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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
"Saved By The Bell" aired on Saturday mornings from 1989 to 1993, and it has become more meme than show in the years since. And now, improbably, the streaming service Peacock has brought it back as an updated single-camera comedy. Even more improbably, it's pretty good. With a mix of the old cast and a bunch of new students at Bayside High, the reboot walks a fine line between earnestness and self-parody. I'm Linda Holmes, and today we're talking about the "Saved By The Bell" reboot on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.
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HOLMES: Welcome back. Joining us from her home in Brooklyn is Kathy Tu, former host of the Nancy podcast who is now a supervising producer for New York Times Opinion Audio team. Hi, Kathy.
KATHY TU: Hi. I'm so excited for this. I'm so excited.
HOLMES: I - when I heard that you were up to talking about this, I was so thrilled.
So the most important thing to know about the "Saved By The Bell" reboot is that it was developed by Tracey Wigfield. She was a writer on "30 Rock" and "The Mindy Project." She created the very good and sadly short-lived comedy "Great News."
Here, she makes Bayside High what she's called a bubble of privilege. The adult Zack Morris is the governor of California now - believable. And in a pretty oblivious move, he shuts down a public school called Douglas that serves a lot of Black and Latinx students. And those students wind up being moved to the very white and affluent Bayside. A young woman from Douglas named Daisy Jimenez, played by Haskiri Velazquez, becomes our hero, struggling with education inequities, racist classmates and parents. And the whole thing somehow still has an air of absurdity that feels very "Saved By The Bell."
Old cast members who are back include Elizabeth Berkley Lauren as Jessie, Mario Lopez as Slater. They both work at Bayside now. She's the guidance counselor. He's a PE teacher and coach. And less often, you see Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Zack and Tiffani Thiessen as Kelly.
HOLMES: Did you watch "Saved By The Bell" when it was a Saturday morning show on NBC?
TU: Oh, Linda, did I?
TU: It was the first show that I watched when I first moved to the United States from Taiwan. So I started watching "Saved By The Bell" before I even understood English.
TU: For a while, I thought the show was called Zack because Zack was said all the time. I watched all the episodes, and then I went back. Somehow during reruns, I'm sure I saw, also, the "Bliss" years with Hayley Mills.
TU: And then I also loved "The College Years." But I could not move forward with the new class 'cause it didn't have any of the old characters. I just couldn't do it.
HOLMES: No. Yeah, you know, I was a little bit - so this was '89 - like I said, '89 to '93. So I was a little old for it 'cause I was in high school when this started. And I always felt like it was a show about high school for kids younger than high school, right?
HOLMES: So this show to me - what did you think of it?
TU: I really liked it, and I'm shocked 'cause I went in with very low standards - very low.
HOLMES: Yeah, me, too. And me, too.
TU: When you hear the summary of, like, where everybody is - Zack Morris is governor - I was like, this is not going to go well. But it was actually very enjoyable. They really poked fun at Bayside in a way that I don't think I realized as I was watching as a kid but definitely thought of as an adult. Like, this place is probably very, very wealthy. Everybody is white. I don't know that this actually relates to my life at all, but I loved it at the time, so - I don't know - I guess I will give it a try now and see how it goes. And it was really, really lovely.
HOLMES: It was. I think - like, for me, it was such an interesting take for Tracey Wigfield and the rest of the writers. And she's got a really good writing staff on this show, including, I noticed, Shantira Jackson, who has written for Busy Philipps on her late-night show and some other wonderful things. She's got a really good writing staff.
And they start essentially - because you start with Zack as governor, the founding principle of this show is basically that the hero of the old show is actually like a completely toxic presence. That kind of incredibly privileged, gets-away-with-everything white dude is not cute. That's actually really dangerous and toxic and racist. And it's such a tricky place to start because then you think, well, is this going to just be an evisceration of the original show?
HOLMES: Is it going to leave any space for people to have any fondness for this show? But it totally does. Like, it is filled with little nods to, I would say, both, like, really warm feelings about characters like Slater and Jessie, trying to give them kind of a place to go, and then also just all these little jokes about the caffeine pills and the "Barbara Ann" dance and all these kind of, like, little things that you just go, oh, that's so cute.
HOLMES: So it leaves space to still love the show while acknowledging, as you said, Bayside is not good (laughter).
TU: I find it so interesting because I, like I said, I moved to the United States, started watching the show before I even knew English. And so I took from the original "Saved By The Bell," like, this is how American kids are supposed to act and live. And that's where I learned about a long locker, and I was very disappointed when I got to high school and I did not have, like, a very large locker.
And now watching this new one, I feel like I'm doing the same thing again with kids in high school. And what are kids like now? Are they all, like - do they all talk about their feelings? Do they all have more access to all of this information? Are all textbooks really on iPads now? Like, I feel like I'm doing - I'm using the show in the very same way I used to.
TU: But it does seem like it's properly updated for 2020, which I really have enjoyed.
HOLMES: I also really think that the use of the younger cast, or the new students - I really liked how their lives are based in at least some sense of reality - right? - because if you had asked me what would be the first network show that I saw that really went in on sort of the continuing segregation of schools and the way that white parents continue to defend the segregation of schools...
HOLMES: ...If you had told me it would be the "Saved By The Bell" reboot, I would've been like, really? But not only - as I mentioned, you know, earlier, Haskiri Velazquez, who plays Daisy, I think is wonderful. There is a performance from Josie Totah as this girl named Lexi, who is kind of...
TU: Oh, my God.
HOLMES: She sort of starts off as the blonde, rich, mean girl who you would imagine in a lot of high school shows. And then gradually, she becomes really different from that. She becomes a much more well-rounded character. And she is so funny. I think she is so funny.
TU: She's so good. And it's such...
HOLMES: She is so good.
TU: It's such a good storyline. Lexi is a trans character, but they don't dwell on it. It was barely mentioned in the first episode. And later on, you find out she has, like, an E! Hollywood special about...
TU: ...Coming out.
TU: And just the way it was done, it was not overwrought. I just found it so refreshing.
HOLMES: I think the performance is great. But I also think - the thing about Tracey Wigfield - because she comes out of "30 Rock," she's got that feel for, like, the sort of meta-absurdism of "30 Rock" that manages to be really silly. But she also brings to this a kind of - if you're going to do "Saved By The Bell," you have to have some space for some actual earnest feelings 'cause that's a big part of what the show was. So you also get, I think, a lot of these really - you know, not corny in the same way original "Saved By The Bell" was, but, like, some really heartfelt stuff between some of these people.
TU: Yeah. Did you get a feeling of "Glee"? I kind of felt like it was very "Glee"-like in the first episode.
HOLMES: That's a good comparison. Yeah, that's a good comparison.
I also thought a lot about - I hesitate always to chalk things up to luck 'cause I don't want to take anything away from the skill that people have. But it also seems like Tracey Wigfield's style also matched up with the capabilities of the older members of the cast - like, the original cast. I think the stuff she writes for, like, Slater and Jessie is, like - it's funny. It's really - like, I was delighted to see Elizabeth Berkley, who has had really been made fun of for "Showgirls" and lots of other stuff - she's in this, and I think she's pretty funny - like, not all the time...
HOLMES: ...But, like, she's got some really nice moments in this. I think that Mario Lopez has some really nice moments in this. And you sort of have this - it is a really tough tonal balance.
TU: It is. I completely agree. I really, really liked the way the older cast members were using the show. They were clearly themselves, but not - they weren't really playing their original, like, cartoonish characters that they used to be.
HOLMES: Right, right.
TU: And it's really nice. I remember there's this one scene where (laughter) Slater is trying to give advice to Mac, son of Zack Morris, and Jamie Spano, Jessie's son. And Slater's love advice ended up being about both Mac and Jamie's parents, which is weird.
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MARIO LOPEZ: (As A.C. Slater) When I was in high school, I constantly used to fight with my best friend over a hot girl. Oh, it was actually your dad - over your mom. Anyway, look; then I just found another girl that I really liked and started hooking up with her instead. Wait; that was your mom.
HOLMES: There are a bunch of places where I think they try to revisit some of the things that were not great about Bayside in the original. They do talk about the incredible rich kid stuff. There's a whole tone of kind of getting at how the ain't he a stinker (ph) kind of feel of Zack Morris, that he gets away with everything, that he never gets in trouble, but nobody ever does anything, that that's, like, a deeply raced thing to happen to a kid in high school if you imagine that to be a real kid, right?
HOLMES: But also there's a really specific discussion at one point about the dynamic between Slater and Jessie that they had when they were in high school, that she was this, like, very earnest, dedicated activist and that he was always sort of telling her, like, just be cool, chill, calm down and that was supposed to be this kind of cool - like, kind of - like, that, you know, she was uptight and needed him to loosen her up or whatever. There's sort of an unmasking, I think, of that as pretty toxic and gross. And yet all of the stuff that is so interesting takes place in the context of this show that I also thought was really funny. John Michael Higgins plays the principal. He is...
TU: So good.
HOLMES: ...Always so good.
TU: Always good (laughter).
HOLMES: Always so good.
TU: He's (laughter) always so good. He is - you know, Mr. Belding is such an iconic character. And to have somebody follow up in that role not as Mr. Belding, as this new principal, he is just such a good principal. He shows his - that he's both a little bit inept but also just - so much cares about the kids.
TU: So I thought that was such a great casting.
HOLMES: I just was not - I was not expecting this.
HOLMES: It's really nice to be pleasantly surprised. I just wasn't expecting it.
TU: Yeah. And one other thing that I was also very surprised by was, you know, the original show made heavy use of this timeout feature, that Zack Morris would timeout and speak to the audience. And every time that's ever been used on television, I've kind of rolled my eyes at it. This time, I didn't mind it at all. Sometimes - Daisy's the character now who does the timeout. Sometimes, she times out just to give the audience a look, which - I was having the same feeling, so I appreciated, like, a wink in that way. And so I thought, this is nice. We're not timing out to, like, explain a whole plotline. We're timing out to really, like, check in with us and, like, really connect with the audience. So I appreciate that.
One thing I don't know that I appreciated, though, I just - I think it's because it's just so iconic. I just don't know if I can love the new theme.
HOLMES: Oh, yeah.
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LIL YACHTY: (Singing) When I wake up in the morning, the alarm gives out a warning and I don't think I'll ever make it on time. By the time I grab my books and I give myself a look, I'm at the corner just in time. It's all right. It's all right. Saved by the bell.
TU: I tried - I listened through it every single time just to be like maybe it's a repetition thing. I just got to keep listening to it.
TU: I don't know if I'm there.
HOLMES: There are a lot of things that kind of - you wait the whole time and you think, oh, is this going to show up? Is that going to show up? And you get Max and you get the theme and you get the cameo from Lark Voorhies as Lisa Turtle. She's not in this very much, but she does have a cameo. And you never get basically anything about Screech. They don't want to talk about it. They don't want to talk about the character. They don't want to remind you that he's not in it. They just want to not talk about it.
TU: (Laughter) Yeah.
HOLMES: But other than that, I do feel like most of the stuff kind of comes back. There are little jokes that are - you know, I think you wouldn't care about if you didn't care about the original show. But if you did watch the original show, you see that go by and you're like, aha, that's funny.
HOLMES: It's sort of harmless - like, oh, yeah, Tori, uh-huh, yeah.
TU: Yeah, I really like that they didn't draw very specific lines between old cast members and new cast members. Like, there wasn't a very clear Zack Morris. I mean, we know who it's supposed to be, but he's not actually our protagonist. So I really liked that. I thought it was a really smart way to introduce a whole new audience to the show.
HOLMES: Yeah. And I also do want to mention Alycia Pascual-Pena, who plays Aisha, who's Daisy's best friend. I also think she is just dynamite in this - really fun, funny, charismatic, terrific performance. Everybody's really good. And I think they - Dexter Darden, who plays Devante, I really liked - loves musicals, which is a fun and funny bit. I just think they got a lot of things right in this show.
TU: They really did.
HOLMES: It's so funny to me because I was, like I said, not expecting it. All right. Well, we want to know what you think about the new "Saved By The Bell." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pcch. That brings us to the end of our show. Kathy, there is nobody that I would like to talk about this show with more than you. So thank you for being here.
TU: Of course. Always, always a pleasure.
HOLMES: And thank you for listening. If you'd like to support the work we do at POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR and NPR, donate to your local member station at donate.npr.org/happy. Again, that's donate.npr.org/happy. We will see you all tomorrow.
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