'Saved by the Bell': TV Review

Haskiri Velazquez as Daisy
Casey Durkin/Peacock
Wears its earnestness and social conscience on its sleeve.
11/25/2020

Mario Lopez and Elizabeth Berkley Lauren join a new Bayside High class in Tracey Wigfield's ambitious, single-cam reimagining of the Saturday-morning phenom for Peacock.

The new Saved by the Bell — Peacock’s reboot of the corny Saturday-morning phenom — could be the brainchild of Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley Lauren), the 1989-1993 series’ idealistic, serious-minded teen feminist. The reboot is funnier than the original show ever was, but it’s also a far more earnest and socially conscious (some will definitely say “woke”) affair, tackling educational inequality, bias against students of color and the ways in which willful blindness toward racial and economic privilege have pernicious downstream effects on some of the most vulnerable members of society. It’s what the old Saved by the Bell never was: ambitious.

The reboot opens with the familiar faces of Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, now Governor of California Zack Morris and his wellness-peddling, still beautifully blank First Lady Kelly Morris. A fast-talking lawyer who landed in Sacramento after a scheme gone awry, in-over-his-head Zack slashes education budgets across the state, forcing the closures of already-underfunded schools. (Showrunner Tracey Wigfield’s spot-on predictions for where the original characters would be today reassure us that her many send-ups of the ‘90s show will be affectionate but truthful.) The school closures lead to the busing of students of color like Type-A Daisy (Haskiri Velazquez) to wealthy Bayside High, where she’s immediately put off by the likes of Zack’s just-as-blond son, Mac (a superbly cast Mitchell Hoog).

The original Saved by the Bell was high school from the vantage point of elementary- and middle-schoolers. Wigfield’s reinterpretation — with its heavy debts to 30 Rock and the dearly departed Great News (which she created) — seems to be made for Jessie Spanos for all ages: bleeding hearts who don’t mind that their sitcoms skew a tad more toward preachiness than jokes. You can feel the Wigfieldian bite (or Liz Lemony tang) in a line like, “A woman can do everything a man can do, except enjoy the films of Todd Phillips” — spoken by Jessie herself, who has become a guidance counselor at Bayside, as well as the overprotective mother of the school’s softer-than-marshmallow quarterback, Jamie (Belmont Cameli).

Still pining for Jessie after all these years is her former classmate, recovering chauvinist A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez), now Bayside’s football coach. Lark Voorhees, who played Lisa Turtle, makes a late cameo, but Dustin Diamond, who played Screech Powers, has been left out of the reboot.

The “human cartoon” approach to sitcoms that 30 Rock and Great News had is a great match for Wigfield’s take on Saved by the Bell, which fondly skewers the tropes of the original while recycling them with a self-aware wink. That means this version still has two guys competing for a date with the same hot girl, “torment[ing] their principal (Great News’ John Michal Higgins) with no consequences” and hiring an actor to play one of the kids' moms to evade trouble — only now, everyteen Daisy protests that she doesn’t know any actors while Mac and rich bitch Lexi (Josie Totah) immediately start sorting through headshots. There’s also no shortage of throwaway witticisms. Jessie? “Too tall to fail.” How Mac sees himself? “Dennis the Menace but sexy.” The quiet kid over there? “He’s so mysterious — I have to find out who his brooding instructor is.”

Hoog and Totah are the cast’s standouts — not only because Hoog channels Zack Morris’ off-brand Ferris Bueller energy perfectly while Totah knows her way around any mean-girl one-liner, but because the writing is strongest for those characters. They get to be the doers, while Daisy and her friends from her old school are the targets of racism. That’s even the case for Lexi, who, like Totah herself, is trans, and who, unrealistically but especially so in a series that explores discrimination and its effects, never has to deal with even a whiff of transphobia.

A loyal shopper of “the JCPenney Stern Frump Collection,” aggressively sensible Daisy is a clear descendant of Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon and Briga Heelan’s Katie Wendelson of Great News. But despite her “research project on how to have fun,” she’s not dynamically written enough as a protagonist, though Velazquez clearly relishes the role.

Likewise, Daisy’s classmates from her shuttered school, athletic Aisha (Alycia Pascual-Peña) and reserved DeVante (Dexter Darden), are saddled with underwritten storylines that gradually recede while the rich kids effortlessly command the spotlight. Daisy may now be the one freezing the frame, but there’s a ways to go before the script’s fully flipped.

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

Developed by: Tracey Wigfield

Showrunner: Tracey Wigfield

Premieres Wednesday, Nov. 25, on Peacock