shows, even today, with their no-name or fictional tribes.



  • Chief Henry dies suddenly. The critics asked why. It could be anything--it doesn't matter what. The critics said Zack didn't know him long enough to grieve. True, but sometimes you can connect deeply with a person in just a few minutes. This was clearly meant to be like that.

    Again, compressed sitcom. I think the episode wanted us to imagine Chief Henry had two long soulful meetings with Zack. That they didn't appear on screen is a limitation of the format.

  • Chief Henry's ghost

  • Chief Henry's ghost visits Zack while he's asleep. He's dressed in a white suit and talks about getting his wings and enjoying his afterlife. Critics said that sounded like Christianity rather than a Native religion.

    True, but Henry could've been Christian or a Native/Christian blend. Again, it subverts expectations not to have Henry mouth platitudes about the Great Spirit or the happy hunting grounds.

    One also could connect the ghost to the idea that all Indians have supernatural powers, but I don't think the show was suggesting that. I took it as more of a dream sequence, even though Zack seemed fully awake. I guess there was a whiff of Indians = supernatural, but not enough to bother me.



  • Other aspects of Running Zack were arguably worse than the Native storyline. Screech's malapropisms and misunderstandings are stupid rather than funny. Jessie's stalking Lisa because Lisa's ancestors were slaves and Jessie's were slavetraders is also stupid rather than funny. No one feels incredible guilt because a few of their ancestors did something bad hundreds of years ago.

    Let's sum it up. First presentation: Intentionally racist and bad. Meetings with Chief Henry: Good. Second presentation: Bad looks, good words. Meeting with Chief Henry's ghost: Not bad.

    On a scale of 1-10, I'd call that a 5 or 6. Which means mediocre, not terrible.

    Overall, Running Zack was poor, but not because of the Indian bits. I think those were some of its more interesting parts. I'd give the episode a grade of C or C-, not an F.

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