The Max is back, baby!
Well, technically the Max has been back since earlier this year, when the original run of the iconic Saturday morning teen sitcom Saved by the Bell landed on Peacock, NBC Universal’s new streaming platform.
This Wednesday, however, a new Max is back, as the retro after-school hangout spot frequented by the latest Bayside High class—a class which includes not only a core trio of white kids from Bayside’s Pacific Palisades neighborhood (Zack, Kelly, and Jessie’s kids included), but also a trio of Black and and Latinx kids who are forced to bus in from a lower income neighborhood after their own school gets defunded following a $10 billion budgeting ruh-roh by that irascible bleach-blonde scammer, Zack Morris—these days better known as (sigh) Governor Zack.
Now, if this were just about any other recent reboot of a beloved 90s (or 00s) sitcom, the formula would be simple:
1) Round up as much of the original talent as you can (actors, sure, but also writers, directors, and producers).
2) Commission a contemporary remix of the show’s earworm-y original theme.
3) Get to work recreating whatever singular tone it is the show’s fans all miss.
There have been slight variations to this formula, of course—DuckTales kept its characters, but brought on a whole new voice cast; Girl Meets World kept Boy’s desperate earnestness, but let stars Rowan Blanchard and Sabrina Carpenter make an iconic theme song all their own; Sabrina the Teenage Witch went goth—but for the most part, if fans of whatever original property have tuned in to watch that same property’s reboot, they’ve been rewarded with more (more or less) of the whatever it was they loved about that property in the first place.
Enter: Saved by the Bell. Well, Saved by the Bell 2.0. The original talent is (almost) all on hand—stars Elizabeth Berkley, Mario Lopez, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Tiffani Thiessen and even Lark Voorhies all reprise their original roles (as does Ed Alonzo as the Max’s titular Max), while Berkley, Lopez, and Gosselaar join SBTB vets Peter Engel and Franco Bario as producers (the latter three as EPs). The dope af theme remix is here, too, rapper Lil Yachty putting a solid Gen Z twist on Scott Gale’s iconic surf-slacker jam. But while 90s-era Saved by the Bell was a goofball sitcom of the sturdiest variety (creator Scott Bobrick honed his comedy skills writing, after all, on shows like The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.), Peacock’s Saved by the Bell is pure 2020. Gone is the old school multi-cam format, the live studio audience. In their place is a slick single-camera comedy that—barring a smart pivot back to the original theme song and tone for the Homecoming/reunion episode halfway through the season—will feel far more at home alongside Peacock’s other high school sitcom, A.P. Bio, than anyone trying to imagine a post-Peak TV take on Saved by the Bell is likely to believe.
To that end, it’s nearly impossible to articulate just how impressive the high wire act is that showrunner Tracey Wigfield (Great News, The Mindy Project) is walking here. Not only has she managed, in the series’ short Season 1 run, to split the difference between a love letter to and send-up of Bobrick’s beloved original, but she’s also succeeded at updating the show’s vibe to hew more closely to the politically progressive, wryly self-aware tone endemic to contemporary Teen TV.
The switch from multi- to single-camera format goes a long way in making both those goals easier—tone, comedic or otherwise, is so much more malleable in a single-cam set-up—but even more useful is the fact that Wigfield and her team (who, critically, appear to be mostly female and non-white) have chosen to treat the inherent frivolity of the original series with absolute seriousness. Which is to say: In the 90s, Zack Morris (Gosselaar) could get away with treating high school like the joke he did because he was Zack Morris. In 2020, though, it takes the series’ new fourth-wall-breaking narrator Daisy (Haskiri Velazquez) all of two seconds to exasperatedly commiserate with the audience over the extremely obvious fact that the only way Mack Morris (Mitchell Hoog) can get away with doing the same is by being a rich white dude, who’s the son of a richer, somehow whiter dude, whose rich white dudeness paved the way for him to fail straight up into being (a terrible) Governor of California.
By setting such clear bars for its teen characters so early in the pilot, Wigfield’s Saved by the Bell makes it clear that it’s evolved beyond the original’s preference for the status quo. It’s not just Daisy as the jaded-but-optimistic underdog who just wants every kid to get an equal shot at a good education, no matter their background (a real Jessie), or Mack as the next generation’s narcissist prankster (an obvious Zack), but also Aisha (Alycia Pascual-Peña) as the hunk-loving, football-playing pragmatist (a Slater), Jamie (Belmont Cameli) as the dim, big-hearted jock with a sky-high EQ (a Kelly), Devante (Dexter Darden) as the aspiring theater star who’s tired of being profiled as a football player/thug/thief/etc. before anyone even asks his name, and Lexi (Josie Totah) as the super-hot, super-mean It Girl whose recent personal experience coming out as (and becoming a reality celeb for being) trans hasn’t quite expanded her ability to empathize with anyone poorer or uglier than her. It’s a new era, friends; you get 10 half-hour episodes on a primetime streaming network, you had better achieve some significant character growth by the end of it!
As satisfying as all six teen leads’ character growth ultimately is, however, they’re not the only stars of the show. Jessie (Berkley) and Slater (Lopez) are also series regulars, each now working at Bayside in a faculty capacity, and each struggling with where they’ve ended up in their personal lives. As the progressive heart of the original series, Jessie is the most obvious character to bring in as the bridge between the two eras—a fact Slater himself points out in the finale, as he marvels at the fact that their students are part of a generation that’s full of Jessies, and apologizes for being such a misogynist spoilsport back in the day instead of jumping up to protest alongside her—but it’s nice to have both of them there, finding their footing as adults together. Conversely, Zack and Kelly showing up mostly in the occasional flashy cameo works both from a meta perspective—once we’re satisfied they’re still together, no one actually wants to see them tell each other how hot they are, episode after episode—and a narrative one, as their self-involved, absentee parenting style has found Mack teetering on the edge of sociopathy. Lisa’s cameo is smaller still, but it’s delightful enough that you really don’t want to be spoiled for it when it comes.
Perhaps the greatest coup for the adult side of the series, though, is the casting of John Michael Higgins as Belding’s successor, Principal Ron Toddman, whose slapstick meekness in the face of a PTA held together by pilates and white lady entitlement is matched only by his genuinely fierce (if fiercely uncool) desire to fight for the kids in his care, a desire that really starts blossoming the moment Daisy and her fellow Douglas High students walk through his doors. Playing both sides of that coin convincingly is a real trick, but readers will not be surprised to hear that Higgins not only pulls it off, but makes it look dead easy.
For all that I’ve gone on about the smart casting and careful structural strategizing done by Wigfield and her team, I’ve neglected to hammer home the real selling point of this series which is, it is amazingly, absurdly funny.
It is so funny! Every joke lands, half of them in a field you had no idea was in play. And as far as delivery goes, there are no weak players. (Though Totah does stand out—almost always literally; just wait until you see her amazing outfits—as possessing a particularly keen comedic aptitude.) Genuinely, the majority of my notes are either direct transcription (“They’re not lowering the bar for me, in fact, my dad says I can be a lawyer whenever I want”), or frantic descriptions of easter eggs tucked in the background (a still from Franklin and Bash in Governor Zack’s political apology ad, say, or a victory banner that stretches so long it barely fits on the gym wall, let alone in frame). I can’t count the number of times I squawked so loud I rose half off my couch each episode, including in the final minute of the finale, which features a pitch-black joke so contextually perfect I literally stopped and rewound, just to bask in its dark clarity.
Whether Peacock will end up greenlighting a Season 2 is still up in the air, but given where the kids of Bayside+Douglas High end up at the end of this season, it sure seems like the sky’s the limit. In any case, even under Peacock’s ad-supported subscription plan, this is an absolute blast of a series to send 2020 out on—I hope you give yourself the gift this holiday season of staying home, staying safe, and catching up with the sunny weirdness of Bayside 2020.
The first season of the new Saved by the Bell premieres in full Wednesday, November 25th on Peacock.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.