tv review

Saved by the Bell Reemerges As a Self-Aware Satirical Delight

Belmont Cameli, Josie Totah, and Mitchell Hoog are part of Bayside High’s newest class in Peacock’s Saved by the Bell. Photo: Peacock/Casey Durkin/Peacock

Saved by the Bell — the late ’80s/early ’90s Saturday morning show about the kids at Bayside High and their struggles with dating, idiotic bets, and caffeine pills — has inspired its share of spin-offs. There was Saved by the Bell: The College Years, the short-lived prime-time series about the teens’, well, college years; a pair of TV movies; and Saved by the Bell: The New Class, another Saturday morning regular that placed fresh young faces in roles based on those previously held by Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Elizabeth Berkley, and the rest. By the early 2000s, Saved by the Bell had been reduxed to death, which is why it may seem like overkill to see a new Saved by the Bell back again in 2020, this time on Peacock, where its debut season drops in full today. But overkill it is not.

This single-camera, ten-episode Saved by the Bell, which skewers the original in all the right, incisive ways, is a smart, often hilarious reimagining of a show that is beloved more on ironic terms than sincere ones, a fact that the Peacock sitcom understands down to its Bayside-mocking bones. Developed in this latest incarnation by Tracey Wigfield, who has written for 30 Rock and The Mindy Project and created the underappreciated Great News, the pilot may be the strongest first episode of a comedy I’ve seen all year. The two additional episodes provided to critics are not quite as consistently funny as the first, but still poke the high-school-sitcom bear with sly assurance.

Several of the original cast members are producers and cast members in this reborn Bell, including Gosselaar, whose Zack Morris is now serving as governor of California, a position he sought “as part of a scheme to get out of paying a $75 parking ticket.” Zack is still married to high-school sweetheart Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani Thiessen), has a son at Bayside named Mack (Mitchell Hoog), and is very much still trash, which is why he cuts $10 billion out of the state’s education budget and shutters several high schools in low-income neighborhoods without giving a thought to where those students might go.

After a reporter at a press conference suggests those kids should be sent to schools in areas that pay high property taxes, the students at the rundown Douglas High are soon being bused to Bayside. (In a line that will earn a hearty laugh from every student and parent who has fought through distance learning during the pandemic, after the Douglas principal announces the school’s closure he adds, “No need to panic, you can learn everything you need on the internet.”)

As that setup implies, Saved by the Bell uses fast-paced humor to highlight the inequities in the public school system and the stubborn hypocrisy of the privileged, which gives it, especially in the pilot, a vibe akin to the Nice White Parents podcast. That objective fits in perfectly with its broader mission: to constantly make fun of the lack of real-world perspective in the original series.

When the Douglas students arrive at Bayside, they are truly baffled by the abundance of perks and the elitism of their peers. Devante (Dexter Darden), who has a hidden talent as a singer, is amazed that more of his Bayside cohorts are signed up for the artisanal bath bomb club than the football team. Daisy (Haskiri Velazquez), who takes over for Zack Morris as the main character who regularly speaks directly to camera, is baffled when she watches Mack, her appointed “Bayside buddy,” access all of his school books by scanning a mobile-device QR code. “What if I don’t have one of those?” asks Daisy, whose phone is aggressively not smart. (It’s a huge brick from around the time the first Saved by the Bell aired.) “Don’t have?” asks Mack. “What is that?”

Then there’s Aisha (Alycia Pascual-Peña), a female football player who is thrilled to have access to so many amenities, but still confused by some of the oddities that the Bayside regulars don’t seem to notice. “Is it just me or are the seniors at this school really old-looking?” she asks after a blatantly middle-aged guy in a varsity jacket asks Lexie (Josie Totah), an openly transgender cheerleader with her own E! reality show, to the Harvest Dance. “It’s just you,” Lexie responds.

The young cast members are all charming and fully embrace the show’s tone; Hoog has a particularly strong handle on how to play an arrogant brat who, unlike his father before him, isn’t even trying to seem likable. As Bayside principal Mr. Toddman, the reliably great John Michael Higgins, a veteran of Wigfield’s Great News, is frazzled and out to lunch, but also genuinely cares about his students’ welfare. As cutting as the comedy can be, there’s an undercurrent of sweetness in this Saved by the Bell that keeps it firmly mainstream and accessible.

Not surprisingly, there are also plenty of callbacks to the show that started it all. While Gosselaar and Thiessen appear only occasionally and Lark Voorhies, a.k.a. Lisa Turtle, shows up in an episode, both Berkley and Mario Lopez reprise their respective roles as Jessie Spano and A.C. Slater as regular cast members. Slater is a PE teacher and football coach at Bayside, while Jessie, whose son Jamie (Belmont Cameli) is on the football team there, works as a school counselor. She is also the author of the book I’m So Excited, I’m So Scared … of Becoming a Parent, a reference to a classic, overwrought piece of dialogue from the original SBTB. (If you know, you know.) The Bayside kids are even regulars at the Max, the restaurant where owner Max (Ed Alonzo) occasionally still serves up a magic trick with his dishes.

In a way, the Bayside students are not just stuck in their bubbles of entitlement, they’re also stuck in a moment in time, and that’s actually an illuminating point to make in a show like this. TV reboots exist because so many Americans are nostalgic for the past. But being nostalgic for the past often translates into a belief that the “good old days” were better, a seemingly harmless idea that becomes dangerous when it hardens into a mindset that stands in the way of social progress. In its subtext, at the least, Saved by the Bell is saying that life 30 years ago, on a TV show and maybe in general, was more ridiculous and constraining than you remember. While it can be fun to look back, maybe it’s also time to let the children of 2020, the ones with no reverence for what Bayside represents, lead the way.

Saved by the Bell Is a Self-Aware Satirical Delight