Makeup Work: Yes, the New ‘Saved by the Bell’ Is Really, Really Good

Showrunner Tracey Wigfield gently spoofs the beloved original while crafting a vital, ebullient new take on high school series that features a diamond-hard and glittering performance from Josie Totah.

Welcome to Makeup Work, where we tell you what LGBTQ+ series or film you should be watching instead of whatever threadbare season of RuPaul’s Drag Race is currently airing. This week, it’s the new Saved by the Bell, just renewed for Season 2 on Peacock.

Peacock’s revival of Saved by the Bell couldn’t have premiered at a worse time. Once it started streaming in fall 2020, the last thing audiences wanted was a throwback to the cream cheese of the ’90s original. What could a retread of a series about privileged Californian teens possibly have to say?

Well, a lot, actually, because this Saved by the Bell is clear-eyed about its origins and deserves a much bigger audience

Yes, Elizabeth Berkley and Mario Lopez are back, reprising their roles as Jessie Spano and A.C. Slater. Jessie is now married with a son, working as the Bayside guidance counselor; Slater is beginning to think that his life as a single high school gym teacher may not be as awesome as he thought. And yes, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Tiffani Thiessen, and Lark Voorhies all show up at various points.

However, what showrunner Tracey Wigfield has in mind is something much friskier and riskier than spoon-fed nostalgia. The Max remains untouched, but Bayside itself is forced to welcome working-class students from a recently closed high school. The current students greet them with a bemused shrug—they take a bus?—and the newbies are both awed and exasperated by the wasteful wealth by which they’re now surrounded.

The series smartly never veers into a battle between the haves and have nots. Narrator Daisy (Haskiri Velazquez) is capable of thoughtlessness just as much as Zach Morris’ son, Mac (Mitchell Hoog). Slater tries to connect with the new students and finds himself called out for engaging in white savior tropes—though Devante (Dexter Darden) gives him a pass since he’s Latinx.

But it’s in the treatment of  Lexi Haddad-DeFabrizio (Josie Totah, also crushing it on the most recent season of Big Mouth) that the series soars. Sharp-tongued, short-skirted, and aghast at bad taste, Lexi is one of the few trans characters on TV who is allowed to have a vibrant inner life that doesn’t revolve around her “otherness.” There is no attempt to indulge in even the slightest Very Special Episode attitude towards her or her place in high school, providing a vision of what life could be that’s similar to the one Dan Levy crafted for Schitt’s Creek. Lexi is trans and, other than the reality series she filmed about it before SBTB begins, that’s just a casually accepted fact among her peers. Most vitally, it’s not treated as an impediment to a possible relationship with her friend, Jessie’s son Jamie (Belmont Cameli). Instead, it’s her previous casual cruelty that makes Jamie hesitant.

“Representation matters” has become a popular mantra in the last few years, but too often it results in a checklist. Representation does matter, but how a character is represented matters just as much. And by upending every trope in the genre, Wigfield and the writers prove that Saved by the Bell matters, too.

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