I was, frankly, too old to pay much attention to “Saved by the Bell,” a mulitcamera teen sitcom that ran Saturday mornings on NBC from 1989 to 1993, spawned the prime-time sequels “Saved by the Bell: The College Years” and “Saved By the Bell: The New Class” (along with two TV movies and various stunt reunions) and was the primordial soup from which crawled “Hannah Montana,” “That’s So Raven,” “iCarly” and other similar creations — to which I did pay attention, being by then a professional thinker about television.
But it obviously exerted the same magnetic pull on its target audience that “The Brady Bunch” did for an earlier generation, settling in deep within its collective cerebral cortex. And as that series begat the big-screen deconstruction that was “The Brady Bunch Movie,” so has “Saved by the Bell” come back to life again — but in a postmodernist, self-aware form — as a series from Peacock, premiering Wednesday. “When I was a kid,” recalls the now-grown Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), “I did a PSA with the president of NBC that solved drugs.” And indeed he did.
Unlike Netflix’s “Full House” sequel, “Fuller House,” which continued in the spirit of the original, “Saved by the Bell” is both a revival and a reboot, aimed at the now-grown kids who watched it back when — just about the age of Tracey Wigfield, 37, the “30 Rock” and “Mindy Project” vet who developed the new series. (Though, generally speaking, it is still safe for children. The language is mild, no one is having sex and the only drug joke is about caffeine pills.) The happy upshot of this is that, although there are plenty of references laid on for the fans, including that caffeine joke — I have done my research — you needn’t have watched the old shows to understand or enjoy the new one. Indeed, I have only good things to say about it. At once ironic and sincere, mocking and affectionate (as one might be, looking back on one’s own youth), it starts out well and just gets better.
We are back at Bayside High, where original characters A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez), the affable athlete, and Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley), smart and political, are now on staff, as the school coach and guidance counselor respectively. (The great John Michael Higgins, new to the mix, plays the principal, who is kindly and cowardly.) Old classmate Zack, a hormonal prankster who I believe was to be regarded as cool — though he inspired a Funny or Die series, “Zack Morris Is Trash,” that argued convincingly otherwise — has accidentally become the governor of California “as part of a scheme to get out of a $75 parking ticket.” Voted “second hottest governor in America after Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer,” he’s still married to erstwhile head cheerleader, the former Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani Thiessen). Their son, Mac (Mitchell Hoog), carrying on his father’s hair and pranks, now attends Bayside — as does Jessie’s son, Jamie (Belmont Cameli), a dim but sensitive jock who partially occupies the old Slater role and whose pep talk to the football team he captains goes, “Winning does not matter; what matters is having fun, spending time together, getting some exercise. And let’s not forget that the players on that other team have inner lives that are just as rich and complicated as our own.” Obviously, they lose a lot.
(Casey Durkin / Peacock)
As is typical in prime-time high-school shows, the students are sophomores when we meet them and, unlike the original cast, played by actors who have been out of high school a few years. A joke in which seniors are played by really old people — “There is no way that guy goes to our school, he is literally wearing cataract glasses and a Desert Storm hat” — is purest “30 Rock.”
As governor, Zack has cut $10 billion from the budget, closing schools as a consequence. Shamed at a news conference, he promises to send kids from the closed, poor schools to posher schools, including his alma mater. And so students from inner city Douglas High, where the library was “a Bible and bunch of Army pamphlets” and the guidance counselor a Magic 8 Ball, are bused to Bayside. There’s Daisy (Haskiri Velazquez), who is serious, motivated and an echo of Jessie, who tells her her, “I was you in high school — ambitious, stressed, I hadn’t figured my hair out yet”; Aisha (Alycia Pascual-Peña), competitive as well but at sports (she is also partially Slater); and Devante (Dexter Darden), who is taciturn and mysterious and has no counterpart in the earlier series. (Darden plays his character almost completely straight; you could strip out everything else and fill in a drama around him.)
At Bayside they will be thrown together with Mac and Jamie and Lexi (Josie Totah), the campus queen and part-time mean girl. Totah is a transgender woman — as J.J. Totah, she played a lot of male parts — as is Lexi. “Have you seen my reality show, ‘Becoming Lexi: I Am Me’?” she asks Devante. (“It’s about Lexi’s life being transgender,” Mac explains, “her journey of self-discovery and the hot friends who support her.”) The subject is otherwise left alone, except to make some points about fear and acceptance when the story needs them. Well before the season’s end, they will have become a gang.
Lark Voorhies, as Lisa Turtle, the original show’s one regular Black character as well as its designated rich girl, will make a cameo appearance — “I’ve got to go, my lovers are waking up” is one of her lines. Screech, the old series’ not-hot nerd, played by Dustin Diamond, is mentioned but absent.
(Chris Haston / Peacock)
To some extent, the series is a clash of realities. The Douglas High kids, Black and brown, are traveling not only to somewhere white and wealthy but from someplace more or less real to somewhere quite improbable. The plots recall the original — the school play, a student body election, a big dance, a party out of bounds — but with absurdist (rather than merely absurd) twists. (Surviving intact, as if preserved in amber, is the Max, a snack shop of late New Wave design where, Daisy is told, “we like to hang out after school — also before and during.”) There are schemes and pranks, romantic alignments, misalignments and realignments. There are messages, of a sort, and they are essentially those of the original: Be true to yourself, be true to your friends, be true to your school, be good and if you can’t be good be careful and, the new series would add, if you can’t be careful be rich. “Having money can make you act like a jerk,” Mac tells Daisy, “but fortunately you can just use more money to clean up the mess you made. It’s the circle of wealth …. You look conflicted. Let me give you some money.”
The returning cast fits the new mood ably. The younger players are first-rate — even better than one might notice at first, given the general air of nuttiness. But they play different levels with great skill, resolving the character and the joke about the character in people you can authentically care about, at least a little, even as the metafictions remain legible. It’s like Brechtian distance — we laugh not at the stupid character but the idea of A Stupid Character — if Brecht were an old softy who wanted to fill you with feelings.
In a later episode, Mac wonders why he feels bad for his friends when nothing bad is happening to him. “It’s called empathy, Mac,” Lexi replies. “I have it now too.”
“Empathy?” says Mac, alarmed. “Did I get it from you?”
‘Saved by the Bell’
When: Any time, starting Wednesday