If Seinfeld was the show about nothing, Saved by the Bell and other programming of its early-90s after-school ilk aspired to be the show about everything. From 1989 to 1993, the gang of telegenic Californian teens at Bayside High tackled such real-world issues as drunk-driving, oil spills, feminism, the first adolescent taste of mortality, and, most infamously, caffeine pill abuse. In their clumsy efforts to speak to the youth, however, broadly pitched sitcoms such as this lost touch with anything close to reality in favor of a tidy half-hour simplicity. Jessie Spano could be high out of her mind in one scene, but we could all rest assured that by the end of the episode, her tweaking days would be over. Not doing drugs was as easy as just not doing them.
To its credit, the new Saved by the Bell reboot sees at least one issue through clearer eyes than those of its predecessor. Showrunner Tracey Wigfield (a longtime 30 Rock scribe turned creator for the underrated Great News) has the good sense to realize that a show set at a moneyed SoCal high school cannot avoid the question of income inequality and how it trickles down into the public education system. A writers’ room vet, she also has the clarity to recognize this sticky social issue as ideal fodder for a fish-out-of-water comedic setup, forcing the original cast’s demographic – white, wealthy and privileged – into collision with an awareness of diversity and class. This project needed a justification for its own existence beyond nostalgia for the first Bush administration, and notwithstanding its many other flaws, Wigfield has smartly managed that much.
The series’s hook is triggered in the opening minutes by one-time hooligan Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, reprising his role), now the governor of California, a station for which he’s supremely unqualified. In order to save some quick face during a contentious press conference, he squares up a $10bn cut from public schools by ruling that the inner-city students pushed out of their shuttered facilities can just attend Bayside with the rich-dad set. There, former good-time gal Jessie (a returning Elizabeth Berkley, making constant groaner allusions to the caffeine pill freakout) has found work as the guidance counselor, and cool guy Slater (Mario Lopez) is now a gym teacher without much going on in his life.
So begins a friendly, low-stakes culture clash pairing the clear descendants of the old crew with officially assigned “buddies” who might as well hail from the other half of Bring It On’s central conflict. Governor Zack’s cock-of-the-walk son Mac (Mitchell Hogg) and Jessie’s simple-minded boy Jamie (Belmont Cameli) fall in with Daisy (Haskiri Velazquez), a Latina determined not to let socioeconomic disadvantage keep her from success, and her BFF Aisha (Alycia Pascual-Peña), who brings the same spirit to the school’s athletics. Rounding out the lineup on either side is queen-bee mean girl Lexi (Josie Totah) and newcomer Devante (Dexter Darden), her scene partner in the school musical. While they define themselves by their differences, the haves and have-nots need to find common ground, perhaps in that they are all portrayed by pretty bad actors.
That Lexi happens to be transgender and the most popular girl at school – the E! series about her transitional journey seems has made her a minor celebrity – signals the Gen-Z wrinkle in the tried-and-true TV formula. An age group speaking the language of wokeness like a native tongue can still be blinded to its own ignorances, just as a well-meaning organization of bougie parents assisting in the school merger ends up assuming the acronym of PITY. It’s a good idea, a real idea, the sort of tension that could long sustain a show with better writing. About every third joke lands, and that’s a generous estimate, even with Daisy’s constant record-scratching breakages of the fourth wall quickly wearing on the audience’s goodwill. Name-drops of timely musical acts like Migos or Post Malone often take the place of actual humor, symptomatic of a laziness that creates a sort of resentment for how good the occasional zingers can be.
The insight that the good ol’ days were not so good for everybody staves off the aura of pointlessness that usually hovers over softball IP-repurposing such as this. But that’s a hurdle the show set for itself, and once cleared, it gives way to more pedestrian issues for a TV series’ basic functioning. The relative praise of “for a Saved by the Bell reboot, it’s pretty good!” has been fairly earned. Still, a show about the subtle patronization of lowered expectations shouldn’t be aspiring to little more than exactly that.