‘Saved By The Bell’ Burning Questions: EP on Zack’s Political Style

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Saved by the Bell,” streaming now on Peacock.

School is officially back in session at Bayside High and while a few things may have changed — the man behind the principal’s desk, for one — Peacock’s “Saved by the Bell” sequel series proves a few things are timeless classics.

The first 10-episode season of “Saved by the Bell,” from showrunner Tracey Wigfield, introduces a new class of students, some of whom are Bayside legacies and some of whom literally step through the doors for the first time in the pilot episode after their underfunded school is shut down and they are transferred — thanks to Governor Zack Morris’ (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) poor planning. It also reintroduces beloved characters including Zack, Kelly (Tiffani Thiessen) and Lisa (Lark Voorhies), who guest star, as well as Jessie (Elizabeth Berkley Lauren) and Slater (Mario Lopez), who are now working at their alma mater. It even provides a verbal update on what Screech (Dustin Diamond) is up to now.

In the Bayside of 2020, the student council president still gets a trip to Washington, D.C.; a Morris man (this time Mac, played by Mitchell Hoog) still places bets with his best friend (Lexi, played by Josie Totah), pulls pranks and runs schemes; football is still an important part of the culture, although the school has been on a losing streak; and a love triangle forms (between Jessie’s son Jamie, played by Belmont Cameli; Lexi; and Alycia Pascual-Peña’s Aisha).

But this time around, activism is celebrated, not laughed at; the Morris is not the one getting the girl; and some pieces of Bayside history were rewritten — or at least expanded — to show a bigger picture, including more items in their infamous time capsule and the surprise that Principal Toddman (John Michael Higgins) was actually a member of the original gang’s class.

Here, Wigfield took a “time out” from her busy schedule to answer Variety‘s burning questions about the streaming series.

You ended the series on a very real-world mention of coronavirus. Did you throw that in to say in a potential Season 2 they’d be facing what that looks like with remote-learning?

We had everything written before [the pandemic]. I had a baby on Feb. 28, and we had all our scripts written in advance of that, which thank god because of what happened. But then when we knew we were coming back, we reassembled a Zoom room just for a couple of weeks and there was a little rewriting that had to happen because of the protocols. We couldn’t shoot in the real [Douglas] school anymore, and just making some stories simpler. That was not my joke; that was another writer, Josh Siegal’s joke that I thought was really funny, not only because it speaks to Daisy’s journey throughout the season where she’s always fighting these giant obstacles. But not knowing at all if there’s a second season and what a second season would be about or what high school looks like next year, it just felt like a joke worth telling because life for high school students is so terrible. It was so hard before and now it’s so much harder.

The season also ends on what was a trademark of the original series: Zack learning a lesson and, in this case, making the right choice at the last minute. But after more than 100 lessons as a teenager (including “Good Morning Miss Bliss,” “The College Years” and the movies), he still didn’t grow up to be a better person. Why did you want that to be the case?

He would do the wrong thing for the first 20 minutes and then learn the lesson in the last 5 minutes of the show and I don’t think any of them stuck.

And then you have Jessie who is very accomplished as an adult and Lisa is the successful fashion designer we hoped she would be, but Kelly has a business that’s played as a joke and Slater is microwaving hot dogs for a solo dinner. How did you decide who should be at what point in their life when we meet them again?

Some of it was just thinking about practicalities. We had Elizabeth and Mario for all episodes so the most organic way to see and use them was, they have to work at the school, as opposed to just be parents that drop by. But it was important that they be back there for slightly different reasons. This was very important to Elizabeth, but you want Jessie to be there out of choice. She has had success: a doctorate and she wrote books. And now she is back because she likes helping the kids and wants to be close to her son, whereas Slater is there because he’s sort of an irredeemable loser. That felt funny to me. And I think just in comedy in general there’s an instinct that the funniest version is everything’s bad and everyone’s lives are the worst, and certainly that is funny for Slater. In earlier versions I did think Slater should still have a mullet and maybe be fat now, and very quickly in the room they were like, “No! He looks like that. He still has some things going for him.” But he is still stuck in high school and hasn’t really had a win in 20 years when we meet him.

How much did you allow those original actors, who also have producing credits, to influence where their characters are now?

I think a lot of girls looked up to Jessie even though often the joke would be that she would say something that was right and smart and then Slater would be like, “Yeah or you could cook me a burger” and that was the laugh. So it felt like you really wanted to have Jessie be right and you wanted Slater to acknowledge that she’s right, which he does in a scene in the finale. That was my instinct, anyway, and they were pretty much the characters I pitched them. But Elizabeth wanted to make sure we made a big deal about Jessie’s accomplishments and Mario really didn’t want to have a mullet. He said he would have it, but at a certain point it was like, he doesn’t need the mullet. There are so many other things that identify him as Slater. He still has the exact face.

Slater and Toddman both got involved in the kids’ storylines in ways that Belding would have in the original; Slater even ended up partying with the kids for a little while. What is the level of comfort they can have with their students before someone in the show has to call them on it?

That was something we tried to be cognizant of, where it was like, “Is Slater being a creep?” and making sure that he is not. Slater and Principal Toddman, they’re both nice men that you want to root for, so it didn’t feel like you wanted to get comedy out of the bumbling ways they make students feel uncomfortable.

There’s a line early on that makes it clear that Slater has not stayed close with Zack and Kelly through the years. Why did you want them to have drifted apart?

Part of it was just setting up how in the later episode we have Zack and Kelly come back and we ended it with, “Oh we ARE best friends; everything we learned in ‘Saved by the Bell’ was true.” I just wanted to start in the beginning of the first season with some obstacles to relationships, like Jessie’s married even though she and Slater have a little bit of tension, and Jessie and Slater and Zack and Kelly haven’t kept in touch the way you thought they would. So you want to start with some tension you can spend the subsequent seasons working out.

Speaking of tensions, was there truth behind Kelly’s joke about Jeff [Patrick Muldoon] being Mac’s father?

I don’t think so. I don’t know, this isn’t “Lost”; we don’t have the next seven seasons planned out. But he looks just like Zack, right?

He definitely does. And to go back to crafting who Zack is now for a minute, was any of his style as a politician — the hairstyle, the mannerisms — inspired by Donald Trump?

It wasn’t written that way, other than the fact that he’s a celebrity politician, but in California there’s a history of that [with] Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger — and there’s that joke where he’s calling his helicopter “The Choppa” was an improv of Mark-Paul’s. The kind of carelessness of it, I’m sure there are parallels you can draw, but I don’t really want to make jokes about Trump. Aren’t we all tired of jokes about Trump? I do feel like the idea of a famous imbecile becoming the governor, maybe I wouldn’t have had that idea without Donald Trump.

Going back to the episode where most of the original cast reunites, they dig up the time capsule their graduating class buried, which had been previously dug up in an episode of the original series. How did you decide what items you wanted to be inside this time?

We wanted to use it as an opportunity to have four of the OGs pick things out and reminisce with the audience, but we are playing it a little fast and loose because in that [original episode] it was just a VHS tape in the capsule. But the capsule looks exactly the same because I told our propmaster it needed to be the exact same, and she was like, “Are you sure because it looks like a baby Dracula coffin?” And I was like, “Yeah I’m sure, that is the one I’d like!” And it was just out of our writers’ room’s collective memory of the iconic items: Buddy Bands, of course; that blue leotard that Zack danced in in order to graduate; a lei from “Hawaiian Style”; caffeine pills, which I feel like we mention four times an episode. It was just thinking of iconic items for each of them that even if you were a casual viewer of “Saved by the Bell,” you would remember.

How did you come up with the balance of love interests and love triangles on this version of the show? For example, there’s an episode early on where Daisy [Haskiri Velazquez] and Mac are influencing each other, not always in a positive way, and it could have become a situation where maybe they start to change for each other because they like each other, but then that did not become a thing at all.

What’s funny, and this happens all of the time on shows, is you think one way and then the actors come in, and the two of them have a natural chemistry together that sometimes I’d be editing like, “Oh that take looks like they’re in love with each other, we can’t do that.” It just wasn’t something we were writing to because a lot of the writers had this opinion that Mac just seemed so insufferable. Any time it would come up as a possibility a large contingent of the room would be like, “No, we want better for her! Why would she love him? He’s horrible!” But that’s not to say down the road [never]; you see how your actors play together and what feels fun to explore. You could, down the road. But she had so much to do, it didn’t seem like a love interest thing was worth the real estate in Season 1. We did have the love triangle with Jamie [and Aisha and Lexi] so it felt like it would have been a lot.

Before even deciding Lexi would be part of the love triangle, what went into developing her? Were you always writing a transgender character or were there discussions about Josie playing a cisgender character?

I wrote the part for Josie. All of the rest of the kids came in for auditions and I wasn’t familiar with any of them before, but Josie I had known because she was in “Champions” and I’m friends with Mindy [Kaling] and Charlie Grandy, who did that show, and I remember going to a table read and, “Oh shit, she’s really good.” So when I knew I was doing this I was kind of daunted by the idea of finding six attractive, hilarious, undiscovered talents who would be in this television show, so I met with her really early, I want to say around when I pitched the show. That was in place really early and I wrote to her and her strengths. I talked about it with her, and I think she was excited about this part. Basically other than one episode, trans is just a part of her identity, it’s not the storyline. It seemed like an exciting opportunity to have this very specific trans character exist. I think for her and I, that was reason enough to do it the way we did it. Especially on a show like this — a broad, basically network kind of comedy that you can watch with your parents and your kids — I had not seen a trans character who was like this: so popular and mean and always getting in the fast burns and stuff.

How much of her reality show, “Becoming Lexi,” did you actually film? Is there more you left on the cutting room floor for social exclusives or whatnot?

No, just that. It seems like a really fun thing to have as a device in the future. You could definitely have it come back.

Lexi and Mac get up to some pretty big wagers and schemes, not unlike in the original series. Some were even similar to the original series, like when they needed to hire an actor to impersonate Daisy’s mom with Jessie. What was the chicken and egg of developing these ideas: Did you start with specifics from the show you knew you wanted to put your own spin on, or did you come up with the idea first and then realize the original show did something similar and work in references?

In the very beginning of the [writers’] room I watched all of the [original] episodes and I know a bunch of our writers did the same, and we just took note of what they were always doing: dressing up in costumes, hiring actors, what is the vocabulary of the schemes at Bayside? We were trying to make Bayside a place that was very much stuck in the old show and stuck in the ’90s in a way, and one of the elements of this very weird, squeaky-clean, happy place is that they’re always running these very elaborate schemes on each other that seem like they cost a lot of money and at the end they maybe get $50. That felt like a fun thing to be a part of Bayside that was happening all of the time.

Looking at some of the things you did pull through from the original series, let’s start with having Troy Fromin, who played Ox in the original, appear while Mac, Lexi and Daisy were trying to cut a whole line of people to get their form signed. How did that come about and is your plan for hopeful future seasons to have more cameos?

This show does have the kind of rabid fanbase that will find things like that satisfying, I imagine. Some of them were like, “Oh we need a math teacher,” and Franco Bario, who’s our executive producer and was an executive producer on the original, would be like, “Oh Mr. Dewey is on our group text, I’ll ask him if he’ll do it.” And then some of them were more organic, like [Troy] came to an audition. I said to Julie Ashton, our casting director, early on that if there are bit parts that we’re casting, if you have a list of the original people who come in for things, let’s use them. In that case, he came in and we put him in the same outfit he wore in the original and it’s the kind of thing where, if you notice it it’s fun, but if you don’t it’s fine.

What is your rule about if someone from the original wants to play a different role on this show?

That could have been Ox, so to me that was fine for me because to me, he was Ox. But you’re saying if like Leah Remini wants to play Slater’s wife Rachel? No. No, she can’t. She’s Stacey Carosi, that’s insane. You have to be who you were then.

Tanner [Josh Reiter] looks and was styled so much like Maxwell [Jeffrey Asch], was that intentional; is he Maxwell’s son?

That’s so funny, no. How did I forget about Maxwell? It’s like I blacked out. It felt like having a mean nerd was a callback to the show, but now that I look at him, wow. Not intentional on my part.

What was the discussion around the line about Screech being on the space station with Kevin, given that new audiences might just assume he’s in a relationship with a man named Kevin?

That would be OK! And maybe Kevin is. Maybe Kevin is a beautiful man. I mean, Kevin’s obviously his robot, but maybe [this version] is an AI that looks like a beautiful man or a woman. We don’t know. I feel like it was the kind of thing that if you know Kevin, you know.

Do you have plans to incorporate Valley more in a potential second season?

We played Valley as another school that this same thing is happening to, so I think there is a possibility to see Valley in the future or know more about them. Devante’s friends talk about it as similar to what’s happening, and Slater talks about it as the rivalry.

The fact that these schools were shut down and maybe Douglas was going to be a viable option for these kids again but at that point none of those kids wanted to leave Bayside, it’s a heavy piece of story but it’s also a lot of story. How did you determine how much real estate in the season it should take up?

You meet Jade Huntington-Snell in the pilot, but do you want to spend tons of time talking about her applying to the school board or whatever? No. It did feel like, in our research as we’d listen to podcasts and share articles and meet with people from LAUSD, when this kind of thing would happen anywhere in the country, the thing that all the rich parents are worried about when kids from underfunded schools get sent to other schools — test scores will go down and there will be a criminal element and our kids are going to suffer — none of that ever, ever happens. The kids from the fancy school and the kids from the not-fancy school get along fine and do great and are always perfectly fine. The people who always screw it up are the parents at the well-funded school; they make a big stink about it and try and sue the school and do dirty, underhanded things to make it impossible for the kids to stay there. Obviously the way we do it is cartoony and meant to be; it’s supposed to be a comedy and not to solve education by any means. But it felt like there was something to the cartoony villain being one of the Bayside parents and wanting these damn kids out of the school.

And that brought in the activism of that younger generation. They succeeded, at least for a moment here, but how important is that element in general going forward?

Daisy is that character that embodies activism, but even looking at our cast, they’re smarter and woke and knowledgable and more thoughtful than I was when I was in my late-teens, early-20s. I didn’t know anything that was going on in the world. They’re just different. And maybe they’ve had to be because the world is different now, but I find it really inspiring and hopeful, and it felt like that wanted to be the message of the show: Things are going to be all right because these kids are better than they used to be.

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