The first full-length trailer for the Saved by the Bell reboot dropped this week and I was surprised by how completely unenthusiastic I was about it.
It should have been pop culture catnip—I’m the right demographic, loved the original series (I literally felt sad that my actual university experience did not mirror Saved by the Bell: The College Years and yes, I am embarrassed about that now) and I still have strong opinions about a lot of TV shows that I used to watch, from Fresh Prince to Dark Angel.
Instead, all I could think was, ‘Ugh, no more.’
So: please join me as I attempt to figure out why this nostalgic TV remake is the one I can’t get on board with.
“Friends Forever”? Uh, kind of
First: a little background info. The reboot is a direct sequel to Saved by the Bell and Saved by the Bell: The College Years and a lot of the OG cast has returned. Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) is now California’s governor, and he and Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani Thiessen) have a high school-aged son who’s basically his clone. A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez) is the gym teacher at Bayside High who, let’s be honest, peaked in high school. Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley) is still progressive and politically aware—though (at least in the trailer) it’s not being played for laughs anymore, so that’s cool. Lisa Turtle’s even back, which is nice to see, since actor Lark Voorhies has spoken about feeling excluded from both this project and the friendship shared by some of her former castmates. The only one who doesn’t seem to be in the show is Dustin Diamond, who played Screech. (Possibly this is because of his 2009 tell-all book, which for sure pissed all of these people off?)
But these grown adults are not meant to be the heart of the show—in fact, Gosselaar has only signed on to appear in three episodes. Instead, it’s about a group of working-class kids who have been transferred to Bayside thanks to Governor Morris, who’s trying to distract voters from remembering the number of low-income schools he closed in the state. As these “less privileged” kids interact with the overprivileged offspring of Morris et al., they teach them (I’m guessing here) to recognize the advantages they enjoy and value the Little Things in Life™.
It… doesn’t look great.
The reboot is trying to be relevant for 2020
Still, I get why it’s being made: Nostalgia sells. It’s what helped propel Pokémon Go to most-downloaded app status. It’s why bike shorts became a thing again 🤷🏽♀. And when other companies have tried to capitalize on our thirst for content that reminds us of more innocent times, it’s more than paid off—shows like Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life and Fuller House have done well for Netflix, despite also being kind of awful.
Not that the producers are trying to make a period piece; they have clearly tried to update Saved by the Bell for 2020. In the original, Lopez and Voorhies landed roles that were originally meant to be played by white actors, but the show rarely touched on their ethnicities after that. There also wasn’t a ton of diversity when it came to other identities—all the main characters were cisgender, straight and able-bodied.
The new crop of Bayside students, on the other hand, is more ethnically diverse, and far more aware of intersectionality than their predecessors. And the series lead, the popular but evil Lexi, is played by trans actor Josie Totah, who’s spoken about what it means to have this type of representation on screen: “[Lexi is] in theater, evil and the most popular girl in school—she just happens to be transgender… I can’t wait for people to see themselves on screen in that way.”
Zack Morris is trash
But progressive casting can only go so far. Like… you can’t just hand-wave away the entire character of Zack Morris. I mean, there are listicles and an entire video series devoted to breaking down the most problematic things the character has done, from run-of-the-mill manipulation to racism, sexism, sexual harassment, general cruelty and unapologetic apathy. For example, that incredibly racist time that Morris gave a presentation about his “Native American ancestry,” which Gosselaar has since apologized for. Or the time he made a wheelchair user feel bad about her disability. Also, the sexual harassment!!!!
All of which is relevant now because conceptually, I don’t think there’s a Saved by the Bell without Zack Morris. I mean, there was, technically. Saved by the Bell: The New Class ran for seven seasons—three more than the original—but had nowhere near the same cultural impact. That’s why, even before Gosselaar was involved, the reboot depended on the spectre of Morris to ground the narrative. It also matters because, now that he actually is appearing, it’s as a version of the character who seems mostly unchanged. If you’re not going to write a Zack Morris who has outgrown his selfish and sometimes sociopathic behaviour, then you have to own the fact that he’s a villain. (And that Kelly Kapowski is complicit.) Of course, that doesn’t seem to be happening. The trailer positions his manipulation, privilege and self-involvement as a joke, just like the show always has.
Nostalgia can only accomplish so much
Maybe I’m being particularly hard on this reboot because of nostalgia fatigue. The 90s have been trending for a minute, and it’s entirely possible that I have consumed as much content inspired by—and aesthetically resembling—that time as I can reasonably handle.
It’s not like I’ve hated all remakes, reboots and reimagined versions of shows I loved as a kid or teenager. This year’s The Baby Sitter’s Club series was a delight that was comforting and felt true to the beloved source material while still delving into “issues” like gender, race, class, caregiving and growing up. But I don’t have a lot of interest in the dozens of remakes that are in the works right now, not even the dark takes on Fresh Prince and Clueless, and I wonder if that has something to do with the way nostalgia functions right now.
As I was thinking about this week’s newsletter, I came across a Facebook post from a woman who recently watched Office Space for the first time in ages and was “struck by how innocent it seemed.” The movie came out in February 1999, before 9/11, George W. Bush and Columbine, and she says “the vapidness of the movie seems particularly off the moment.” Well, the original Saved by the Bell’s vapidness was also of its moment, and I don’t know if I’m yearning for more vapidness right now.
Of course I have fond memories of watching the original show—I know it wasn’t very good, but I still think of it as charming and fun. Which is exactly what nostalgia does. We’re never really remembering the show itself, or at least, not just the show. It’s as much about remembering what else was going on when it aired—and for many of us Old Millennials, that was after-school TV and going out to play with friends and homework being our biggest worry.
But as we reminisce about an era that felt more simple to us, we run the risk of actually believing that’s what the the early 90s were like. They only feel like a more innocent time in the context of our 24/7, social media-driven, doomscrolling-friendly news cycle; they weren’t really. We were just more innocent. All the inequality we have now existed then, and was accepted more readily. Just about every marginalized group had far fewer rights than they do now. And there really was a lot of sexual harassment. And as soon as I remember all of that, it’s hard to buy into the need to revisit a cheesy 90s sitcom that centres a manipulative, privileged white dude, even when he’s not on camera.
Also, I don’t mean to sound like a cranky old lady, but I wish studios would stop messing with things that served their purpose already and make some new stories. Though… proving that hope springs eternal (or that I’m a hypocrite), I’m super excited for Selena: The Series, so I guess I’m also part of the problem 🤦🏽♀
Join Us Tonight to Discuss Blood Quantum!
We’ll be digging into Jeff Barnaby’s Indigenous zombie movie on IG Live tonight at 7pm ET, but don’t worry—you still have time to stream it! Find links, discussion questions and further reading on fridaythings.com, and be sure to follow Friday on Instagram.
And Did You Hear About…
The Guardian’s profile of former Hollywood heartthrob Josh Hartnett.
Vox’s laundry explainer. (As in, why it never gets less annoying, not how to do it.)
Jezebel’s annual scary story contest 🎃🧟♀👻
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