The Special Shelf: Saved by the Bell

There’s a certain subset of Generation X queer folk who came to Saved By the Bell via Showgirls. They were a bit too old for the series during its initial run, but conscious of camp and cinematic controversy and all too aware of how shocking it was that Jessie Spano was getting into it in a Paul Verhoeven film. It was as if the universe was beckoning back from the glitz and tacky flash to this hacky sitcom meant to keep vaudeville wit and classic TV aesthetics alive in the minds of younger generations already being drawn toward cable, “the MTV rock video games,” and eventually the Internet. And late 1995, early ‘96, the Turner networks ran blocks of the original Saved By The Bell that seemed to lurk, ready to appear on a TV whenever someone turned one on after class, or stumbling back from some late night shenanigans.

And just as that Jessie Spano/Nomi Malone continuum defined the Saved By The Bell journey at that time, twenty-five-plus years on, in a world that is both somewhat more evolved when it comes to addressing issues of sexuality and yet even more bent on self-destruction via climate crisis and corporate greed, a new Saved By The Bell has emerged to step up and make the world a better place. While the original ‘90s run (including its initial Hayley Mills-featuring debut) was decently charming comedic water treading, it didn’t exactly have particularly lofty goals outside of the most basic “save planet,” “drugs no,” “quit it sexism” outlines.

This new Saved By the Bell is kind of amazing. It’s smart, both in what its writing addresses and how zippy and quotable the ten episodes of its first season are. But more than that (and this is definitely due to the presence of 30 Rock writer Tracey Wigfield in the development process), this show scratches that 30 Rock itch. 

The idea is a good one: an underfunded California school has been closed, with many of its (diverse, non-rich) students transferred to Bayside High. So in addition to the plastic adventures of the Bayside students, you have kids deconstructing it from the inside out. And most of the original cast from back in the day are here in some capacity, including emotional touchstone Jessie Spano, now a guidance counselor (but not an evil one). Like most gay men, I like to see Elizabeth Berkley successful, and I delight in having her around, helping shape the minds of the future.

Now, if you’ve made it this far, you’re wondering why this show merits an appearance in The Special Shelf (other than the presence and continued involvement of Saint Nomi Malone). And it’s because of Lexi. Played by trans actress Josie Totah, Lexi is a young trans woman navigating the modern high school experience, and she is the Jenna Maroney of the 2020s. This show’s cast is across the board funny and perceptive, and they have a great collective chemistry that keeps you watching (I watched the whole season the Sunday after the flood, on a friend’s couch, trying to keep it together). But considering the really horrifying attacks on trans kids across the country (and in the UK), there’s something really refreshing and inspiring about a mainstream show like Saved by the Bell that explores the emotional whack-a-mole of high school dating that includes LGBTQIA folk, and it’s rapturous. Give this a chance, because it will help your mood. Promise...

Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”, the exquisitely, floridly gay epic video from Lil Nas X. I have so much respect for how he brought so many issues into the discourse that simply get ignored time and time again.

Riffing on Milton’s Paradise Lost and FKA twigs’ “Cellophane,” this video had the whole world stopping and parsing the legacy of organized religion’s use of shame against queer folk, and it was delicious. It’s a text that offers up a semiotic buffet for the viewer, and it’ll be something we see reflected and refracted in interesting and provocative queer art for decades to come. Ride the pole, take the horns.

Saved By The Bell, both incarnations, streams on NBC/Universal’s Peacock app.

Lil Nas X’s “Montero” video is everywhere on the Internet. And if you’d like an Elizabeth Berkley afternoon, Showgirls is streaming/available on Cinemax, The First Wives Club is streaming/available on Showtime, and Roger Dodger is streaming on Tubi.

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