The New 'Saved by the Bell' Is Better Than We Thought Possible
Like fellow youth-appeal sitcom The Brady Bunch (which came back to life as a variety show, comedy spinoff, and thirtysomething-esque drama), 90s kid classic Saved By the Bell just refused to die.
After the Bayside gang finally graduated high school, a new show, Saved By the Bell: The College Years kept the lukewarm laughs coming. Screech returned to Bayside High as Mr. Belding’s assistant for Saved By the Bell: The New Class. And let’s not forget two movies -- Saved by the Bell: Hawaiian Style and Saved By the Bell: Wedding in Las Vegas.
If you’re keeping count, that makes Peacock’s Saved By the Bell revival at least the sixth iteration of the show, proof that nostalgia rules all. You’re probably inclined to skip it but -- surprise! -- it’s a lot smarter than the versions that came before it.
The show does two clever things with returning cast favorites: 1) It acknowledges how dumb the characters were in the first place, and 2) it mostly keeps them in the background so the new kids can take center stage.
The new Saved lives in a world where Zach Morris is the smarmy conservative governor of California, calling out the original character for the pompous a-hole he was even as a kid. How bad is it? Gov. Morris cuts ten million bucks in education spending to provide a bailout for the fossil fuel industry. Zach is evil! Like we always knew!
His budget cuts necessitate closing a bunch of schools, meaning students from poorly funded areas will now be shipped off to the more elite schools like Bayside, where Slater is now the dumb-jock PE teacher and Jesse Spano preens as a know-it-all counselor. (Nice try, Elizabeth Berkley--we're not forgetting Showgirls.) The characters were always obnoxious--Saved by the Bell is now smart enough to admit it.
You can guess the new premise: There’s going to be a culture clash between the rich (white) Bayside kids and the (various minority) kids from the poorer schools. It sounds edgier than it is -- the rich and ‘poor’ kids all dress alike, all hang out together, all have the same iPhones and AirPods.
In fact, Saved feels more like Disney’s High School Musical, with its clean-cut kids singing, dancing, and young-romancing their way through sophomore year.
What makes Saved by the Bell so much better than, um, Saved by the Bell is its smarter, naughtier sense of humor. Dull Mr. Belding is replaced by John Michael Higgins as Principal Toddman, the kind of guy with a podcast that does deep dives on Steely Dan songs. (One student’s punishment is a two-week suspension and a guest spot on the pod.)
Higgins is in Best in Show mode here, hilarious as the kind of guy who falls off the theater stage and “broke his penis in the orchestra pit.”
The kids are cookie-cutter nice, but the real laughs come from clueless chemistry teachers who throw out lines like: “Do not use the emergency shower for sexy fun!” There’s an eavesdropping acapella group that harmonizes their gossipy opinions and visiting grandparents who respond to school red tape with a saucy “Son of a bitch!”
The social commentary is better when it focuses on less complicated issues like technology -- when teachers take everyone’s phones, Zach’s smarmy son Mac basically turns himself into a payphone, complete with jacket “coin slot” and a cord that tethers his extra hidden phone to a single location. It’s a step up from Screech’s goofy antics back in the day.
Is the new Saved by the Bell must-see TV? Not so much, but for nostalgic millennials, it just might make the grade.
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Top image: NBCUniversal