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The Saved by the Bell reboot gave me an existential crisis

The new Saved by the Bell poses unanswerable questions about comedy itself.

A new class hits the familiar halls of Bayside in the new Saved by the Bell reboot.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

“I can’t do it,” I wailed to my editor. “I can’t write about the new Saved by the Bell reboot.”

My editor, obviously wondering why Peacock’s 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? I’m no longer sure, just like I’m no longer sure what “comedy” means in general in showrunner Tracey Wigfield’s 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, I’m 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 that’s the quandary this show presents me with: How can we know whether Saved by the Bell is ironic or sincere when the show itself doesn’t seem sure either?

Saved by the Bell wants to be a sincere meta-parody. Those two impulses don’t quite gel.

NBC’s 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 reboot’s opening moments, we learn that former class clown/current governor of California Zack Morris has cut $10 billion from the state’s education budget in order to revive the fossil fuel industry. It’s supposed to be a joke — Zack says he just Googled what the last administration did — but it’s 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. Zack’s 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 someone’s 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 premise’s 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 Khaled’s baby to make you a playlist,” or the running joke about Selena Gomez’s kidney that sparked online backlash and which NBC rapidly pulled from one episode. There’s 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 it’s not like I don’t love a good random pop culture reference. But Saved by the Bell blatantly takes The Big Bang Theory’s 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. It’s 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. (She’s perfect and I love her.) The PTA is run by a villainous Karen, while the other school moms have names like Joyce Whitelady. Then there’s Daisy, who flounders between resentment and envy of her new friends: She joins the Flat Earth Society just because it’s 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 don’t want to be totally negative here: The show’s cast is endearing. Most of them are sincere and wholesome, which helps sell the season’s 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. That’s probably not what the show’s writers intended, but it’s the risk you take when the show’s 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 it’s 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 show’s concepts to see if they can coexist.

The gang’s all here. Well, except for Lisa, who’s in Paris, and Screech, who’s thankfully out of sight and mind.

So we get a show that’s 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 who’s happy to sing about the horrors of war. And we get all the worst and/or campiest traits of the original show (like Zack’s misogyny, the Max’s vagueness, and a disinterest in any other students besides the main characters) trotted out, pointed to, and then made fun of. It’s all loud and clunky, just like the oversize ’90s phone our hero Daisy (in Zack Morris’s original role as audience surrogate) is forced to carry around.

That’s 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 they’ve 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 Jessie’s activism and progressive values. But she won in the end, he passionately declares, because, “Today’s kids are all Jessies!”

These modernized sitcom teaching moments come across like Disneyfied progressivism for kids, and maybe there’s a space for that in today’s 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 show’s sociopolitics are, well, absurd?

Saved by the Bell wants to be “woke” — but also wants to hand-wring over the impossibility of ever being “woke” enough

Okay, deep breaths. I know this is all a lot to process. We’re talking about a show that made me sit through a running joke where Mac turns himself into a payphone. I’m not proud of how much I’m 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 it’s even possible to make “woke” comedy without setting up the work to be accused of not being woke enough. After all, what’s ever going to be “woke enough”?

If there’s any show the Saved by the Bell reboot made me consistently nostalgic for, it’s 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 Bell’s 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, it’s ham-fisted and improbable. But maybe it’s the sort of back-to-basics approach many viewers, old and new, will appreciate. Then again, maybe it’s 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 it’s just this: that in this era of pandemics and political extremes, we’re 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, we’re 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.