Saved by the Bell's executive producer, Peter Engel, spent his entire career working on network shows, at a time when there were really only a few major networks for people to tune into. Sitting in his house in Santa Monica, California, overlooking the beach, Engel said that as he reflects on his most famous show, he finds himself yearning for a time before premium networks and streaming became the go-to options for audiences.
"Those were simpler times," Engel told Polygon during a phone interview. "They were gentler times. The ‘90s were a more peaceful time than what we have right now, and I’m not sure those characters could exist today.
"I mean, I personally wouldn’t try to do anything with the series."
Even so, Engel is aware of what the television landscape looks like today, with reboots and revivals dominating every corner. One of the most anticipated shows on Netflix is the Gilmore Girls revival, while one of the most successful television shows on the air right now is Westworld, an adaptation of a film from 1973. On the networks, shows like The Exorcist, Lethal Weapon and MacGyver have all been ordered not necessarily because they’re groundbreaking, but because they already have an audience built in — or so the network hopes.
When asked if he thought a streaming service like Netflix or Hulu could pick up the rights to Saved by the Bell and do something with it, Engel said it was a possibility.
"It could happen on something like Netflix," he said. "I don’t think it’ll happen with the original cast like the Full House thing, but a reboot? It’s a possibility."
Engel reiterated that even if Netflix or Hulu — or any other content provider, for that matter — decided to pick the show up, he doesn’t have any plans to do anything with it. Polygon has reached out to Netflix for comment. He added that even though networks often get criticized for their overuse of reboots and revivals, he understands why there's still an audience for it. Especially, Engel said, for shows like Full House or Gilmore Girls.
"There’s a certain appeal at looking back to a gentler time where things seemed less complicated," he said. "It’s why, even now, we watch the shows we grew up with. They were on during a very special time in our lives, our formative years, and it’s why we remember those shows as fondly as we do."
"A reboot? It’s a possibility"
Saved by the Bell, which followed a group of teenagers through their time at high school, aired during a time when teenage shows were finding their footing. Around the same time, shows like Boy Meets World and Beverly Hills, 90210 were also airing, and teenage stories were given more attention than they had previously. With Saved by the Bell and 90210, comedy was mixed with drama and the teenage genre was born. Without it, shows like The OC, Gossip Girl, Dawson's Creek and One Tree Hill might not have happened.
Looking back on Saved by the Bell, Engel was struck by how much the students participated in school and in each other's lives.. As the producer said, "they were doing everything, involved in everything," adding that he couldn’t see it resonating with most audiences today. Instead, shows that focus heavily on teenagers, from Pretty Little Liars to Scream, use technology, like social media and texting, to show how they communicate.
"Those characters that we wrote, the way that they behaved, I don’t think you could have that on television right now," Engel said. "But I think that’s why people keep coming back to watch it, because they’re not getting that but they want it."
This line of thinking is simply referred to as the "Friends Conundrum." Earlier this year, Netflix made all 10 seasons of Friends available for subscribers. Although Netflix is famous for not releasing viewership numbers, the company said it was pleased with the level of conversation the show had generated — especially among teenagers. Even Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman told Vulture that she believes the reason the show was still popular with teens is because it features friends actually getting together and hanging out, not distracted by the phone sitting in their lap.
"And another part of it is because they’re on social media all the time, so I believe they crave human contact," Kauffman said. "They crave intimacy, and intimate relationships. They’re looking at screens all the time."
Engel agreed with Kauffman, and said that when he returns to old episodes of Saved by the Bell, he finds himself amazed by how innocent it seemed. A part of that, he added, is that personal technology was only just beginning to become a thing in the early '90s, especially with that particular age group. One of the most groundbreaking decisions Engel and the rest of the team made was giving Zack Morris his iconic cellphone — an image that feels like a relic from the past in today’s digital age.
"We were one of the first TV shows to use a cellphone," Engel said. "That was a big deal back then! We gave Zack a phone and I remember people talking about that for a long time. Now, it seems like everything is changing. Technology just exists, so of course it would be incorporated."
Even with the television landscape changing, from the way characters are designed to the type of shows that people are watching, Engel is optimistic about where it’s headed. Echoing critics and network executives, Engel believes television is in another golden period, and although it can feel cluttered at times, having more niche markets available means there’s a better chance for a show to be picked up. At the end of the day, Engel added, all anyone wants out of television is a great show.
"Saved by the Bell was fantastic, it really was," he said. "And I’m not just saying that because I was a part of it. We did something that very few were doing. And there are people doing that today, on regular networks, through Netflix and even YouTube.
"If you have a great show, no matter where it is, people will find it and they will watch it. That’s never going to change."