‘Saved by the Bell’ review: This time, it’s actually all right
By Margaret Lyons
Revivals and reboots are a genre unto themselves, split into the gritty ones, the straight-up continuations, the spinoff-in-reboots’-clothing, the various next generations. This new “Saved by the Bell” slots in next to “Cobra Kai” as a self-aware, self-satirizing but ultimately wholesome revival hoping to overcome the obscurity of its streaming platform with the fame and lingering goodwill toward its returning stars.
It works! The new “Saved by the Bell,” debuting Wednesday on Peacock, is quick and funny, and it achieves a tricky blend of staying true enough to its source material while adapting to the standards of the day. Like the more earnest revival “Degrassi,” this one follows the descendants of the original gang: The slick Mac Morris (Mitchell Hoog), son of Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and Kelly (Tiffani Thiessen), and the doofy Jamie Spano (Belmont Cameli), Jessie’s son, are among our leads, attending the very Bayside High their parents went to.
Jessie (Elizabeth Berkley) and Slater (Mario Lopez) work at the school now, she as a guidance counselor and he as a gym teacher and coach. Zack is the bumbling governor of California, whose fear of being perceived as incompetent leads to budget cuts, which lead to school closures, which in turn lead to bringing all the students from a shuttered underfunded school to Bayside.
Our new Zack isn’t Mac but rather Daisy (Haskiri Velazquez). She’s the one who does the fourth-wall-breaking timeouts, and she’s the one with the gigantic, ancient cellphone thanks to her mom’s dumb rules. But she’s really more of a Jessie: ambitious and rigidly ethical.
She’s also poor, and she sometimes explains to her rich new classmates what that means. “When you’re poor, you’re worried all the time, even if you’re a kid,” she says.
I wouldn’t call that episode Very Special per se, but it’s how this “Bell” has its corniness and eats it, too, both mocking and happily delivering its lessons. Everyone expects DeVante (Dexter Darden) to play football but instead he auditions for the musical, singing “The Greatest Love of All” over a montage — but, you know, winking.
Strong performances from the new cast balance glibness with the sweeter we-all-have-growing-up-to-do machinery. Aisha (Alycia Pascual-Peña) joins the football team and expects some sexist backlash, so she’s a little disappointed that her teammates are all feelings-circle softies whose motto is “clear eyes, full hearts, full stomachs.” Perhaps we will never truly escape the long, bitchy grasp of “Glee,” distilled here as Lexi (Josie Totah), the transgender queen bee with her own reality show and an endless supply of showbiz zingers, who later learns about the power of empathy.
Lexi’s lines in particular hark back to the showrunner Tracey Wigfield’s previous series, “Great News,” and her work on “The Mindy Project” and on “30 Rock,” which this show also resembles in its sunny cynicism. While the original “Bell” was explicitly for young viewers, this often seems to be more for the grown-up crowd that reads YA, unless there are a lot of 9-year-olds who know who Harvey Levin is and will get scenes that spoof HBO’s naughty-teenagers drama “Euphoria.”
Mostly this “Bell” zips along with ease and confidence, as unencumbered as the rich kids it mildly criticizes through its NPR-informed lens. The moments of friction come from the adult characters grafted in from the original. Lisa (Lark Voorhies) appears only in a brief cameo, and Gosselaar and Thiessen barely appear until Episode 8, when they reunite with their high school BFFs, and are vacuous and awful. Slater’s delayed maturation is one of the main narrative arcs of the series — and, you know, God bless — but it creates a pocket of anti-nostalgia, not returning to the past but dragging the past into the future.
I don’t have a Skip-It anymore. Why do I still have this?
“Saved by the Bell” has never quite stayed in the early ’90s, where it belonged. Its consistent syndication kept it in the popular imagination longer than, say, the similar “California Dreams,” and it went through spinoffs and made-for-TV movies, which are amply referenced here. Then it was endlessly remetabolized through memes, and its references became substitutes for punchlines, a lingua franca of the Oregon Trail generation, ubiquitous enough that a cast reunion became one of the banner achievements of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” in 2015. Were we ever so young? Actually, we were, and actually, we’re not anymore.
As Slater says to his high school girlfriend, now colleague, kids today are “a bunch of Jessies,” and he regrets always telling her to calm down and care less. “You were the only one who knew what was going on,” he says. “Styrofoam is bad, drilling for oil on a football field is bad, a school-sponsored bikini contest is bad.”
But of course that can’t be brought to its natural conclusion — “Saved by the Bell” was bad — because a lot of us once loved “Saved by the Bell,” and now we want to consider ourselves good. Because we reject dissonance, it can’t be just a so-so relic relegated to the archives. And so here we are, in true Zack Morris and Mac Morris fashion, pulling off the kookiest scheme of all: “Saved by the Bell” is now good.