Only In 2020 Would 'Saved By The Bell' Be A Guiding Light For Humanity -- The New Class Takes Down White Privilege With Precision And Jokes
Saved By The Bell was a goofy '80s and '90s teen sitcom, featuring teens who sometimes had the power to freeze time, but it was also an iconic representation of what people imagined life was like for California teens -- neon colors, sunshine, and wacky hijinks.
There were a lot of shows with similar SoCal vibes, reboot creator Tracey Wigfield told LAist, but "this show made Southern California feel magical. Like, they were always cutting school to go surfing, and going to the beach. Growing up in New Jersey, it just felt kind of fantastical, so I wanted that to be a part of the show."
The new reboot on NBC streaming service Peacock takes the original's formula and flips it, poking fun at the OG series while using the fashionable Bayside High teens to tell a story calling out class and white privilege. Wait, how did Zack Morris get away with so much, anyway?
The new show keeps the original school's DNA, from a surfing club to Bayside being a place that celebrities drop by, while also giving the show that a more evolved and aware spin.
The new iteration of the series follows what happens when an underprivileged high school gets shut down -- thanks to Zack Morris, now California's governor -- and all of that school's kids get sent to Bayside.
"I think it's not been what people expected it to be when they saw that Saved By The Bell was starting again," Saved By The Bell director Kabir Akhtar told LAist. "Which I think is a good thing, to come back and check out an old universe that you know, but see the way it's changed. Because all of us have changed since watching Saved By The Bell 25 years ago."
At the same time, Wigfield said, the original Saved By The Bell was surprisingly diverse for its time.
"People just forget Mario [Lopez], and all the Black writers in our room were like, Lisa Turtle was such an icon -- she was fashiony, and she was cool, and dated Zack, and she was so beautiful," Wigfield said. "It felt like it would be a missed opportunity to not make this show as diverse and a representation of all the kinds of kids living in L.A."
"I'm brown. My family's from India," Akhtar said. "Growing up, I certainly almost never saw anyone that looked like me on television that wasn't a punchline character. And it's funny, because I guess I don't look at a show like this and think, 'Oh, it's really diverse' -- I think I look at other shows and think they're not diverse."
Akhtar said he feels that there needs to be a new word to describe how non-diverse other things are.
"Because they're not representative, and they're not like, at all, the way the real world is now. Or, frankly, not the way the real world has been ever," Akhtar said. "I don't think you could make that '90s version of it today."
But the show still keeps the playful, silly energy of the original alive. Along with all the efforts to include a powerful message with the show, it's packed with jokes. Wigfield started her career coming up on the writing staff of 30 Rock, as well as previously creating the show Great News, and you can see those comedy chops in her new show.
"The kind of thing I like to watch, and I like to write, are hard comedies with real jokes," Wigfield said. "You're telling a story about class, but also about race. And you have to have real conversations about what that means, and what these stories should be, even though it's a comedy, and even though sometimes it's just John Michael Higgins [who plays the principal] falls in an orchestra pit and gets his penis sucked into a tuba."
SHOOTING DURING THE PANDEMIC
Akhtar had directed one episode of the show and was prepping to direct his second -- the reunion episode, featuring the return of more members from the original show's cast -- when production was shut down due to the pandemic.
"We all went home, and we're like, 'we'll be back, soon' -- and then soon turned into five months," Akhtar said.
Akhtar's second episode ended up becoming the first show filmed by Universal Television as production started back up again this summer, according to Akhtar, shooting at Universal Studios in early August.
"It was a wild experience to be on the cutting edge of that, because everybody was so excited to be back at work, and just not be at home anymore every day," Akhtar said. "But still trying to work and create a fun, creative environment, while everyone's also very concerned about safety, was a challenge."
Production is still largely similar to how it was before COVID-19 hit, according to Akhtar. But being creative at all has been difficult, according to Akhtar. While it may have seemed like this would be the period with a bunch of free time to go be creative, Akhtar said that he didn't want to put anyone at risk unnecessarily -- plus, like everyone else, he had a lot on his mind.
"It was hard for me to think about being in a fantasy, imagination-world when it felt unsafe to leave this world while it was on fire," Akhtar said.
It's a balance between being constantly aware of COVID-19 and safety protocols, while also being relaxed enough for the actors to deliver their performances and tell a story that's not based around fear of the disease, according to Akhtar.
The show was written before this summer's racial protests, but the show's themes dovetail with those real-world events. That includes a season finale protest over racial injustice at the school -- in this case, around the class divisions keeping non-white students from access to a good education.
"If my first show back had been something that was whitewashed or not being at least quietly introspective about real-world conditions, I think it would have felt false to me," Akhtar said. "Here we are telling a story about underprivileged people and the struggles they face when out of their comfort zone, and when surrounded by a world that is not taking their perspective seriously."
That TV protest was also written before the pandemic, and before those real-life protests against racial injustice. The show brought a writers' room back together for a couple of weeks to make adjustments before resuming production, but it was largely around how to shoot with COVID protocols. The themes the show's exploring were already in the writing, and didn't need much of a rewrite, according to Wigfield.
"That was what we wrote in February," Wigfield said. "And certainly I cannot take all the credit for it -- we had a very diverse room, and we had a lot of conversations, and I'm so glad we did, before this summer."
Beyond the racial justice themes, the show also moves forward with trans representation.
Wigfield wrote the role of Lexi, a trans cheerleader, for actress Josie Totah. They met early on, when Wigfield was pitching the idea of the show.
"I was pitching to her, what if you were playing a [Mean Girls] Regina George-type girl in 2020, and you ruled Bayside," Wigfield said. "In our conversations, it was important to Josie, and me too, that yes, she's a trans character, and Josie's trans, but that not be the main thing about her. It's one part of her character."
The show is a Saved By The Bell reboot, Wigfield said, not a story about Totah's gender identity.
"And if she wants to make a show about that, one day, she can -- it's just, this didn't feel like the place for that," Wigfield said. "[Lexi is] such an interesting character I had never seen before -- that she is this super confident queen bee, who happens to be trans."
Wigfield and Akhtar both took pride in how the show represents the real world.
"The work just felt really important. And it's a strange thing to say about what's, on its face, kind of a fun, silly comedy," Akhtar said.
It all comes together in the new Saved By The Bell, which debuted last month. So if you're looking for a holiday binge watch that isn't as non-diverse as other shows and tackles serious issues while still delivering constant jokes, this might just be the show for you. All 10 episodes are available now on NBC streaming service Peacock.