Friday, January 1, 2021

Now Streaming: Saved By the Bell

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The new ‘Saved by the Bell’ show has no right being this good
by Jeremy Fogelman

Cast: Elizabeth Berkley Lauren, Mario Lopez, John Michael Higgins, Belmont Cameli, Dexter Darden, Mitchell Hoog, Alycia Pascual-Peña, Josie Totah, Haskiri Velazquez

Any kid or teenager who watched TV in the 90s almost certainly watched Saved by the Bell, which aired early in the 90s but was rerun forever. I watched many episodes and again and again when they were re-aired -- it was definitely an influential sort of thing, despite its obvious ridiculousness and stupidity. As kids, we didn’t quite pick up on all of the sociopathic aspects of the characters, but now that we’re all adults, you get multiple “rewatch” podcasts that delve deep into the craziness and even a well known series on YouTube called “Zach Morris is Trash” which itemized all of the lead Zach Morris’ terrible deeds.

The writer of that show ended up as a staff writer on the new Saved by the Bell, which certainly should be telling you something. The reboot/remake/etc/sequel is run by Tracey Wigfield, a talented and experienced comedy writer, who also ran my beloved, short run show Great News. The new show has a lot of that madcap energy, but it fits well with the silliness inherent in a Saved by the Bell world.

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The show immediately starts off with a wink and a nod, as we hear the voice of Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s Zach as he explains he conned his way to becoming governor to get out of paying parking tickets. All normal for the character, but the show also shows an image from his show Franklin & Bash to explain that he was also a lawyer -- that’s the sort of super insider nerdy reference I love. But Zach is an incompetent governor, essentially accidentally cutting billions from public education and shutting down multiple high schools in mostly at risk areas.

So there’s immediately some social commentary, but it’s couched in jokes -- soon we hear the big conceit of the show. Due to Zach’s (he only shows up again a few times) incompetence, he decides to get all the displaced high schoolers to go to his alma mater Bayside High. We see that the high school seems much the same, with Zach and Kelly’s son Mac Morris (Mitchel Hogg) a super privileged, arrogant but pretty charismatic blonde kid.

Mac’s friends are Jamie Spano (Belmont Cameli), the son of Jessie Spano from the old show (Elizabeth Berkley Lauren, who is a recurring character in the season) and Lexi (Josie Totah), a transgender fashionista with her own reality show. Jamie is a sweet doofus, a football player who cares more about “how you play the game” than winning, and Lexi is a sabre-mouthed presence that mirrors Mac’s privilege, arrogance, and charisma. These actors are all great in these roles, starting as fairly simplistically written characterizations and becoming full fledged characters with arcs and interesting character turns.

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But then we get the new kids, Daisy Jiménez (Haskiri Velazquez), Aisha Garcia (Alycia Pascual-Peña), and Devante Young (Dexter Darden), all with their own tales and backstories. Daisy is a super smart, hyper ambitious girl who wants to move up in the world, and she’s close friends with Aisha, who’s more of a sports gal -- neither really knows Devante, who is immediately pegged in a problematic way to be a potential new football player.

But Devante really is interested in singing and performing, and the show gives us episodes with both “issues” (like Devante being racially profiled) and “fun” (like trying out for a new ridiculous musical).

It turns out that Daisy is the true protagonist of the show, as in the first episode she gives us the classic “time out” that Zach Morris did all the time back in the original show. As such, she’s the center of nearly all of the episode, but the actress Haskiri Velazquez (who is essentially a newcomer) has both a great sense of comic timing and the dramatic range to pull off some of her more complicated storylines. It was probably difficult to find such a great lead, but she is really a great find.

Of course, the rest of the cast is really great too, including the always great John Michael Higgins as the new principal Ronald Toddman (who the show retcons into being friends with Zach in a hilarious joke later on), who is both hapless but also legitimately caring about the kids. No offense to old Belding, who was borderline criminally negligent, but Toddman gives some pretty great advice here.

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Elizabeth Berkley Lauren and Mario Lopez both reprise their old characters too, with Jessie as a successful author who’s become the school guidance counselor to be near her son, and Slater being kind of a loser -- a friendless high school coach with a team that never does well until Aisha joins. There are some pretty fun storylines with the two of them, and since they work at the school, they’re part of the recurring cast, unlike Mark-Paul and Tiffani Thiessen, who mainly drop in at key dramatic moments.

There’s even a few old school cameos, like Ed Alonzo as the magician Max, Patrick Thomas O'Brien as Mr. Dewey, and even Lark Voorhies as Lisa in one sharp, amusing little scene. Screech is mentioned, along with his robot Kevin (which he built and had artificial intelligence of course), but Dustin Diamond is never seen -- the reasons are disputed and I don’t need to get into them.

The show is a tight ten episodes, consistently amusing and often laugh out loud funny, with an actual story arc that has relevant points to modern social issues without being annoying about it. It’s far sharper and more self-aware than you’d think, but the writers are clearly aware of both the original show, the relevant memes, and the many problems with it. You get the obvious references and jokes, but quite a few that I didn’t expect at all.

And it ends on a dark, highly shocking joke that was pretty audacious. It’s a talented cast and a well-written, fun show -- if you’ve seen the original show, loved or hated or loved to hate it, the new Saved by the Bell is a must watch.

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