In today's era of unnecessary reboots, Hollywood has taken a special interest in trying to redo -- or perhaps more awkwardly, replace -- less socially aware series with a younger, more inclusive cast and politically correct narratives. Sometimes it works very well and insightfully like on One Day at a Time or Party of Five, or even the upcoming Animaniacs. Then other times, it's Saved by the Bell.
That's because much of its original characters -- Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkeley), Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani Thiessen), Zach Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), and A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez) -- have remained on or nearby the fictional campus of Bayside High. Admittedly, it's fun to learn that the charming Zach became governor of California, or that Jessie morphed into a grown-up version of her teenage self -- a smart, ambitious, feminist author -- or that Slater the jock is now a coach and mentor. But they don't serve any real purpose here other than to underscore how out of touch they really are -- and evidently have always been.
But anyone tuning into the '90s series now for the first time could have easily come to the same conclusion. And honestly, the existing class does a good job at replicating a lot of their aloofness that it just seems redundant at times. Still, they turned this sentiment into a running theme of showrunner Tracy Wigfield's new show. In this remake, though, instead of these characters getting sneers from nebulous Gen Z audiences cringing at Bayside's idealistic, almost exclusively white landscape, they're directly confronted by the people themselves.
Enter Daisy (Haskiri Velazquez), an outspoken and determined Latina, Aisha (Alycia Pascual-Pena), an Afro-Latina struggling to fit in, and Devante (Dexter Darden), a Black student also trying to carve a space for himself in his new surroundings. After a citywide attempt to provide better education for racially marginalized students, these teens are all transferred to the very white Bayside to advance their learning. And similar to the school integration era of the 1960s and 1970s, the existing kids at Bayside aren't entirely accepting.
But the new Bayside takes place in present day, where its students, mostly consisting of the original characters' offspring, are more sensitive about other people's differences, though still wildly detached from how the non-1% live. For instance, Mac Morris (Mitchell Hoog) complains to Daisy that someone stole his cushy, designated parking space at school with no consideration of the fact that she and the rest of the incoming students ride the public bus because they have no other options. He is, after all, the version 2.0 of his dad, Zach -- amiable enough, though clearly living on his own planet where parking spaces and trying to get girls' attention are the biggest things he has to worry about it.
Saved by the Bell and Wigfield's writers let us know from the start of the series that they are conscious of these social differences, and even poke fun at Bayside's isolated reality where the most urgent issues are what to wear to the ice cream social and not the transgender student grappling for acceptance. Seriously, who has ice cream socials in 2020? And if there are teen gatherings that happen to have ice cream, are they really referred to as socials? It's a very ha-ha-wink-wink approach that, while at times witty, unfairly holds up a mock-up of the original series, indicative of its pop culture era, presumably so that the younger generation can hurl spitballs at it. It's excessive.
There's enough intrigue among the new Bayside class that the series doesn't have to also serve as a teaching lesson for those who came before it. The fact that Slater finally brings up the fact that no one ever talked about his Mexican identity, not even him, on the original series falls flatter than it should. The same goes for when Slater chastises Mac and his friend, Jessie's son Jamie (Belmont Cameli), for competing for the same girl as a display of -- and he says this while pointing to a Self magazine article -- "toxic masculinity." In this Saved by the Bell, the older generation teaches the younger generation about things they've only just learned from the kids that have recently disrupted their tiny world, whose mere presence compels the existing Bayside structure to become more introspective.
Those new kids have their own issues on top of serving as catalysts for Mac and his friend's social awareness. But their experiences pale in comparison to the overarching themes of the series, at least in the non-sequential three episodes screened for press up until this point.
It begs the question: Is this Saved by the Bell for the older generation that grew up watching and loving the O.G. squad and just want to see them again -- and maybe learn a thing or two in the process? Is it for the younger generation to see a more honest reflection of themselves in a story like this, one that rings true for many of them? Or is it actually a playful satire of itself? If it's all of those things, Saved by the Bell is having way too much fun to make any of these statements very well. Though it deserves props for really going for it in a lot of ways, this Saved by the Bell still makes you wonder why it even exists.
TV Guide rating: 2.5 out of 5
Saved by the Bell premieres Wednesday, Nov. 25 on Peacock