If you want to know what the Saved by the Bell revival, which debuted on NBCUniversal streaming service Peacock a few weeks ago, is like, here’s a snapshot: In the pilot episode, “Mac Morris” takes new student Daisy to the Max, a brightly colored, zigzag-laden student meeting spot that is a holdover from the original show. As he describes it, “It’s where we like to hang out after school … also, before and during.” Daisy, who transferred from a much less affluent school district, responds: “Wait, so you guys go to a sit-down restaurant every single day? Isn’t that expensive?” In short, the new show is an incredibly meta take on the original, aimed squarely at the now-grown millennials who watched it as kids. But, as the media has sometimes failed to understand, not everyone is a millennial, and not everyone is well-versed enough in Saved by the Bell that they can jump right in. For that reason, Slate decided to conduct an experiment: What would happen if a complete Saved by the Bell newbie, perhaps a person too young to have partaken in the original phenomenon, watched the new show? Would it make any sense at all to someone who didn’t understand the significance of caffeine pills in its universe? Luckily, Rachelle Hampton agreed to step into the role of Saved by the Bell virgin, with Heather Schwedel as her millennial Sherpa.
Heather Schwedel: I really wanted to discuss this show with someone who came in knowing nothing about Saved by the Bell. Before we start, how did you manage to get this far in life without learning about Zack, Slater, and the rest of the gang?
Rachelle Hampton: So the final episode of Saved by the Bell premiered about three years before I was born. I obviously knew of the show, but I don’t think I’ve ever sat through a whole episode before. Family Matters and Fresh Prince were a lot more likely to be on in my house.
Honestly I mostly became familiar with Saved by the Bell through a Tumblr page called Saved by the Bell Hooks, where Bell Hooks quotes were superimposed over Saved by the Bell screenshots.
Schwedel: Oh, my God, that’s amazing.
Hampton: It’s apparently still around.
Schwedel: So you kind of knew that it was set in a high school, had crazy fashion, but that’s about it?
Hampton: That, and that the show gave the world Mario Lopez and Mark-Paul Gosselaar.
Schwedel: Yes, though I have no idea what other things you could know the two of them for! But OK, what did you generally think of the new show? A quick summary of its premise: Some of the characters from the original show now work at Bayside High, and some of their children now attend it. But this time the audience surrogate is Daisy, a Latina and one of a group of transfer students who arrives from an underfunded, much less white school, and a lot of the show is about her adjustment to this bizarro world—both bizarro in the sense that Bayside is a place where everyone has much more money and privilege than she’s used to, and also that it’s a place ruled by TV logic that doesn’t feel like the real world. (These two things are not entirely unrelated.)
Hampton: I think the reboot is very much for people who are familiar with the original. There are enough new characters like Daisy and her friends Aisha and Devante that it doesn’t totally rely on prior knowledge. Still, a lot of the adult characters kind of went over my head. That whole intro where California Gov. Zack Morris was under fire for sucking like $10 billion out of education to fund the fossil fuel industry was surreal. It was theoretically supposed to be funny, but without knowing anything about Zack Morris it felt like a tone-deaf retread of the wholesale scrapping for parts that we’ve watched play out for the past four years. A lot of the show came off like watching a group of friends poorly recap an inside joke.
Schwedel: That’s what was so strange to me about the premise of the reboot. The logic of a lot of these revivals of old intellectual property is that entertainment executives think they’ll be able to hook in multiple generations, both the people who watched the thing as a kid and the people who are new to it. But this seems like it would be limiting its audience from the get-go. What parts confused you the most?
Hampton: My confusion was largely twofold. First, the show feels very defensive about how privileged Bayside is. I don’t really know what the criticisms of the original Saved by the Bell were, but a lot of the tension of the show seems to come from attempting to address them. I get that it’s technically a kids’ show, but I felt like I was getting preached at a lot.
Second, I just fundamentally did not understand the appeal of the adult characters like Zack or Slater or the high school counselor, Jessie. They all just seemed … incompetent? I’m assuming the incompetence is supposed to be funny because older viewers knew them as kids, but without any of that prior buy-in, it’s just watching a bunch of (self-admittedly!) privileged kids and adults get taught the errors of their privileged ways. I don’t want to come off scoldy; I’m fine watching rich people be rich people! But the show clearly isn’t.
Schwedel: Yes, I was wondering how all of it would play with you! You’re right that the original show was for kids, and I think a lot of the appeal looking back is how corny and fake it all was. It was very much a kids’ vision of what it must be like to be in high school, all school dances and ridiculous bets. I know and love Zack and Slater and Jessie because they’re these weird relics. I like the idea of trying to make a show that acknowledges all of this and tries to be self-aware about it, and I even think the show did a better job than I would have thought possible of balancing it while being actually pretty funny. But it also felt like all these layers of meta piled confusingly on top of one another.
Hampton: I mean, one of the issues of rebooting a show that was for kids is whether the reboot is for those kids who are now grown or if it’s for a new generation. And this reboot doesn’t seem to know whom exactly it’s for.
Schwedel: I’m curious what you made of the character Mac Morris.
Hampton: He felt like such a relic of an ’80s sitcom. I kept expecting a laugh track every time he made a joke, which is weird because he’s supposed to be the new generation!
Schwedel: The original Saved by the Bell had a laugh track; it was definitely the kind of show where you’d get all this audience woo!-ing if two characters kissed or even flirted. But yeah, Mac is kinda the reincarnation of Zack Morris, Mark-Paul Gosselaar on the original show. Zack was the ultimate high school popular boy who had the place wired, so smooth and cool, so Mac is supposed to both be that but also a parody of that at the same time.
Hampton: Yeah, that’s definitely the vibe I got, that he was both channeling and sending up a very specific aesthetic. I don’t think it quite landed for me. Did it work for you?
Schwedel: I actually thought he was one of the things that worked best in the new show. Zack was definitely was one of the original show’s trademarks that needed to be represented in the new show, so I feel like this is kind of a best-case-scenario new spin on that type of person. … He’s still fun to watch, but it’s understood that he’s ridiculous and he’s not the main character anymore.
Hampton: As someone who watched the original, do you feel like the reboot did a good job overall of continuing the story? And what did you think of the new characters?
Schwedel: I think Zack, Kelly, Jessie, and Slater ended up in places that are basically true to their characters, but I wish they got a chance to be funnier in the new show, Jessie and Slater especially. They have to partly serve as these sincere role model type figures in a way that ends up being kind of boring. I felt like the three new kids who transferred into Bayside also have less of a chance to be entertaining characters in their own right because they kind of have to be straight men to the over-the-top rich-kid characters.
Hampton: I feel like, based on both our criticisms, a Saved by the Bell reboot might have been better served if it had been very explicitly targeted toward adults rather than kids, rather than trying to do both. Basically, make it Friday Night Lights.
Schwedel: Did you find any of the new characters compelling?
Hampton: Honestly, not really. I only got through about four episodes of this season and don’t really have a desire to finish the rest of it. Of the three main new characters, I liked Aisha, the girl hellbent on playing for the football team, the most. But I think a lot of that is down to what you said, that they’re having to serve as straight men to over-the-top rich kid characters, so I felt like everything you learned about them was a teaching moment for Mac or Lexi (a popular girl and Bayside veteran). I did like that Lexi being trans wasn’t a big deal. I think they mention it once in passing and that’s it—as it should be!
Schwedel: Was there anything else you liked about the show?
Hampton: The clothes? Oh also, I did think that “feelings football” moment in the second episode was cute.
Schwedel: On the topic of the fashion, we’re in such a ’90s moment right now that a bunch of clothes from the original, which I always thought of as, like, the height of horrible retro acid-wash grossness, are looking better and better to me. The new show definitely takes cues from some of those old outfits.
Hampton: Yes, I remember watching shows like A Different World when I was younger and thinking, “What are they wearing?” But watching it now I’m thinking, “I want all of this?”
Schwedel: I also have to ask about the theme song. This show’s theme song has the same lyrics as the original but it’s in a different style, and to me it came off as kinda meh. Did it strike you in any way? It’s important because the original show’s theme song may have been second only to Fresh Prince’s. It was a bop.
Hampton: To be honest, I barely noticed it except to think, “Is this a part of the original show?”—which was a question I had multiple times.
Schwedel: Yes, that reminds me, I was curious if a few other things stood out to you … Daisy’s giant phone? It’s explained as her mom not wanting her to have a smartphone.
Hampton: (Wow, I’m watching the original theme and the hair is iconic, bring back ’80s teasing.) And yes, I did notice the phone moment.
Schwedel: To explain that, on the original show, Zack Morris had a giant cellphone like hers, but it wasn’t supposed to read as old—it was him being a brat who had what was then the most cutting-edge technology known to man.
Hampton: Ah, yes, I was mostly wondering how exactly her cell service even worked.
Schwedel: I also want to go back to how you even knew who Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Mario Lopez are in the first place.
Hampton: OK, so Mario Lopez has just always been around, I can’t really quite recall what exactly I watched him in besides that terrible movie Holiday in Handcuffs. Didn’t he used to host E! red carpets or something? And then I knew MPG from Thirst Aid Kit; they did a whole episode about him.
Schwedel: I was of the opinion that MPG aged pretty well, but this made me reconsider that a bit. Maybe they made him look a little bad on purpose?
Hampton: The blond hair did not do him any favors. He looks great as a brunette with a beard. Never shave, Mark-Paul.
Schwedel: We haven’t gotten to this yet, so does the name “Screech” mean anything to you?
Hampton: Not at all. Is that someone in the original?
Schwedel: Haha, yes, he was a big part of the original show as the nerd that the group both treated terribly and begrudgingly included in their clique. He has been expunged from the record I’m guessing mostly because of issues with the guy who played him, Dustin Diamond.
Hampton: I was wondering if any of the OG cast members had the heel turn that all child actors seem to. Even the name Screech is rude!
Schwedel: Thinking about whether Screech was as famous as Urkel.
Hampton: I’m biased, but I feel like Urkel was more famous.
Schwedel: I actually wish we could do polling to study this. Is it kind of interesting that the new show doesn’t have a nerd character? Daisy is nerdy, but you can’t have a character whose entire personality is nerd anymore, can you?
Hampton: Yeah, I think the nerd character is definitely a relic of the ‘90s. In most teen shows nowadays the popular kids are hot and smart.
Hampton: I know, pick one!
Schwedel: Just a little advice, new Saved by the Bell.