Tracey Wigfield admits that she finds people who are “existing on a plane that’s unrelated to regular people and their concerns” really funny. All the shows she’s written for — 30 Rock, The Mindy Project, Great News, the latter of which she created — have featured characters that fit into that category. But her latest sitcom, the reimagined Peacock version of Saved by the Bell that she developed based on the ’80s-’90s original, may be her deepest comedic dive so far into the realm of the oblivious.
In Wigfield’s modern-day version of Bayside High, where Mac Morris (Mitchell Hoog), son of Zack Morris, and Jamie Spano (Belmonst Cameli), son of Jessie Spano, are students, the kids are privileged, mostly white, and free to get into trouble without any concerns about suffering consequences. In other words, it’s a lot like the original Bayside.
That changes when Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), who is the governor of California in this version of reality, accidentally sucks money out of the education budget and shuts down schools like Douglas High, located in a less wealthy section of Los Angeles. Since the Douglas students need somewhere to go, they are sent to Bayside, a merger that puts a lot of regular teenagers with regular concerns, including an ambitious Latinx student named Daisy (Haskiri Velazquez), in the same space as the self-involved Bayside bunch. Thanks to that setup, as well as the presence of original Saved by the Bell characters like Jessie (Elizabeth Berkley), who’s a Bayside counselor, and A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez), a Bayside P.E. teacher, hilarity ensues.
With the full first season of Saved by the Bell out on Peacock today, Wigfield spoke to Vulture about how she came up with this concept, why she thought it was important to highlight the inequities of the public school system within a half-hour comedy framework, and how the series was affected by coronavirus, especially via one joke that wound up in the finale.
What was your relationship with the original series? If my math is right, you would have been pretty young when it first started airing.
It came out in ’89, so I must have been in third grade or something. But because the show ran every day on every channel, it felt like, I watched the show a ton. It was on after school, and I would watch it every day. I was really into the original.
What was it that you responded to?
I think some of it was definitely, I was really young. It had a fantastical Entourage-for-fifth-graders quality, where these kids are attractive and popular and nothing that bad ever happens to them. It was the thing that I really loved when I was quite young and then continued watching and enjoying, partially — not to make fun of it, but I think much in the same way my parents enjoyed The Brady Bunch, where you’re watching it because it’s a little ridiculous.
I remember watching it and being like, “I love this.” And then seeing an episode of 90210 and being like, “I don’t love this.” It was really scary.
Well, it just was very adult and people were getting pregnant and getting roofied and stuff. And on Saved By The Bell, none of that was happening. They were making drug ads with Brandon Tartikoff.
When you developed this adaptation, I believe you started talking about it with Elizabeth Berkley and Mario Lopez.
I pitched the studio and the network first. Then I had lunch with Elizabeth and Mario and pitched the updated versions of their characters to them. They were really game, Mario especially. I was excited that he was like, “Yep, [Slater’s] a total loser, that sounds great.” I was a little nervous about whether he was going to want to play a cool guy or something, and he was really game for it and saw what was funny about it right away.
When you first pitched it, did that pitch include Douglas High School closing down and the merger with Bayside?
Yeah, that was my pitch. Little adjustments happen along the way, you add characters or slightly adjust characters. But the premise and Daisy being the center of it and how we meet Jessie and Slater and Zack and Kelly: That was all in my original pitch, I think.
I’m wondering if you can talk me through the genesis of that because I think you really zero in on what people who look back at the show find funny, but then link that to this other real issue of inequities in the school system. How did you first make that connection?
When I was thinking about what I liked about the show, and what would be fun to poke fun at with the show, was that these kids never had any problem of any consequence. Things just always worked out for them pretty easily. Also, this is true of any show you look back on, so it’s a little unfair to do this to the original writers of Saved By The Bell, but there were some things that didn’t age particularly well. Things where Slater would say, “Shut up, mama,” to Jessie all the time. Zack would have Screech break into the girls locker room and take pictures of them undressing without them knowing, and he was the protagonist and hero of that story.
The show’s not about a crazy-rich private school or anything, but it was about all-American kids who were growing up in the Palisades and they really don’t have anything high-stakes going on besides, “Who am I going to take to the harvest dance?” I was trying to imagine in 2020, could there be kids like that and could there be a place like that? In my mind, the answer was yes, maybe, but it would have to be because of privilege and wealth.
That’s the only way you can be a kid now who always has a safety net and who, when they get into trouble or when something goes wrong, it’s not that big of a deal, it can be fixed in 22 minutes. That led me to think about Bayside as this bubble of privilege, with the trappings of the old show that we love. It’s also weird in a bunch of very specific Bayside ways where they’re always having dance contests at the Max and celebrities are showing up and stuff like that. Thinking of the place as the Bayside we remember, and being able to see it through the lens of somebody coming into it, felt the most fun. Specifically, through the lens of a person who is nothing like Zack Morris.
Obviously you could not have anticipated this, but what we’ve gone through in the past year with the pandemic has really highlighted the kind of inequities that you’re talking about in this show.
Totally. That existed before, certainly. We met with some teachers when we were writing this. In the pilot, when Daisy can’t print out pictures for her posters, the simplest thing, it doesn’t even occur to students or teachers at a fancier school that that would be hard for a kid. A teacher that I talked to was saying that he worked at a school where the kids weren’t doing their homework and he couldn’t figure out why. Then he finally realized, “Oh, they don’t have computers.” It was just a huge blind spot that he hadn’t even thought of. Those kinds of inequities existed but I think they’re just put in such stark relief now because everything is done at home. If you don’t have a computer and an internet connection and a parent who can walk you through all of your homework, you’re even farther behind and it’s more unfair. It was always true but it feels more true now.
Right, it’s harder to ignore now. In my school district, they’ve been doing a study to look at school boundaries for a bunch of different reasons, but certainly to make things more equitable. As you might imagine, like the parents on your show, a lot of parents are having a fit about the notion of even having the conversation.
That Nice White Parents podcast that came out a couple months ago — I listened to that. I think we were in our last week of shooting and I was like, “Oh my God, this is exactly the kind of thing we have been talking about.” In the writers room, we listened to podcasts and read articles and talked to people while we were writing and it just seemed like a pattern that often happens. When a less well-funded high school gets shut down and the kids get sent to a fancier high school, the kids always do great. None of the things the fancy parents worry about, with low test scores or attendance or anything else — none of that ever happens. The thing that always happens is the parents at the fancier school find a way to force them out.
You’re working with multiple people who were involved in the original series. Were there any points where you wanted to do something and they said, “Gosh, you’re making fun of the show in the wrong way.”
Not really. A couple times, Elizabeth had the note of, “Can we just make sure that Jessie accomplished enough, that she’s not at the school for the same reasons Slater is?” I thought that was really a smart point because, from her point of view, a lot of girls looked up to Jessie and would tell her that through the years. She just wanted to make sure that, for those girls now grown up, it wasn’t this giant disappointment of, “Oh, she’s in a terrible marriage and she has this job that wasn’t the greatness she was destined for.” When we meet her, she wrote a bunch of books and she has her doctorate and she’s at the school because she wants to hang out with Jamie and help the kids. She’s not there for the same reason Slater is, which is, he’s stuck in this job as an athletic director and hasn’t had a win in 20 years.
You do go all-in on the caffeine-pill thing.
Every episode. It’s too much.
Saved by the Bell was almost done with production when the pandemic began. What was it like to go back into production under all the protocols?
Before we started, I was very nervous about it because we were the first show to go back at Universal. I just didn’t know what it would look like and I was scared that we wouldn’t be able to keep our crew and cast and everyone safe. But as soon as we started prepping for it, and as soon as I got on set, it felt so safe. I think the studio really had our backs and went to great expense to make sure that everything was as safe as possible. We were tested every single day, and Franco Bario, who is our executive producer, had to write up all these protocols and come up with plans and stuff I felt very safe with him in charge of that because he really went above and beyond.
It’s slow. It took us five weeks to shoot three episodes and some pickups of stuff we hadn’t shot yet, which is long for a half-hour show.
You said you all got tested every day?
We were in different pods. The actors, makeup, hair, director, anyone who’s onset with actors, got tested every single day. And then, other pods, I think, got tested a number of times a week.
Gotcha. Did that little break cause you to change anything in the last couple of episodes? I did notice there’s a coronavirus joke at the very end of the finale.
We changed that, yes. We reassembled our Zoom room for a couple weeks before we started up again. Most of it was just stuff that we had to simplify or we couldn’t shoot at the school anymore. Anything that took place at the gym or in the theater, or anything else in an actual school, we had to move to the lot. So we had to make some changes there.
It was right around the Black Lives Matter protests and stuff, and I do feel like there were a couple lines with the teachers that we — all the kids were always saying exactly what we want them to say but it was like, let’s make sure the teachers are always on the right side of things and acknowledging how messed up it is that these kids are getting kicked out of the school. Other than that, we didn’t really change anything.
I’m curious about that coronavirus joke. Did you and the other writers debate whether to include it?
We did, we did. It wasn’t my joke. Josh Siegal, one of the writers, thought of it, and I thought it was really funny, but some people thought you don’t want to make a joke about a terrible tragedy that has taken 200,000 American lives. Certainly, that’s a reason not to say it. But it did feel like it hit the right button at the end of the season, also because the whole show is about inequities for high school students.
It’s also this huge thing that is going on or starting to happen and they’re, at that moment anyway, oblivious to it. That felt appropriate.
Exactly, yes. There’s something kind of sad and sweet and like the original show in that way.
I assume you haven’t gotten any word on whether you’re definitely going to have a second season?
No, not yet.
Does that joke mean that you have to deal with the virus, in some way, if there’s a season two?
I mean, it’s so tricky, right? I think no matter what, you would have to deal with it in some way. It also would feel a little bit like a missed opportunity not to at all. It is such a clear example of the thing that this show is about. Obviously, you don’t want to talk about coronavirus all the time, but it does feel like the kind of thing that you would at least get a story out of.
It is a tricky thing and every contemporary show is grappling with that.
We felt very lucky that, well at least we’ve shot seven of these. It’s very clear that you couldn’t then, in the middle of it, change course and rewrite the last three to be: “Oh no, now everyone’s remote learning.” It was kind of nice that we knew, at least for this season, we’re just going to play it like this hasn’t happened yet. And make that clear at the end with that joke.