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Peacock’s ‘Saved by the Bell’ Paves a New Path for Reboots

A pop-culture landscape oversaturated by adaptations of old IP can start to feel depressing. Enter Zack Morris.

NBC/Ringer illustration

The reboot of Saved by the Bell, released on NBCUniversal’s Peacock platform just in time for Thanksgiving, gave me all the feelings a reboot is supposed to (and that so few actually do): the nostalgia of revisiting an old favorite; the thrill of remixing said favorite in new and surprising ways; and the anticipation of what this hybrid voice could say and do next.

The 10-episode season is a faithful-enough rendition of the early-’90s touchstone. It’s still set at the fictional Bayside High School, and most of the original cast has returned as aged versions of their classic characters. Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) is the governor of California; Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley Lauren) is a Bayside guidance counselor; Slater (Mario Lopez) coaches the football team. Many of the new faces also have a direct connection to the first Saved by the Bell: Both Zack’s son Mac (Mitchell Hoog) and Jessie’s son Jamie (Belmont Cameli) attend the 2020 version of Bayside, forming a bridge between the show’s two generations. But crucially, this new series isn’t just a reboot of Saved by the Bell.

This retooled version was developed by Tracey Wigfield, a onetime 30 Rock producer who went on to create the delightful NBC sitcom Great News. A mother-daughter workplace comedy set at a local New Jersey news station, Great News ably channeled 30 Rock’s meta satire and antic ethos. A Season 2 subplot echoed Peter Thiel’s legal war on Gawker, while Nicole Richie’s narcissistic coanchor proved a worthy successor to Jenna Maroney; Tina Fey guest-starred as a pantsuited girlboss. And yet Great News was cruelly canceled before it could fully hit its stride. Quirk is a hard sell when it’s not wrapped in a more palatable package, especially on broadcast TV.

Enter the Trojan horse of IP. Saved by the Bell may look and sound like, well, Saved by the Bell, but it feels and acts like an extension of the 30 RockGreat News lineage. That’s because it is. Just as Jessie and Slater create a visual link to their previous work, so does John Michael Higgins, who played a blowhard boss on Great News and now portrays Bayside’s ineffectual Principal Toddman. Queen bee Lexi Haddad-DeFabrizio (Josie Totah) easily assumes the mantle of resident blond egomaniac, complete with her own reality show. Most of all, the jokes are a telltale mix of dense, niche, and absurd; running through the football team’s many losses, Slater lists opponents “East Beverly, South Beverly, and the Beverly Johnson School for Models,” which sounds not unlike the Sheinhardt Wig Company.

In other words, Saved by the Bell targets a nostalgia both broader and shorter term than a yearning for elaborate pranks and sky-high hairdos. Great News went off the air just three years ago, but the kind of show it represents—an original premise, executed with verve—is an endangered species. But what if the very cause of this category’s death could also be its saving grace? Depending on your level of cynicism, that’s the thrilling possibility and/or acceptable compromise of Saved by the Bell. Maybe recognizable voices like Wigfield’s can continue to thrive in adjusted form. And just as importantly, maybe reboots like Saved by the Bell don’t have to be joyless exercises in cosplaying the monoculture’s glory days.

Saved by the Bell arrives slightly past the peak of ’90s nostalgia as epitomized by resurrected sitcoms, efforts that have been by turns successful (Fuller House), half-hearted (Murphy Brown), and troubled (Roseanne). It’s also part of the larger move to diversify aging properties by changing the protagonists’ identity, giving a small-c conservative trend a progressive face. This approach can yield dividends, like One Day at a Time reinventing itself as a multigenerational story about a Cuban American family in L.A. It can also seem borderline ludicrous; somehow, it just made sense when the film production that shut down a major Los Angeles testing site turned out to be the gender-swapped remake of She’s All That.

Superficially, Saved by the Bell fits this model to a T. Lexi is trans; the football team’s new quarterback is female; the remixed theme song is performed by Lil Yachty. Unlike so many cosmetic rebrands, Saved by the Bell has an organic explanation for demographic shifts: Due to budget shortcuts, already underfunded schools in California are closed outright, their student bodies integrated into more affluent institutions like Bayside. Our new heroine Daisy (Haskiri Velazquez), an overachieving idealist who takes charge of Bayside’s student government, was originally a student at Douglas. Her best friend Aisha (Alycia Pascual-Peña) is the aforementioned quarterback, while their former Douglas High classmate DeVante (Dexter Darden) signs up for the school musical.

The collision of Douglas and Bayside generates plenty of story, but also serious themes, as befits Saved by the Bell’s legacy as a font of Very Special Episodes. When DeVante is accused of pushing another student, his disciplinary hearing becomes a case study in racial stereotyping and a rigged legal system; when Aisha starts dating a wealthy classmate, their class disparities start to make her uncomfortable. Remarkably, Saved by the Bell becomes one of TV’s better meditations on educational equity and the challenges of integration, as much a cousin of the hit podcast Nice White Parents as a descendant of its namesake.

Sometimes, the show’s goofball tone can be an odd match with its hand-me-down baggage. Velazquez inherits the record-scratch-freeze-frame device once operated by Gosselaar, but the fourth-wall breaks can sometimes feel forced, breaking the fast-paced dialogue’s momentum. And as delightful as it is to watch Nomi Malone herself deliver 30 Rock–shaped punch lines, the older generation doesn’t always feel as suited to the new sensibility as younger actors who were cast with it in mind. Mostly, though, the show’s silly streak helps its message-forward medicine go down. Well-meaning Bayside parents form an advocacy group whose name abbreviates to P.I.T.Y.; Lexi’s aforementioned reality show is a spot-on spoof of Becoming Caitlin, wrapping earnest exposition in a fitting successor to Queen of Jordan.

For reboot skeptics, the winking self-awareness also helps fight IP fatigue. Saved by the Bell’s premise isn’t nearly as meta as a TV show about making TV like 30 Rock or Great News, but postmodern jokes are still par for the course. Sometimes they double as class commentary, like when Daisy can’t believe Bayside students eat lunch every day at a full-blown restaurant. Sometimes they’re a nod to an entire genre, like the running bit when background players look increasingly older and unlikely to be in high school, just like its leads. (Velazquez is 25; Hoog is 21). Whatever the gist, these cracks assure viewers that Saved by the Bell is perfectly aware of what it is and what trends it’s a part of. If the writers can relax enough to laugh at the chaos of a fractured industry desperate for nostalgia grabs, so can we.

It’s difficult to balance sincerity and irony as Saved by the Bell does. It may be easier to outsource its approach to reinvigorating stale IP. After all, Saved by the Bell does have a creative signature, the sort of distinctive voice Hollywood prizes in theory and steamrolls in practice through its relentless focus on brands and franchises—it’s just not using said signature as its initial hook, like a Taika Waititi movie smuggled inside a space opera about a thunder god. (Never mind that, when it comes to trusting auteurs, Thor: Ragnarok is the exception that proves Marvel’s rule.) The necessity of such a bait and switch can be depressing; is the only way to earn green-lights and eyeballs these days through a de facto sleight of hand? But if reboots are Hollywood’s future, Saved by the Bell shows one promising way to adapt.