Saved By the Bell 2020: Sequel series is an absurdly funny surprise
Saved By the Bell 2020: Sequel series is an absurdly funny surprise

TV sequel that actually doesn’t suck

If you were an Australian kid in the 1990s, chances are you spent Saturday mornings watching a block of American teen shows.

Of the rotating batch among California Dreams, Sweet Valley High, Breaker High and Hang Time, Saved by the Bell was the piece de resistance.

Dazzled by the cool kids at Bayside High, we wanted to live that American teen dream. As far as we were concerned, that meant awesome clothes, dances every other week, hilarious pranks, an after-school burger joint and no parents.

It was so seductive precisely because it was so unrealistic.

Saved By the Bell was a bubble of privilege we now know doesn't come close to representing the vast majority of American school experiences. It's not just that Saved By the Bell never hinted at tax-system driven social inequality and campus gun violence, it's also that no one ever seemed to be in class - unless a note needed to be passed on.

 

Saved by the Bell was a staple of Saturday morning TV in the 1990s.
Saved by the Bell was a staple of Saturday morning TV in the 1990s.

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So how do you revisit a series that was so completely of its era in 2020, three decades on? Do you take the gritty remake route like the upcoming Fresh Prince reboot, or do you try to do more of the same, like Gilmore Girls, hoping no one will notice the world moved on?

Saved By the Bell forges its own path, paying homage to the lively, shimmering original series while smartly and hilariously updating it for modern audiences.

A direct sequel to the 1989 series, this iteration of Saved By the Bell is still set at Bayside High, where Slater (Mario Lopez) is now the coach and Jessie (Elizabeth Berkley) is the school therapist.

Jessie's son, the handsome, good-natured but dumb Jamie (Belmont Cameli), is a student and so is Mac Morris (Mitchell Hoog), the son of Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani Amber Thiessen).

Inexplicably, Zack is now the Governor of California, having run for office to get out of a $75 parking fine. To pay for the concessions to the fossil fuel industry, he had to cut $10 billion out of the state's education budget.

Zack's choices led to the closure of already-underfunded schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, so a new cohort of students are being bussed to Bayside.

 

The rich kids got richer. Picture: Trae Patton/Peacock
The rich kids got richer. Picture: Trae Patton/Peacock

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Though the original cast of six included African American Lark Voorhies and Lopez is of Mexican descent, the new class are more diverse in not just cultural background, but economic circumstance.

Dropped into the shiny world of Bayside, transplants Daisy (Haskiri Velazquez), Aisha (Alycia Pascual-Pena) and Devante (Dexter Darden) are agape at the Teslas parked in the student carpark and the artisanal bath bomb club.

It's more than just a fish-out-of-water story. The revival series explores the chasm between the disadvantaged kids whose out-of-school responsibilities include looking after younger siblings because their parents work tough jobs, and the privileged Baysiders who wear Fendi shirts and text with LeBron James.

There's a transgender character, Lexi, played by transgender actor Josie Totah (Champions), whose glaring privilege is softened by her gender discovery experience, as documented by the fictional E! show within the show, Becoming Lexi: I Am Me.

Ambitious and smart Daisy is the heart of the series, and she's the one that now carries the incredulous fourth-wall breaks that used to belong to Zack Morris. She's the one that calls out the ridiculous privilege.

Perennial favourite John Michael Higgins rounds out the cast as Principal Toddman, a more wacky Principal Belding.

 

The new series uses a high school comedy to explore income inequality in the US. Picture: Trae Patton/Peacock
The new series uses a high school comedy to explore income inequality in the US. Picture: Trae Patton/Peacock

 

There are recent remakes (Party of Five, Charmed, Roswell) that have also been used as a springboard for social commentary, particularly on race and class issues, by recasting the primary leads to share under-represented experiences.

Saved By the Bell takes a different approach in doing that and then melding it into the existing world, a balance of old and new, without ever losing sight of where it came from.

With Berkeley and Lopez as regulars, and guest appearances from Gosselaar (who's also an executive producer), Ed Alonzo (the owner of The Max), Thiessen and Voorhies, there's always that reminder.

This series has injected a knowing, almost absurdist sense of humour thanks to the revival's creator Tracey Wigfield, who studied at the feet of Tina Fey on 30 Rock (for which she won a writing Emmy) before going on to write for The Mindy Project and then creating the criminally under-appreciated comedy Great News.

The wit and jokes here share many of the same playful characteristics of Wigfield's earlier work.

 

Many of the original Saved By the Bell-er feature in the new series. Picture: Trae Patton/Peacock
Many of the original Saved By the Bell-er feature in the new series. Picture: Trae Patton/Peacock

 

Saved By the Bell's meta tone feels like a natural evolution from the original series which was always a tad outlandish, pitched at the now-adults who grew up with the show with in-jokes such as pointing out how old the high school seniors look (by casting actual septuagenarians in background roles).

Or the parent who read an article on Facebook that the incoming poor students belong to a sex cult that snort Baby Yoda. The winking humour is sometimes stretched, but it mostly works.

There's a lot going on but Saved By the Bell has somehow hit a sweet spot so that its chemical mix sparkles rather than combusts.

Saved By the Bell is available to stream on Stan from Thursday, November 26

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Originally published as TV sequel that actually doesn't suck


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