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In the second season of Peacock’s Saved by the Bell, Elizabeth Berkley Lauren’s turn as Showgirls‘ Nomi Malone officially becomes part of Jessie Spano’s canon.
Set during a Bayside career fair, “Wrestling With the Future” sees members of the new class attempting, either desperately or apathetically, to map out their future and find their calling. Meanwhile, every living member of the original class reflects on where their journeys have taken them, and the space between dreams and reality.
The episode is a comedic rumination on defining success — something too frequently based on others’ expectations or unhealthy comparisons — that eventually settles on how the detours of perfectly laid plans ultimately shape not just the person you become, but one’s personal vision of success and happiness.
Of course, this message is tucked within one of Saved by the Bell‘s signature meta jokes: an homage to the 1995 cult classic Showgirls. As Berkley Lauren’s segue into adult dramatic roles, the part — its own kind of meta-conversation on “making it” — pulled the beloved Baysider from those California high school halls and dropped her right in front of uncompromising critics, who notably derided her performance at the time of the film’s release.
“It’s all funny because there is a whole new wave of creatives who embrace this film in new ways,” Berkley Lauren tells THR. “I hear from people, often writers or directors, that just honor its place in pop culture now.”
For that reason, Berkley Lauren says it was “fun that we got to celebrate what it means in the present, too,” in the season’s sixth episode. The tribute then was at least partly an opportunity to show Berkley Lauren could have a little fun making fun of herself. But for the episode’s all-female team, it was also an opportunity to help the actress reclaim the narrative around her early career.
“Comedy is a tool and comedy is a weapon. It can be all those things, based on the hands of whoever’s yielding it,” says director Katie Locke O’Brien, who describes the episode as “equal parts homage and rebirth.”
For showrunner Tracey Wigfield, the “meta moment” was a chance to directly comment on how a 21-year-old actress was treated after Showgirls was released.
“That [Mario Lopez’s A.C.] Slater could kind of say to her, ‘You know what, you took the swing, it didn’t come out great. But the directions you were given were crazy,’ was a way to put in context for Jessie the character and Elizabeth the person a thing that needed to be said.”
“It felt like a moment for that burden. She carried so much of that burden unfairly. It never should have happened that way,” says writer Yamara Taylor. “There was just such compassion in this scene. I was losing my shit because it was like Slater saying the thing that little Jessie needed to hear, but really this thing that little Elizabeth needed.”
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Saved by the Bell‘s Berkley Lauren, Wigfield, Taylor and O’Brien detail where the idea for the homage came from, explain why women telling, writing and directing this joke was so important, and reflect on their own winding journeys as women in Hollywood.
When was the idea for a Showgirls tribute initially broached, who broached it and why did season two feel like a good time to do it?
Tracey Wigfield: Initially, when we first started season one of the show, I didn’t know Elizabeth or Mario or any of them, and I certainly didn’t know Elizabeth’s comfort level with making fun of not just Saved by the Bell but other things in her career. I remember the first time Elizabeth came into the writer’s room, she made a joke about Showgirls.
Elizabeth Berkley Lauren: Was someone wearing a T-shirt or something?
Wigfield: I think so. I think Dana [Sayles] was wearing a T-shirt.
Berkley Lauren: I just did a little goddess hands for her. (Laughs.)
Wigfield: Then everyone was like, “Oh, cool. She’s gonna be game for stuff.” Into the second season, we had always talked about how that would be funny to do some sort of inside thing about Showgirls, but there hadn’t been an organic moment to do it. Then Yamara [Taylor], I and the rest of the room were breaking this episode about a career fair and Jessie is in this vulnerable place where she’s just gotten divorced and is thinking about getting back out there, but she’s feeling sort of embarrassed about it [and] there was a fireman with a fire pole there (laughs), it sort of seemed like this opportunity and that it would be wrong not to use it. The universe wanted it to exist.
I remember writer Chris Schleicher saying, “A pole is right there,” and all of us at the same point got very giddy about the idea. But, of course, I knew I would have to talk to Elizabeth about it. It being season two, I knew her very well and I was pretty sure she would be game. I also knew she had the comedy chops to do a funny send-up because she’s a great comedian and great with physical comedy. I knew she would knock it out of the park if she was cool with doing it.
Berkley Lauren: Let me just say first for the record that Tracey is not only a genius writer. She’s an incredible leader in a way that I’ve never experienced on a set. I’ve observed her take a temperature check with other people about other storylines and, while [Saved by the Bell] is a comedy, there’s so much heart embedded in Tracey’s work. So though we had a whole season under our belt, we hadn’t really talked about other aspects of my career. We jumped right into this show, and of course, there was the pandemic. So, she said, “We have this idea, we want to have some fun with it. Are you willing?” I think she knew I’m willing to be playful and goofy or self-deprecating. For me, comedy is the ultimate way to heal in certain areas. But in this specific case, I knew it all depended on the how, and I wasn’t concerned with the how because I had had this great work relationship.
I remember saying, “I’m totally open. Can I see a few pages? Can I just see what you guys are thinking?” And the minute I saw the pages, I was like, “I’m so in.” This is before me even knowing the full journey of where our amazing writers we’re going to have Jessie go this season. That she was going to be a little more broken, a little more than a type-A personality. It’s like the rug has been pulled out from under her; her marriage is in shambles and there’s this 20 years of her thinking her life was going to look a certain way. It was just a genius meta moment. For Jessie to be calling upon the strength of Nomi to get her through this moment was brilliant to me.
There were quite a few references from the film incorporated into the episode. What was your favorite to execute?
Taylor: I like when Kelly’s like, “What did you do in Vegas?” Obviously, Jessie didn’t tell any of her friends. But she confessed to Slater about that girl and the stairs. It speaks so much to, yeah, there’s a bunch of shit sometimes you don’t know about your friends on their journey. And then they say casually it, and you’re like, “What?” “Oh, I didn’t tell you that?” “No, bitch you didn’t tell me that!” (Laughs.) Jessie’s finally going through this divorce and is like, “So anyway, I was in Vegas.”
Berkley Lauren: True. (Laughs.) I didn’t think about that. But we couldn’t keep a straight face during that. I swear we had to do quite a few takes. I also love that you ladies let me incorporate some lines that I know people come up to me with. Like, “I’m a dancer.” Any of those lines that we ended up using, Tracey and Yamara were just like, “Throw them in. You know what they love.” I was really grateful, too, that I got to bring in an incredible choreographer, even though we didn’t do a full-on routine. Jen[nifer] Hamilton, another amazing woman — she choreographed the Oscars and is doing the show Physical right now — is an old friend and a teacher of mine and the choreographer I worked with. So I also felt safe with her to discuss movement and to see how far we should go.
Wigfield: We had a whole dance we’ll take on the road.
Berkley Lauren: Yes. It was like, are we going up the pole or are we just kind of hanging out? There was finding how far to go with it, even with the costumes. Is it just a suggestion of Nomi with the cowboy hat, or are we all in — glitter, rhinestones, corset, fringe and all. I loved the creative process of getting to try that on. To really check in to see how far do we want to go with this. Because, Tracey, remember we did those two versions of full-on costume or a little suggestion? I think that was really fun finding that together.
In ’90s sitcoms and comedies, it frequently felt like women were the joke, but now women are writing or directing the joke, and they’re doing it for other women who are acting or watching and in on the joke. This Showgirls tribute is a perfect example. How important was that to delivering this?
Berkley Lauren: It almost makes me cry because it is something that is so new, as far as my experience. We were standing at video village when we were shooting this and I looked at the faces that we’re seeing right here and I was so moved to realize that this moment, with the way we all wanted to tell it and share it and create it, was happening. We have this incredible female director who also happens to be an actress, Katie [Locke O’Brien]. There’s Tracey’s incredible voice, leadership and vision to even reimagine this show in this tone. Then there’s Yamara, who comes in with her brilliant writing and its depth, humanity and humor. Each piece of it could not happen without each one of these ladies. I personally felt so grateful because only because of this incredible combination of women did I feel something like this could happen in the specific tone that it did. For that, I’m really grateful to see and know a different way. I’ve worked with a lot of men who I really love working with as well, but what you’re asking about in this moment, on this show, in this particular way, it couldn’t have happened with anyone else and I’m really grateful that we got to create this together.
Yamara Taylor: It felt to me like what it was: a bunch of moms taking care of each other. We all had a really strong understanding of how important of a moment this could be, especially for Elizabeth, and that we were all holding space for her. It felt like a nurturing environment. I’ve never had a female showrunner before Tracey, and so that’s what Tracey brings to everything. It’s this feeling of, “I’m taking care of you,” that Katie also brought as a director. I feel like everyone on set that day felt taken care of. I would get little looks from Elizabeth and she would wink at me. It was like, “Hey guys, we’re doing something.” Tracey and I cried.
Berkley Lauren: Me, too!
Katie Locke O’Brien: I think we all knew going into the week of shooting that there was the potential for something really incredible here. Then the beautiful surprise that came out of it was because of all of those side conversations we had. With each new scene we started to do, we would start sharing our own stories amongst ourselves, about our time in the business, about our own experiences, about Elizabeth’s life. All of that — getting closer and putting that into it — made it something where the experience of making it was actually as empowering as the thing we were trying to create.
Berkley Lauren: Even the sensitivity, Katie, that you brought as a director. We had the big fun moment, of course, where Jessie/Nomi is approaching the fireman. But what really struck me, too, was how in tune we all were with each other. Even your decision to do the scene where Mario-slash-Slater — because that’s its own kind of meta moment — is talking to Jessie as Nomi as Elizabeth with so much humanity and heart. The fact that you were like, “You know what? We’re just going to go behind this little wall right here.” The most subtle choices were really powerful to me. It was all with a lot of thought and care, and that you can, with all that, still have a really funny moment.
Locke O’Brien: That scene with you and Mario is a total riot. But what I loved about the script was that it was doing both things at once. Obviously, my first time through, I’m like, “Oh my god, oh my god. It’s not just the original cast. I got the Showgirls episode!” So my first read is, of course, for the goddess hands and all of that, but then as you dig in, there were just so many beautifully written moments for Elizabeth as Jessie as Nomi, just talking about the journey and what she’s been through. It was so much fun to make sure that those moments got to sing as much as the flashier moments that are really the physical comedy of the episode. It was such a testament to how confident and vulnerable [Elizabeth] was willing to be, and that she is at this point in her life as an actress. It got to be all that it really could be from page to execution.
Berkley Lauren: This is such a reflection of this different time and the moment we find ourselves in. We’ve all had this in us all along. There is just this incredible permission to step into it. There was a different energy among women on sets many years ago, back in the ’90s. It was very competitive. I think there was a lack of or a fear mentality, and now so many avenues have opened up since then, that the storytelling is different and can be different because we’re different. To have this is just as the greatest example of what is possible when women come together and have each other’s backs.
Taylor: Adding to that, just having women understand what might need to be said. Being able to check in with Elizabeth, and just make sure, like, “We get it. So, hey, is this going the way you need it to go? How do you feel about this?” It felt like Tracey and Katie and I were mindful of it, too. We just wanted to make sure that whatever the moment was going to be, [Elizabeth] felt like she was in control of it. I even think what it did for the series — this is such a testament to how Tracey’s brilliant mind works — now you have Jessie Spano with this really dope backstory. Right? She got her life in Vegas.
Jessie Spano was a young woman who was super smart, had everything planned out — the vision of success and ambition for girls in the ’90s. Now she has this Vegas storyline expanding her beyond that, informing who she ultimately became. Like Jessie, it seems fair to say women in Hollywood often have ideas of what they want, and then sometimes life happens and they don’t end up on the path they planned. Reality and expectation are not the same. How has that played out in your lives and careers, and did you reflect on that at all while doing this?
Taylor: I’ve been divorced twice. I’m a single mom. And I was a Jessie Spano. I used to have a lot of anxiety that I wasn’t doing everything right all the time. Then you get into writers’ rooms or you get on set and you look at everyone else and you assume nine times out of ten, incorrectly, that they all are exactly where they want to be and they made all the right moves to get there. So I personally didn’t have a lot of room a while back for error. Now, I’m fine making a mistake. I love being like,” Oh, I was wrong.” It’s liberating and I love talking — especially to other women, especially women of color — about what do we think is gonna happen, realistically.
We have these conversations in the writers’ room all the time. Especially on this show, because this show is so much about how the world set up for us. Is that realistic for the world to be set up that way? And what do we do when the world doesn’t reflect back for us what we think it should or what we were told it was going to? For me, I got to a place where I’m constantly having a conversation. I say what I think. I’m not afraid of someone thinking that I’m a mouthy angry black woman because maybe I am one day and maybe I’m not, but the important thing to me is having the conversation, even if it’s uncomfortable. I respect people that are willing to be uncomfortable to have the conversation because that’s where the growth happens.
Wigfield: My experience coming up was pretty lucky and unusual in that I have only ever worked for women. My first job was on 30 Rock. I had a head writer who was a man, but Tina Fey was in charge. Then I went to The Mindy Project where Mindy [Kaling] was at the helm. I feel I was very lucky in that way that I always got to see a woman in charge and making the ultimate decision. I think that was huge for me now as a leader, but I’ll say even like 15 years ago — even at these female-run shows — still there were more men than women in the room. The rooms were still not as diverse. Even me, when I had my first show on NBC. You want to be able to be confident and bold and hire people and give people chances. But it’s scary when it’s your thing. I will say on my first show versus right now, I am so much more proud of how diverse my room looks. How many women are there. How diverse my directing slots are.
I still think, even now, I struggle with making sure that I’m doing it right and, like Yamara was saying, getting it perfect. Not messing up. I think sometimes that can lead to making managerial decisions out of fear as opposed to following your instinct and your voice. I feel like as I’ve progressed in my career and come to this moment, I am only listening to that voice more and more. It’s made the experience of working so much better, the experience of hiring people so much better, and it leads you to give people shots who maybe don’t have as much experience or who are telling stories that are a little weirder or doing things that I maybe wouldn’t have done years earlier in my career. It’s nice. I hope that only continues for me.
Locke O’Brien: I was the ultimate Jessie Spano growing up, for sure. Class president, valedictorian — did everything right. So it was so weird and difficult to begin a creative career and realize that effort doesn’t have anything to do with what you get back. A lot of the reason that I hit a point where being an actress wasn’t feeling like enough is because a lot of those parts that were coming my way were like “Girl in bar. She’s cute, but she can hang with the guys.” I’m like, “Really? This is what I went to college for?” It was hard at that point not to want to be behind the storytelling more. The trick of it was that I did not see many women in front of me when I was showing up on various comedy sets. Maybe one in ten times a woman was directing. Or as a little girl growing up, Penny Marshall was the only female director I could probably think of, but she’s Laverne, and so how do you become that? It was so out of my realm of possibility until about three years ago. And as soon as I began doing it, I was like, “Oops, this is what I should have been doing all along.” But without that representation in my face, it didn’t occur to me that that was a real job I could have.
There are days when I wake up, and I think, “Oh my god, can you imagine if I knew at 21 that this is what I should have been pursuing?” Then I think to myself, “No, I wouldn’t have been ready then. All of the life journey, all the things in the meantime like becoming a mom, all the projects I’ve worked on as a writer, as an actor — all of that life is what made this the right moment. I show up on set with complete imposter syndrome and that will be my fate until the day I die, but you have these moments like this episode was where you’re like, “This is where I’m supposed to be. I couldn’t have been beneficial to this process and this creation 10 years ago. This is the right moment for all of this to be happening.”
Berkley Lauren: I grew up in Michigan as far from all this as possible and without connections. I did the hard work as far as I could go in Michigan until [my family] came out here. But I knew I wanted to do this. It was just a matter of how do I get there. And I always thought, and I think it’s part of our culture of being a woman, that if you work hard enough, and if you are dedicated enough — whether it be the 17 dance lessons a week I took, the singing or acting classes or even just working hard through however many hours you’re on set — if you did all of this right you would get there. This takes us even to Showgirls, to getting that part and how it was hard-earned.
I think my vision of being a professional was very defined by what I saw but also just a concept in my head. And being a professional as a young actress then in the ’90s did not mean bringing your voice to the table. It meant, “Be a good girl, put your head down and get to work. Don’t make a wave and deliver.” So I got very good at that. I was a pro at that. No one was better at, “What do you want me to be? I will deliver that.” I brought my whole heart and soul and all of my hard work to it. So I think one of the benefits to having my head handed to me on a national level when Showgirls came out is that this kind of childlike idea of what the business was— the illusion, the fantasy — it did get shattered. I don’t mean this in a negative, soul-crushing way. It was sad and it was disappointing and it was hard. It was hard to be humiliated as a young woman. It was hard that no one stood up and had my back or helped me, including the people who made the project. It was hard that doors were shut and I could not open them no matter how hard I knocked on them, for quite some time, to even be able to do what I love again.
My heart really wanted to know why. Because it didn’t make sense with this path and vision of, “If you do the right thing as a professional, things like that don’t happen.” Now, a lot of it makes sense, some still doesn’t make sense, but I don’t spend a lot of time still trying to figure all that out. You move on. I’m not a victim and I have a strength that I found at 21. But, oh my god, I have female friends who are in their 40s right now finding out some of the things that I was forced to find out so young. What a gift to take that through my life. When the illusion was shattered, something replaced it that was far more fantastic. That was this rite of passage, this initiation. Truly reality at the time allowed me to persevere and move forward with a sense of self as a young woman and now as a woman that is very different in terms of how it has informed my choices creatively, who I want to collaborate with. There’s a clarity there. It’s not just that childhood, “I want to make it.”
I think as we go through our different paths as women — I was a young girl back then and I’m a woman now; I’m a mom now; I’m of service to young women globally with the program I created in 2006 — you bring more of that strength and knowing yourself and sense of self to everything you do, whether it’s in a role, or behind the scenes as a producer or director. We keep growing, we keep changing and my relationship to the industry, to different roles I choose to play, it keeps evolving as I do. There’s no separation.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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