TV Review – Saved by the Bell (2020)

Saved by the Bell (Peacock)

Written by Tracy Wigfield, Josh Siegal, Dylan Morgan, Amy-Jo Perry, Matt Warburton, Aaron Geary, Ben Steiner, Erin Fischer, Shantira Jackson, Beth Coyle, Dashiell Driscoll, and Marcos Gonzalez

Directed by Trent O’Donnell, Katie Locke O’Brien, Kabir Akhtar, Daniella Eisman, Matthew A. Cherry, Angela Tortu, and Claire Scanlon

There was a war on our television on Saturday morning in the 1990s. You see, Fox’s X-Men animated series aired at the same time as NBC’s Saved By The Bell. This led to a high level of tension between myself and my sister. The compromise was using the VCR to tape one while we watched the other. We were a single television household for most of my upbringing. Despite not wanting to watch the students’ antics at Bayside High School, I did and continued watching with my siblings when the made for television Hawaiian Style movie aired, The Colleges Years came and went, and the Las Vegas-centered wedding of Zack and Kelly wrapped things up. We don’t talk about The New Class in this household. When I saw Peacock was putting out a reboot of Saved by the Bell, I’ll admit I balked, just some more dumb nostalgia bait. But then I saw reviews coming in and the bona fides of its showrunners, and I decided to take a look. I am so delighted I did.

California Governor Zack Morris is in a huge bind. He’s cut funding to schools so much that many low-income neighborhoods have to shut down their public schools. Public pressure leads Zack to allow these students to be bused to schools in more privileged areas, like his old alma mater Bayside. Zack’s son, Mack, is a student there already. The series is told from Daisy’s perspective (Haskiri Velazquez), a high achiever who is skeptical of her mostly white and privileged new classmates. She’s joined by friends Aisha and Devante, who share her sentiments at first. They are parallel by the previously mentioned Mack Morris and his friends Jamie Spano (Jessie’s son) and Lexi (Josie Totah), a transgender cheerleader who is incredibly sharp-tongued.

On the adult side of things, Dr. Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley) is now Bayside’s school counselor and a very accomplished psychologist married to an incredibly distant & conceited Bohemian writer, Rene (Cheyenne Jackson). A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez) is a P.E. teacher and coach of the Bayside football team. Life hasn’t turned out so great for the jock. He’s unmarried and lives alone, still obviously holding a flame for Jessie. He’s definitely expanded his mind since his high school days and has come to realized Jessie was right about so many things. Overseeing the daily operations of the school is Principal Toddman (John Michael Higgins), who makes Mr. Belding look like an alpha male.

The new Saved by the Bell is a highly self-aware show in all the best ways. If you were a fan of the series growing up or watched it in reruns, there are copious references throughout. I was impressed with even how this was a single-camera series versus the original three-camera production; they have meticulously recreated Bayside High School. The original characters also reference their glory days and the original series’s silliness, even a couple nods to that summer season as the beach club. 

While the original series was told from the perspective of affluent, privileged Gen Xers who were aloof to the adults’ struggles in their school and lives, this series has Zoomers. They understand the complexities of public education funding and the inequities between classes of people in American society. That sounds very didactic, but I promise the show delivers all of this with that snappy 30 Rock/Kimmy Schmidt style of absurdist comedy. We certainly aren’t observing the real world, but these kids and adults face the same challenges we do. The writers are able to present this both as incredibly humorous but never losing the edge of the issues involved.

These aren’t one-off stories either; the season is pretty solidly serialized but not in an overly complicated manner. You could watch a random episode and not become lost in the storylines. The writers use this more extended story arc structure to bring up economic disparity and public education funding. It reminds me of many of the best Zoomer Tik Toks where they can marry legitimate political discourse with comedic timing and editing. The best way to get people to start paying attention and opening their eyes to significant social and economic issues is through well-written entertainment. I never felt like the problems were being undercut or made light of, but everything was still hilarious.

The keystone to this whole reboot and its successful execution is Tracy Wigfield. She made her start in internships and small gigs on failed shows in minor roles. Her tenure at 30 Rock was where she blossomed, moving from writer’s assistant to staff writer to producer. She penned the award-winning series finale with Tina Fey. She happens to be right in the perfect wheelhouse of someone who grew up watching Saved by the Bell and, like many of us, notices some glaring issues and questions now that we are adults. It’s also clear that Dashiell Driscoll’s Zack Morris is Trash web series on Funny or Die had a significant influence on both Zack and his son’s portrayal in the show, so it’s no surprise Driscoll is a writer on this reboot.

The season ends on a great joke that reveals the show is taking place just before covid broke out, and it has me very excited to see what a potential second season would do with the outbreak of the virus and BLM coming to prominence over this last summer. The people involved are highly talented, and I suspect we’d get some very biting and pointed commentary on the state of things. The show manages to have a sense of humor about its roots while also acknowledging the things the series got right. If you were ever frustrated with the treatment of Jessie’s political militancy, then the show provides a compelling moment mid-way through. Slater admits that he has realized that Jessie was always right about the injustices in the world and knows it because the kids at their school are a generation of Jessies fighting for what they know is right. In a time of much darkness, thoughts like that give me a little hope.

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