Review: The Saved by the Bell reboot gave me an existential crisis –

Posted: December 11, 2020 at 4:58 am

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I cant do it, I wailed to my editor. I cant write about the new Saved by the Bell reboot.

My editor, obviously wondering why Peacocks new reboot of the famous 90s sitcom, released on Thanksgiving, had me so discombobulated, pressed me for details. She had, after all, asked me to watch it and deliver a routine review, and this was clearly not the reaction she anticipated.

So I proceeded to have an existential meltdown in Slack over a show where, among countless other ridiculous moments, Mario Lopez explains male privilege to two obviously 20-something high schoolers by pointing to the words toxic masculinity on the cover of Self magazine.

Is that funny? Is it supposed to be? Im no longer sure, just like Im no longer sure what comedy means in general in showrunner Tracey Wigfields relentlessly meta framework. Based on the iconic 90s high school sitcom, which was frequently (and knowingly) terrible, the reboot also expects us to laugh at how cheesy it is. The new show is I think supposed to be cringey but cute, equal parts wince-worthy and nostalgic.

But after watching all 10 episodes, Im still not sure whether that nostalgia is supposed to be for the original Saved by the Bell or for a time when we could even straightforwardly watch a show like Saved by the Bell, with its easy, pre-ironic internet era moral framework. My editor probably wanted me to map out this difference more neatly than I have in this piece, but thats the quandary this show presents me with: How can we know whether Saved by the Bell is ironic or sincere when the show itself doesnt seem sure either?

NBCs Saved by the Bell revival reboot tries admirably to update a frequently problematic show for a new woke generation. (This show is begging me to describe it as woke, especially with quotes, so fine, show, you win.)

In the reboots opening moments, we learn that former class clown/current governor of California Zack Morris has cut $10 billion from the states education budget in order to revive the fossil fuel industry. Its supposed to be a joke Zack says he just Googled what the last administration did but its also the device that fuels the plot for the rest of the season. Kids from underprivileged schools that were shut down by the cuts start flocking to Bayside, the ritzy upper-class high school Zack once attended and where his son Mac now follows in his footsteps. Zacks besties, Jessie Spano and A.C. Slater, also now work at the school as the guidance counselor and football coach, respectively, their longtime on-again/off-again relationship currently off. The actors from the original series, including Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Mario Lopez as Zack and Slater, reprise their original roles, though the spotlight stays on the new students.

Bayside plays home mainly to rich white kids who hang out at the vague school diner-lounge called the Max, which still looks like someones 1993 Trapper Keeper. When three new kids, Daisy, DeVonte, and Aisha, show up to the school, they have to contend with the other students breezy indifference to things like classism, white privilege, and sociopolitics.

The humor and wacky hijinks that follow from this setup can be charmingly savvy, nodding to the premises inherent social complications (I know our school library was just a Bible and a bunch of Army pamphlets, goes one choice quote from the transplanted students). The show can also be almost Dadaist, in the worst way, courtesy of jokes that are frequently little more than random pop culture references made for the sake of making them. Like I got DJ Khaleds baby to make you a playlist, or the running joke about Selena Gomezs kidney that sparked online backlash and which NBC rapidly pulled from one episode. Theres also this line from the pilot that haunts me: I read a Facebook article about an underground sex cult where kids snort Baby Yoda. Why?

And its not like I dont love a good random pop culture reference. But Saved by the Bell blatantly takes The Big Bang Theorys shallow you just shouted a bunch of shit formula of invoking geek cred and swaps it out for celebrity name-dropping to invoke preppy suburban Los Angeles life. Its a superficial stand-in for both world-building and humor, and it fails on both fronts.

In between all its corny self-references and baffling pop culture jokes, the new Saved by the Bell does try to spin a heartwarming tale of friendship overcoming class and racial divides, 2020-style. DeVonte learns the value of authenticity from trans cheerleader Lexi, played with pitch-perfect zeal by trans actress Josie Totah. (Shes perfect and I love her.) The PTA is run by a villainous Karen, while the other school moms have names like Joyce Whitelady. Then theres Daisy, who flounders between resentment and envy of her new friends: She joins the Flat Earth Society just because its an extracurricular. At one point, she gets caught up in a power trip and starts acting like a rude rich lady in short order, before checking herself and teaching all her new friends about empathy and power dynamics.

I dont want to be totally negative here: The shows cast is endearing. Most of them are sincere and wholesome, which helps sell the seasons storyline, in which they ultimately unite against systemic racism and learn life lessons about coexistence. But in its attempt to be sincerely woke in a parodic context (Stop having empathy for the wrong person! Daisy snaps at one point), the reboot sometimes teeters on the brink of becoming a completely non-woke meta-parody of wokeness. Thats probably not what the shows writers intended, but its the risk you take when the shows attempts at sincerity are part of the joke.

The whole conceit of reviving an un-woke 90s series for a much more progressive 2020 audience is an exercise in tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. (See a string of similar recent 90s reboots, from 90210 to Dallas.) So its perhaps inevitable that the reboot becomes not just a parody of the original Saved by the Bell, but also a superimposition of modern-day political sensibilities onto the old shows concepts to see if they can coexist.

So we get a show thats rife with constant send-ups of 90s teen comedy and self-parody. We get high school seniors with obviously receding hairlines and boomer wrinkles. We get an episode where Bayside stages a cheesy teen beach musical about a surfing champ Army veteran whos happy to sing about the horrors of war. And we get all the worst and/or campiest traits of the original show (like Zacks misogyny, the Maxs vagueness, and a disinterest in any other students besides the main characters) trotted out, pointed to, and then made fun of. Its all loud and clunky, just like the oversize 90s phone our hero Daisy (in Zack Morriss original role as audience surrogate) is forced to carry around.

Thats not to say that the show is a nonstop woke parody, but its most sincere moments almost feel more parodic than its moments of cheek. We see this particularly with the characters from the original series. Zack, Kelly, Jessie, and Slater have all returned in part to do penance for the original series to admit what jerks they used to be as teens and prove how much theyve grown. In one episode, Slater apologizes for making fun of Jessie, his love interest on the original series, when they were kids. In a speech that could have come straight from peak Tumblr fandom, he recounts how the original show mocked Jessies activism and progressive values. But she won in the end, he passionately declares, because, Todays kids are all Jessies!

These modernized sitcom teaching moments come across like Disneyfied progressivism for kids, and maybe theres a space for that in todays tween TV landscape. Except this show is also clearly aimed at capturing an audience of boomers and millennials who loved the original Saved by the Bell in all its cheesiness. What are those viewers taking away from this absurdist unfunny meta-parody, except that the shows sociopolitics are, well, absurd?

Okay, deep breaths. I know this is all a lot to process. Were talking about a show that made me sit through a running joke where Mac turns himself into a payphone. Im not proud of how much Im overthinking it.

Still, I think these questions are fundamental ones. People tend to ask the same question about reboots of beloved-but-dated 90s shows: Do we even need this? (The answer is almost always no.) The questions this not-so-complicated version of Saved by the Bell invites us to ask are somehow more complicated, about whether its even possible to make woke comedy without setting up the work to be accused of not being woke enough. After all, whats ever going to be woke enough?

If theres any show the Saved by the Bell reboot made me consistently nostalgic for, its Community, another NBC comedy about drastically different students learning to coexist. But if Community managed to stay brilliantly funny while showcasing its diversity and self-referentiality, it also already feels outdated; its way of reconciling sociopolitical tensions by, for example, just coexisting with well-meaning racist Chevy Chase now feels hopelessly naive. But is Saved by the Bells guilt-ridden, perpetual lampshading of itself the best way to ethically perform a goofy school comedy these days, when writers rooms and audiences are hyper-aware of the importance (and pitfalls) of telling diverse stories well?

I really hope not. Still, I think the series actually deserves points for trying. In 2020, the easy fantasy of a quickly resolvable sitcom conflict is both an escapist dream and a weak excuse to avoid confronting reality. Saved by the Bell, with its neon opening credits, its weirdly autotuned theme song, its cast of former teen idols, and its endless litany of dad jokes, seems to want to rebrand these escapist fantasies as earnest optimism.

The teens of the Saved by the Bell reboot choose friendship and loyalty over scheming and stratagems; they listen, grow, learn, and evolve. Yes, its ham-fisted and improbable. But maybe its the sort of back-to-basics approach many viewers, old and new, will appreciate. Then again, maybe its a superficial, condescending insult to the real challenges modern teens face.

But Saved by the Bell never remotely pretended to be realistic. Maybe all the reboot needs to be now is 100 percent itself, too however messy and daffy and fumbling that is. And for my editor, who wanted a conclusive theme to come from this existential crisis, maybe its just this: that in this era of pandemics and political extremes, were all just fumbling along and doing our awkward best, snorting Baby Yoda and hoping for better jokes to come along. Maybe, mentally, at the end of 2020, were all just sitting in homeroom, zoning out on the teachers, waiting for the bell to get us out of here.

At least in TV Land, the bell actually rings.

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Review: The Saved by the Bell reboot gave me an existential crisis -

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December 11th, 2020 at 4:58 am

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