The new “Saved by the Bell” is hilarious and…important? Wait, that can’t be right. They made a continuation of “Saved by the Bell” and gave it a meaningful purpose? That’s not respectful of the original at all!
Truth be told, it’s even a disappointment. I try my best not to go into a new show with preconceptions, but I really did think this would be a shambling corpse of walking nostalgia that only existed for the cash-in. I was looking forward to tearing it apart and writing jokes the whole time instead of ugh, doing analysis. When I watched it, a horrific realization dawned upon me: this is really good.
Despite what the name would have you believe, this isn’t a sequel to “Saved by the Bell”. This is the sequel to “Zack Morris is Trash”. If you don’t know “Zack Morris is Trash”, it’s a YouTube series produced by Funny or Die. It cuts together episodes of the original “Saved by the Bell” with a voiceover to highlight what an ableist, racist, misogynist sociopath Zack Morris is. It highlights just how weird it was that an entire generation looked up to him as an example of cultural cool, and it’s funny as hell to boot.
The Original Players
For a reason that still eludes me, the original “Saved by the Bell” holds a dear place in my heart. A lot of early Millennials feel that way. It’s deeply problematic, but its cheesiness was endearing and it was one of the cultural touchstones of just about any Millennial’s childhood. It featured one of the only positive Latino protagonists in 90s television, the complicated jock A.C. Slater. Yet the show was also incredibly problematic. Women were prizes to be competed over and Zack’s sociopathic manipulation was the core of the comedy. It was treated as admirable.
Sure, Zack would get his comeuppance once in a while, but the lessons learned by the end of the episode were half-hearted. Episodic TV being what it was in the 90s, those lessons never made Zack think twice about his next manipulative scheme in the next episode. Thankfully, the 2020 continuation is keenly aware of this.
The new series is a full-throated takedown of the original. It recognizes just how self-absorbed and wrong-headed it was, and it walks a pretty difficult comedic line of using this to talk about privilege and performative allyship. Let’s back up.
It starts with a Zack Morris narration of what’s happened since the 90s. He got a parking ticket one day and tried to get out of it with one of his overcomplicated plans that goes too far, and gets him elected governor of California. Sounds unbelievable until, you know…[gestures at the United States since 2016].
Zack clearly has no idea what he’s doing in the position, and immediately tanks the public education system. Desperately trying to recover, he ends up agreeing for students in low-income areas to attend schools in high-income areas. This is just the set-up, covered in the first three minutes of the first episode. The premise smashes together leads from an underfunded school with Bayside’s rich, privileged preppies – including Zack’s son Mac.
The original cast shows up to varying degrees, but is generally kept to the supporting players. Zack and Kelly, now married, exist around the fringes and only enter into the picture once everyone else is established. A.C. Slater and Jessie Spano are now staff at Bayside. Slater is the athletic director, though he spends most of his time bragging about – and sometimes trying to re-live – his glory days. Spano is somewhat more successful. She’s a published author with a PhD, and the school’s guidance counselor. Her own son goes to Bayside, though she coddles him tremendously.
Slater is exemplary of the show’s perspective on the original. It was nice and all, but looking back on it with rose-colored nostalgia is out-of-place and keeps him from being able to move forward. In one scene, he starts to give the Morris and Spano boys a lesson about toxic masculinity, only to turn it into an opportunity to brag about how he slept with both their moms in high school. Of course, this backfires when the boys both realize they wouldn’t exist if each woman hadn’t dumped Slater.
It’s difficult to both humanize and lampoon such self-absorbed characters – usually a show has to lean one way or another. “Saved by the Bell” does an incredibly good job of balancing that line, and that’s useful. It’s not interested in showing us the privilege that’s obvious. It goes further into picking apart the privilege that otherwise decent-ish people reinforce every day.
It’s also hypercritical of the nostalgia that is shown to the original, partly as a criticism of the problems nostalgia allows to continue in general. That’s a weird thing for a show that only exists because of that nostalgia, but give it a chance and it works.
Privilege and Performative Allyship
Every show needs a reason to exist, though, and that’s not enough of one. No, what this continuation makes its comedic bread and butter is something far more modern: performative allyship.
Due to redlining, most of the incoming students from the shuttered Douglas High School are Hispanic and Black. Bayside is largely white. One father worries that Douglas might introduce a wave of crime. The principal points out that this father was just indicted on financial fraud. But that’s different, he insists.
Neither is Bayside entirely close-minded; they’re just privileged as all hell. While some parents fear an influx of crime, others establish a group to help: Parents for the Integration of Teachers and Youth, or P.I.T.Y. They hand out extra supplies. The new students need access to the same technology as their wealthy peers. They need books. They need basic supplies, access to copiers and printers. P.I.T.Y. gives them toothbrushes and pregnancy tests.
When iPads go missing in an episode, it’s only the Douglas kids who are suspected of theft, and every Douglas student is treated as secretly knowing who must’ve done it. The Bayside kids distrust the Douglas kids because of this, yet they simultaneously admire that none of them will narc on each other – even if every layer of the situation is only based on the fantasy the Bayside students and staff have envisioned.
“Saved by the Bell” isn’t tackling direct, explicit racism. It’s tackling systemic racism and how privilege performs allyship while simultaneously reinforcing the structures that maintain racism. It’s a lot more than I would’ve ever expected a “Saved by the Bell” continuation to do.
That’s the why of “Saved by the Bell”, but what’s the how? Its comedy needs to be good. Jokes need to land while tackling complex subject matter. And here, they do. The writing is light years ahead of what the original ever did, and it creates a show that would feel completely different if not for the thread of absurdism that keeps the two tied together.
The flavor of Bayside is set early on. The lead is former Douglas student Daisy, played by Haskiri Velazquez. She arrives with that Zack Morris ability to freeze time and talk to the audience. The first thing she hears on entering Bayside is Mac and it-girl Lexi arguing about a parking space. Lexi got it because Mac showed up late one day. Mac’s excuse? “You drugged my toothpaste and I woke up at Six Flags”.
The comedy is surprisingly quick, with quips like this arriving lightning fast. The pace and quality of the dialogue is reminiscent of a modern classic like “Mean Girls”. There’s a joy in how smart some of its daftness is.
Absurdism as Double-Standard
The pranks and schemes of Zack’s time have now become the Bayside way, and it captures the double-standard at play perfectly. The rich, white students can break the law, steal, drug each other, skip class, not do work, and still progress. True to the absurdism of his father Zack’s original 90s pranks, Mac floods the gymnasium (again), attaches wheels to a student’s desk to literally drive him away from a girl they’re competing over, gets a book banned so he doesn’t have to write a report on it, and never gets punished.
Meanwhile, the Hispanic and Black students from Douglas can do everything right and still be suspected of any little thing that goes wrong. They’re regularly accused of things they never did, and if they step out of line by the slightest margin, white parents descend with demands of over-the-top disciplinarian action.
That those authorities are an ineffectual principal beholden to wealthy parents, and well-meaning but self-absorbed staff like Slater and Spano doesn’t help. These kids are often left to fight systems stacked against them while the people in charge of those systems bumble and act more powerless than they are. Even when Mac and Lexi attempt to help, half the time it’s a misguided performance at it and someone like Daisy has to explain to them how they’re making it about themselves rather than the student of color being persecuted.
The comedy is made more about these wrongheaded attempts at allyship and the broken systems themselves. It’s rarely at the expense of the Douglas students like Daisy, best friend Aisha, or the enigmatic Devante, except when they feel out of sorts and try to act white or act rich and see it backfire on them in ways that don’t happen to Mac or Lexi.
That Mac and Lexi are themselves essentially kids figuring things out, who want to help but have been taught the most privileged ways to publicly perform that help to an admiring audience…it humanizes them as well. They’re not necessarily sociopaths, they’re just doing what everyone around them celebrates and admires them for doing. The culture they’re trying to succeed within is what’s sociopathic.
The Bayside kids aren’t awful human beings. This is just the way they think the world works. They’re not conservative bigots (although some of their parents are). They’re progressive and liberal allies who are happy to traffic in allyship so long as it ultimately serves them, because how else would the world work?
It’s what they know, and there’s something of a generational divide between how they struggle with whether that’s right in their formative years vs. the original cast’s self-obsessed characters. It’s a series of fine lines to ride and, somehow, “Saved by the Bell” does it well.
There are a lot of progressive elements in place at Bayside. The Kelly role of the cheerleader everyone admires, wants attention from, and the whole school wants to date? That’s Lexi, who’s trans and played by trans actress Josie Totah. Her story isn’t defined by that alone, as it would be in many shows. In fact, it’s mentioned once and then not even brought up again for several episodes. She’s not the impressionable mark to Zack’s con-man that Kelly was, either. She’s Mac’s superior in schemes and plots. She’s a theater kid who looks out for the other theater kids. She’s full of herself (“Anne Hathaway once called me ‘a lot’”) and takes rejection hard.
Her friends accept her without question, but since her transition, she’s also happy. She feels more herself than ever before, except now she’s happy and that’s the one thing she’s learning how to be. Within all the absurdism of the show, it’s beautiful representation. She’s a full character. It’s of note that Totah only agreed to do the series if she got to produce and ensure that her character would be more than just token representation.
And frankly it’s a nice F.U. to the last four years that a resurrection of a sociopathic cultural touchstone of privilege directly criticizes that privilege, teaches about the damage of performative allyship, and is largely led by three Latines, a Black man, and a trans woman of Arab ancestry.
It’s still easy to appreciate the schemes and pranks just like in the original. We laugh at how absurd they are, and then we recognize the double-standard they traffic in. It’s not hypocritical, it’s how systemic racism works. Racism is (or at least should be) easily recognized in its most absurd and blatant forms. It’s when that racism is folded into a culture that well-meaning, full, complex people will still practice, benefit from, and propagate elements of it in subtle and indirect ways. “Saved by the Bell” features a bunch of likable but naive kids who are only just now confronted about their privilege because they’re only just now having daily conversations and interactions with peers of color.
There are Some Weaknesses
It’s a shockingly ambitious show on that front. That doesn’t mean it succeeds every second. I’d say it gets 90% of the way there, but that’s much further than most shows even think to try. Sure, a joke falls flat now and then, but the themes rarely do. “Saved by the Bell” might be the biggest surprise of the year for me. There are other coming-of-age shows this year I’d call better – “Never Have I Ever” shares some absurdist elements, tackles racism, and is a resoundingly emotional experience. “Teenage Bounty Hunters” might be the most successful comedy out-of-the-gate in years. But “Saved by the Bell” does a lot of work no one would have expected it to do. It mostly does it very well. It’s a rare combination that calls out the dangerous components of cultural nostalgia and performative allyship, while being consistently funny through extremely well-written dialogue and some absurd situations.
If there’s a weakness to the show, it’s that the visual feel can fluctuate. Sometimes the show is shot in a more cinematic, one-camera style, with the dialogue hitting quick in walk-and-talks. Sometimes it’s shot from a medium-visual range that’s suggestive of four-camera sitcom set-ups. It feels like these are most often used for the Gen X and older characters, so it may be a conscious choice – presenting the older generation with some of their generation’s shooting style, while Gen Z gets the more modern Steadicam treatment.
It may also be practical – the Gen X characters have blocks of unbroken dialogue, often in their offices. That lends itself to medium shots of different spaces and editing by dialogue. The Gen Z characters have much more dialogue, but they trade it back and forth more quickly – it makes sense to have two of them in a longer shot rather than edit back and forth every sentence. It does assist in making the adults feel more out-of-touch – even their cinematography is dated.
The visual shift is usually subtle and I think in general it’s an interesting choice that helps the comedy, but every once in a while it can shift tone too much from one space to the next. It introduces a touch too much sitcom flare to the visuals. These moments are brief but can be jarring. I like the idea a lot; the visual transition between shooting styles themselves just needs to feel smoother.
All in all, this is so much better than I thought it would (or ever could be). It’s exceedingly funny and the jokes come in barrages, so even when something falls flat there’s another right on its heels that works. Performances like Velazquez’s and Totah’s in particular carry the show, and it’s strongest when it mostly backseats the original cast and focuses on the kids.
There’s a stretch of episodes in the second half that give the adults the A-plots and…they just don’t feel as important. That’s the weird thing – the comedy works, but it’s the show’s relevance that makes it feel unique. “Saved by the Bell” is, for the first time in the franchise’s history, deserving of its importance. That might be the strangest sentence I’ve written in 2020.
You can watch the new “Saved by the Bell” on Peacock, which is available free with ads, and already included in many cable and satellite packages.
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