'Saved by the Bell': Elizabeth Berkley and Cast on How Reboot Shows 'Real' Issues of Race and Gender Identity
By Jennifer Drysdale
Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank
Elizabeth Berkley didn't take much convincing to join the Saved by the Bell reboot. As the actress revealed during Peacock's Television Critics Association summer press tour on Monday, she was "in immediately" after hearing executive producer Tracey Wigfield's vision for the series, which pays tribute to the original while addressing issues of race, gender identity and more.
"I was approached by the studio and sat down with my first meeting with Tracey Wigfield. It was to me, just a done deal on the spot. And the fact that Franco Bario also was joining forces -- he was one of our original producers," Berkley said. "Just know[ing] that this team that Tracey was putting together and her creativity, her angle on bringing this back in, but with a whole new reimagining, something really relevant for now but still maintaining and embedding things that people loved about it. Just her take on it, I was in immediately."
The original Saturday morning series ran from 1989 to 1993, starring Berkley, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Tiffani Thiessen and Mario Lopez. This new show is set back at Bayside with a new generation of teens -- one of whom is the child of Berkley's Jessie Spano. Another is the son of Gosselaar and Thiessen's characters.
Gosselaar's Zack Morris is the one behind the big shake-up that kicks off the Saved by the Bell reboot. Now governor of California, he "gets into hot water for closing too many low-income high schools and proposes they send the affected students to the highest performing schools in the state, including Bayside High. The influx of new students gives the overprivileged Bayside kids a much needed and hilarious dose of reality," per the reboot's official log line.
However, Wigfield wouldn't exactly classify the new series as a "reboot." "It's a little bit of a reimagining," she shared. "This is a single camera edgier comedy... if you never saw the show, it's just a funny comedy about high school in 2020 that I think you'll enjoy."
Playing the new crop of Bayside students are John Michael Higgins, Haskiri Velazquez, Alycia Pascual-Pena, Belmont Cameli, Dexter Darden, Mitchell Hoog and Josie Totah. During the panel, Totah noted how "getting to play a transgender role onscreen is very rare."
"I feel like never seeing myself made me never felt truly accepted by the world," she said, adding she saw "zero representation" of trans characters onscreen while growing up. One of the things Totah enjoys so much about her character on Saved by the Bell is that her being trans isn't "everything about her identity."
"My character is so many things. She's in theater, she's evil... she's the popular girl in school. I can't wait for people to be able to see themselves onscreen in that way," Totah shared.
The actress also praised the new series for showcasing "real conversations of race, gender identity and classism."
"Mario was one of the first Latinos we saw onscreen, and it's one of the reasons I loved the show," said Pascual-Pena, who noted that "there were never roles written" for her experience as an Afro-Latina. "I really have to [give] love to Tracey and Franco and the network for essentially rewriting this role and making [my character] Afro-Latina. The fact that I can represent... is honestly one of my favorite parts of being part of this show."
"I don't feel pressure, but I do feel inspired by this role," Velazquez added. "Daisy does inspire me even in my day-to-day life. ... [I want to] inspire other girls as well, in my neighborhood, who don't see themselves [onscreen]."
Darden noted that the original series did showcase racial diversity. "To be able to bring that back and really cross racial boundaries and generations and show inclusivity is important," he shared. "It's really great, and it's great for having all individuals represented on this show as well."
"What better time to bring something back that means so much to so many people... but then introduce it to a new generation with this amazing cast?" Berkley said. "For me, this was the right time. ... while there had been other thoughts of revisiting it, this was the one."
"There's heart at the core of everything still, which is something I think people loved about it," she added. "It can bridge both people that are nostalgic and a new generation. Tracey really beautifully created this, where it can really just bridge both."
In an interview with ET earlier this year, Gosselaar said that he and Thiessen had about two weeks left of filming when production was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Though Gosselaar said he "couldn't wait" to play Zack again, he also admitted he isn't the easiest character to get back into.
"I was taking the week we had before the lockdown to get back into the character, to understand him, because there is a way that he says things, and if you say it in the wrong way, it can come off very douchey," he recalled. "The actor who plays my son, Mitchell Hoog, I think he's brilliantly cast, and he does a really good job of toeing that line -- saying things that are offensive, but if you say them in the light of the Zack Morris way, it's effervescent and you can’t take offense to it."
The Saved by the Bell reboot is set to debut on NBC's new streaming service, Peacock, later this year.