The best TV reboots are the ones that build on what fans loved about the original while also evolving in a way that makes them feel new and of-the-moment, and the Peacock return of Saved by the Bell does just that. Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) is now the California governor who decides to send students from underfunded schools to mix and mingle with the privileged students of Bayside. That dose of reality is not only a handful for the teenagers, including his own son (Mitchell Hoog), but also Principal Toddman (John Michael Higgins), athletic director A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez), and guidance counselor Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley).
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Berkley opens up about figuring out the right way to bring Saved by the Bell back, getting involved as a producer, how surreal it was to return to the familiar halls of Bayside High, and exploring the evolution of the Jessie-Slater dynamic. She also talked about how her experience making Showgirls and the initial reaction to the film affected so many different aspects of her life, and how that led to the creation of a self-esteem program that she runs for young women.
COLLIDER: It’s so good to have this show back, and I love how fun it is.
ELIZABETH BERKLEY: Well, I love hearing that. That was, for sure, our intention. We all need some fun and joy right now, more than ever. Of course, we could never have known that the timing of this could bring such joy, when you were first deciding to go for it and do it, but I’m grateful to be a part of something that gets to do that right now.
What was your initial reaction when you first found out that this could happen? Were you immediately all in, or were you hesitant about what it could do to the memory of what you had already done?
BERKLEY: That’s such a good question. The fact that you asked that is so perfect because, of course, if we were gonna do it, it was about how would we do it? The "how" was everything. There were a couple of takes on it that we heard, that just didn’t feel right. But honestly, the minute we sat down with (co-creator) Tracey [Wigfield] and the executives from Universal, and we started to hear her idea and take on it, I just was all in. First of all, she grew up loving it and watching it herself. When you began from that place of reverence for a project and what it meant to her childhood, as well, coming from that place of love, I just knew that with her skill and talent and all of that in her heart, that combo just felt right. I couldn’t be more grateful that it was her.
There are a lot of reboots, remakes, and reimaginings, and when they really succeed is when it evolves. When you try to recreate exactly what a show used to be without evolving, in some way, when you run into a problem. And even though the sets look the same and you have so many of the same people there, it still feels like this show has evolved.
BERKLEY: Right. And we wouldn’t have wanted to do something that was the same because we have evolved. We were children when we did the show, truly. We didn’t even have our driver’s licenses yet, when we played these roles. So, as we’ve evolved as human beings, and we’re now women and men who have families, children and all of that, we wanted to reflect, in a comedic way, of course, where our characters would have grown into.
Then, of course, we’re introducing this new, exciting cast, as well. For me, as a producer, it was a really exciting part of the journey and it was important to me, to be a part of every step of the casting. I was so invested in that. I’m in so many other aspects, creatively, but that piece, for me, was important. I was at every session and watched every link. I was with people for their chemistry reads. That was really exciting. We have a couple of people who are super seasoned in the industry, but most of the cast is fresh and new. Even the two kids that have worked so much, Josie [Totah] is an extraordinary talent and this role was a really unique role for her and a real moment, and Dexter [Darden] has done a lot of film and television, but it felt new for all of us. Even though it’s a legacy show and has been in pop culture, all of these years, and really met so many different generations, with this new reimagining, we all felt like we were making something new, but celebrating something that we have all known, and of course, for us in the OG core, we have lived with, all of these years.
Did it still feel surreal, shooting the first episode, being on these sets, and seeing this new cast that, but then also seeing familiar faces? What that just totally bizarre?
BERKLEY: Yes. I can’t even tell you. Luckily, we have such a strong bond from the original group, where we are still a part of each other’s lives. I think it would have been even more surreal, if I hadn’t seen them for years and hadn’t been in touch, and suddenly here we are as grownups. Tiffani [Thiessen] and I are both mommies and we share wisdom and advice, and we have each other’s backs as women. Mario [Lopez] has been like a brother to me, and Mark-Paul [Gosselaar], as well. These are really rich, deep relationships in my current life, as well. But the most surreal is suddenly these faces that I have known and loved all these years, there were moments of sitting in The Max in our booth, where it was like, “What are we doing here, calling each other by our character names?” That was one of the most surreal moments. Some moments would catch me off guard. Because we’re a single-camera comedy show, it has a different tone, which goes back to your original great statement of just not wanting to do the same. Our tone is edgier, but it does still embed, in the DNA of the show, what people did love it. Of course, it can’t be that same earnest Saturday morning thing, but we wouldn’t want it to be.
People are responding to it and loving this fresh take on it that is relevant to today, but still gives you the comfort and nostalgia, and a whole bunch of Easter eggs. But once in a while, because it’s single-camera and not just the traditional sitcom where you just have a piece of the room on the set, this was a full, dimensional set, where you really felt like you were in high school, or we really filmed in Jessie’s home or on the football field. What was wild was that sometimes I would turn the corner from Jessie’s office, where she’s a guidance counselor, to go back to my dressing room, and I would have to walk through the iconic hallway with the red lockers and stairs that go up and I’d be like, “Wait, where am I right now? What year is this?” Those moments were fun. They would catch me off guard. Those were the moments that were surreal, and totally full circle, and amazing. We all could never have known that, when we wrapped when we were 19 years old, hat we’d revisit these characters again, at this point of life. It’s really exciting.
This was also a show that was pretty well known for its relationships. What do you most enjoy about what the Jessie and Slater relationship has evolved into since then? What have you found fun about exploring them now?
BERKLEY: Mario is so funny and Slater is just hysterical, in terms of where he’s at. He hasn’t found love. He’s the athletic director, but he has changed. Slater is more sensitive. He will cry on a dime. What I love about Tracey’s writing is that it’s not heavy-handed, in terms of explaining all that has happened from the time we last saw them until now. It just comes out in really human moments, so that you can feel how they’ve evolved rather than having the facts laid out. It’s really pretty seamless, in the way that she does it. He’s a role model to Jamie Spano, who’s a student there, and he’s played by Belmont Cameli, who’s so talented. There is still this dynamic and banter that they share that is just at the core of their connection. Despite the fact that Jessie is married and Slater’s not a homewrecker, her own personal life is an absolute mess with her husband, so she’s a helicopter mom. She has her Ph.D. and she’s a parenting expert with best-selling books, but it’s caught her by surprise that there is still this twinkle and this chemistry. You can’t force that kind of thing. It’s just either there or it’s not.
We’ll have to see what happens, but it’s still fun. The show so beautifully addresses issues that are essential, whether it be socioeconomic differences, privilege, or diversity, with our new cast and the world that we discuss, and at the core, there are these really beautiful moments, like the scene where Slater says to Jessie, and I’m paraphrasing, “I’m sorry, I didn’t have your back. When you were out there fighting, you were fighting alone. And now, there’s a whole new world of Jessies.” And that’s really telling about our culture, as well. At the time, Jessie was ahead of her time, as a character on television, to be advocating for her beliefs and using her voice in the way that she did. Now, I’m happy and proud to say that in this new young generation, it’s a given.
People have loved Saved by the Bell since it came out, but another project you were involved in, Showgirls, has been re-evaluated and appreciated in a way that it wasn’t originally. There’s love for it now that’s changed the perception of that film. How have your own feelings and your own perception of Showgirls changed over the years? Do you feel very different about it at this point in your life?
BERKLEY: Wow. First of all, thank you for these thoughtful questions. I just love having this type of dialogue because oftentimes journalists will assume or think they’ve figured out how someone feels, and you’re actually asking me to reflect upon that and I appreciate that. There’s a distinction between my personal journey around it, which has nothing to do with a film, and everything to do with how I was forced to grow or how I chose to grow from what was handed to me, at that time, not as a victim, but as someone who had to navigate a very hard time, which was highly controversial and there was a lot of blame. For me, right now, I can speak of it with distance and not just as a young woman who was doing a film and delivering what was asked of her as a professional. It was a different time in our culture in 1995. I don’t know if that would’ve been met with the same harsh criticism now. I really don’t know. I’m curious about what you think.
So, in terms of my evaluation of the film itself, I’m extremely appreciative that this movie that people blasted with such cruelty, it’s so interesting and fascinating how academics have written papers about this film and its effect on pop culture. I’m blown away by the appreciation of the film and I love that it’s become a cult classic. Like I said about Saved by the Bell and how we could never have known that we were gonna be back here in the Bayside hallway, I could never have known in that more painful moment upon its release, that it would be truly celebrated and held up as this iconic cult classic. That blows me away. I’m extremely appreciative. The gay community, especially, has embraced it in a way that’s so beautiful.
Through the years, I had been asked to host a screening or speak before a screening, and it wasn’t really interesting to me to do that. But the day that gay marriage became legal here, there happened to be a screening for 4,000 to 5,000 people at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, of all places, and I decided spontaneously come and give a speech because I felt such gratitude and I wanted to celebrate that momentous occasion for the community. I know that they were largely responsible for the love, so it was a really special night.
It’s been a journey. I have no regrets. I just wish it had been a little bit easier, at the time, but we all go through highs and lows. We all go through things. Mine just happened to be very public. As a very, very, very young woman, I had to learn things that were maybe harsh or hard, but I overcame them and came out better and stronger, on every level, but that was my choice and my own personal growth, at the time. It affected my creative decisions, as an artist, from that point, in terms of who I wanted to align with, whether it be doing Broadway and London theater with the very best directors and actors in the industry to all different platforms.
Navigating between stage, film, and TV has been really exciting for me. I could never have known that experience would also be the catalyst, many years later, even though I might not have been conscious about it at that time, that led me to create a self-esteem program in 2006 that I provide as a volunteer in middle schools and high schools to over a hundred thousand girls called Ask Elizabeth. We have a New York Times best-selling book. I really wanted to give girls a safe space to feel heard and that they’re not alone in navigating the teen girl experience, which is quite profound. It’s a very interactive workshop, so it’s not me standing at a podium, telling them how to run their lives. It’s to give them a community to hear from each other and to use their voices to be a service to each other.
Saved by the Bell is available to stream at Peacock.
The new look into the plot teases that the film is more complex than The Riddler vs. Batman.
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