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Saved by the Bell: Jessie & Slater Back Together, Showgirls Homage




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

In conceptualizing her continuation series of “Saved by the Bell,” Tracey Wigfield knew there were certain things fans of the original series would be waiting to see. On the top of that list was the romantic reunion of Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley Lauren) and A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez). After realizing they still had feelings for each other, they finally kissed again, 30 years in the making, in the second season finale.

“What are we doing here if Slater and Jessie aren’t going to hook up?” the showrunner says with a laugh. “When I watched the ‘90210’ reboot, I had very little personal connection to that show, but I was like, ‘When are the people who kissed 30 years ago going to kiss again?’ There’s just a part of your brain that’s just like, ‘Do it again.’ I wouldn’t say they were the Jim and Pam of the day or anything, but I do think there was a general feeling — and some of it was from audience response, tweets and what people in the room heard — that people were into them being together again.”

Jessie and Slater were one of the original NBC sitcom’s on-again-off-again teen couples during its late 1980s-early 1990s run, but they were not the end game high school sweethearts Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and Kelly (Tiffani Thiessen) were made out to be. In part, this was because the show needed a romantic rival for Zack when it came to Kelly, but as seasons went on and the show moved into “The College Years” spinoff territory, Berkley Lauren did not continue with the show. (Kiersten Warren was then brought in as a new love interest for Slater.)

But in greater part, it was also because “he was a misogynist, toxic monster at times, [where] most of the jokes were at her expense,” Wigfield recalls of Slater in the original series. So, when she had them both working at Bayside as adults on her version of the show, she had a lot to work through before it made sense for them to try again.

“When I was doing the pilot, I wanted to put some obstacles in their path. So she was married last season and he had his own personal issues,” Wigfield recalls. “And so, it felt like there was something nice about the two of them crossing paths a little bit this season, where because of where she is with her divorce, she has this attitude of, ‘Who cares? Let’s let’s just live a little more impulsively because the way I had been doing things — the plan I had — didn’t work out.’ And he is on an opposite track where, partially because of Jessie, he’s taking a look at his life and thinking about how his past decisions have led him here to this job he’s not crazy about and he has 100 years worth of payments left on his condo, etc. They both are taking opposite attitudes this season.”

Berkley Lauren recalls working on the original “Saved by the Bell” as a series of “rites of passage” with her fellow cast members, including Lopez, who all were actual teenagers when they were filming. In addition to co-stars, they were also classmates, even though their on-set schooling was very different from the experiences of their characters in the halls of Bayside.

“It’s also why this moment where Slater and Jessie have gone on these different paths through their lives, and love is love — love finds love again” is so special, she tells Variety. “There was still that sweetness in that friendship and that connection that they had that only history can give you.”

Berkley Lauren also points out that while Slater has had to grow up, Jessie is also releasing a part of her old self, and the two of them coming back together represents a new beginning for both of them individually, as well as as a couple. “Jessie’s releasing certain constraints. Her Type-A personality and want and desire to have a sense of control has been what has kept her safe and the way she’s maybe navigated and dealt with things because it’s habit — that’s what she has known. By virtue of her marriage shattering, she can’t rely on those anymore. And so, it will be interesting to see these two people at this moment where he’s been working on himself and the layers of protection have fallen away for her, to see what happens then,” she explains.

At the end of the second season finale, Jessie and Slater’s kiss is underscored by “Did We Ever Have a Chance,” a song Zack Attack performed in the original series. With lyrics like “Thought we’d always be together/I was sure our love would last/Here I am, all alone, wondering what went wrong/Did we ever have a chance?,” their future may not be so set in stone, though.

“It could either be hopefulness for round two, or it could be the reminder of what started this whole thing,” Berkley Lauren says of the song choice. “It does leave it open-ended and it will get people talking about where they’re going to go: Can they make it in this new form that both of their lives are taking?”

Ending the second season on a moment with original characters comes in sharp contrast to the end of Season 1, which faded out on the new Bayside students hovering over a phone, learning about COVID-19 while in The Max. But that is not to say that the balance of stories among the two generations of characters is not equal. Season 2 serialized (and turned on its head) a quintessential “Saved by the Bell” experience using the new students: The rivalry between Bayside and Valley and the idea that a Morris had to be the one to save the day.

Mac (Mitchell Hoog) became overly invested in the school’s Spirit Competition after learning it was the only event his father lost back in the day. He ended up taking over the most important duties from Daisy (Haskiri Velazquez), who entered into a relationship with a new guy in school named Gil (Michael Sato) — who turned out to be a mole from Valley.

“I wanted to take old storylines or things they did on the old show and play them for real stakes: What is the real emotional fallout? And that kind of thing was always happening on the old show,” Wigfield says. “The only fear was like, ‘Are you just going to make the audience mad because they invest in this guy for a while and then you’re like, “Haha, he’s evil”?’ But at the same time, that also happens in high school: Someone seems so perfect and then, oh he was making out with this other girl under the bleachers.”

Wigfield ended up playing the Valley principal, a role in which she originally wanted to cast Andrea Martin, but who was unavailable.

The Spirit Competition arc provided an opportunity for Mac to grow emotionally, even allowing Jamie (Belmont Cameli) to run the final relay race, ultimately putting the school’s needs ahead of his own and allowing someone else to have a moment of glory. “He’s different than he was last year, but he’s not all the way good and that goes for his emotional intelligence as well. He’s 1% more aware of what’s going on in his mind,” Wigfield says.

Mac also inched towards romantic feelings for Daisy, but whether the show is setting them up to become a couple remains to be seen, Wigfield says. In the meantime, she is juggling advancing Jamie’s relationship with Lexi (Josie Totah), who also grew emotionally by learning to listen to her boyfriend for a change, while also writing new relationships for Devante (Dexter Darden) and Aisha (Alycia Pascual-Peña), who became more open about her bisexuality in Season 2.

The second season also still discussed important issues today’s teenagers experience, from having beloved extracurriculars shut down due to helicopter parents’ fears to the pressure to figure out what one’s career will be. The career fair episode, which also included the returns of Thiessen and Lark Voorhies, gave the show a surprisingly organic way to reference Berkley Lauren’s post-original “Saved by the Bell” film turn in “Showgirls.”

In the episode, Kelly and Lisa encourage Jessie to get back into the dating world, but she is nervous about it since it has been so long. Attracted to a fireman at the career fair, Jessie becomes emboldened to flirt with him by reaching back into her past days in Las Vegas — a time in her life none of her Bayside friends knew about.

“A writer, Chris Schleicher, who is a giant ‘Showgirls’ fan, who, had pitched, ‘Well, a fireman’s pole is there; there is a way we could show that she does a dance on a fireman’s pole,’” Wigfield recalls. “It was very exciting to all of us, [including] Yamara Taylor, who wrote the episode, but definitely I had to call Elizabeth [and ask], ‘Is this something that would be fun for you poke fun at?’”

With more than two-and-a-half decades since the film was released, “I know there’s a new wave of filmmakers who are seeing it differently,” Berkley Lauren says. This changing discourse, plus the opportunity to collaborate with Wigfield on finding a way to have fun with it, working with a female director (Katie Locke O’Brien) and bringing in Jennifer Hamilton to work on the choreography, made Berkley Lauren game to do it now.

“There was a very clear intention of tone and also clear communication. I made some tweaks and incorporated some lines — some Easter eggs. If it wasn’t enough to be in full Nomi regalia, I knew the lines that people love and I didn’t want to disappoint,” she says.

“It’s a moment where Jessie is actually saying, ‘What would Nomi do?’ in a moment where she’s trying to reclaim her fierceness, her strength, her sense of sensuality,” she continues.

Paying homage to “Showgirls” gave Berkley Lauren the opportunity to don an iconic costume from that film, but the season-long runner of the Spirit Competition also gave her the chance to slip back into Jessie’s floral vest, high-waisted jeans and hair bow during some fake flashbacks to Jessie’s high school days. It was a “full-circle” moment, she says.

“There was a lot of specificity to these things; it wasn’t casual. We worked really closely with obviously our costumer not just about the aesthetic, but the nuances even in choosing which look we were going to go for,” Berkley Lauren says. “Those were the great conversations with Tracey and Franco [Bario]. If you don’t have that kind of collaboration, you can’t get a moment like that, and that’s what’s so incredible, also as a woman in the industry now to be able to experience it this way.”

Adds Wigfield: “In general, I think the show will not be successful if the majority of our comedy is coming from like, ‘Remember when this happened?’ But the fake flashbacks felt fun and finale-ish to me and ‘Showgirls’ felt on the table in this already a little bit meta show that takes some liberties with what was canon from ‘Saved by the Bell.’”

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