Michaela Jae Rodriguez
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Josie Totah & Elizabeth Berkley on Saved by the Bell's Queer and Trans Joy 

Josie Totah and Elizabeth Berkley

The students of Bayside High are back, and school is queerer and more diverse than ever. With loads of humor and heart, the second season of Peacock’s Saved by the Bell reboot, which premiered November 24, handily addresses lingering emotional stress from the lockdowns (although the season occurs in a post-pandemic world) before moving along to the age-old pressing matters of high school like grades, school spirit, and dances. Wrapped in a glimmering package of light and some much-needed silliness in the show are heartfelt coming-of-age stories. While Elizabeth Berkley’s Jessie (a guidance counselor in the new series) has always been the socially conscious one of the old group, the series from Tracey Wigfield delves into myriad modern topics around privilege, class, and the radical act of owning one's queer and/or trans joy.

One particular of-the-moment story involves Josie Totah’s sassy and independent Lexi finding some solidarity with other LGBTQ+ kids. Always at the ready with a searing rejoinder and sporting the most fabulous haute couture outfits, Lexi is trans, but that identity is just one part of her. In the episode that arrives about halfway through the season, Lexi grapples with how to become involved with the LGBTQ+ community at large while continuing to live her life with as much joy as possible despite the often upsetting daily news cycle. Her solution is to solve transphobia forever by writing the perfect musical. When that intended opus goes awry, she finds middle ground and joy with some queer kids.

“We wanted to tell an evolved, authentic storyline that has to do with this character. We see a lot of stories surrounding trans characters and LGBTQ characters that revolve around trauma. And those stories are very important to tell,” Totah tells The Advocate. “But we also want to tell a story of a thriving girl who happens to be from a marginalized community. She happens to be trans, but she has so many components to her.”

After she’s approached by kids from a regional LGBTQ+ group to stand with them at a protest, Lexi seeks out the advice of Berkley’s guidance counselor Dr. Spano, one of the Saved by the Bell originals dating back to the ’80s who’s still trying to save the environment and take on other social causes 30+ years later.

For Berkley, who starred in the proto-queer camp masterpiece Showgirls and played queer opposite Jennifer Beals in the final season of the original L Word, being a part of LGBTQ+ stories is something she calls a “gift.”

“There’s no greater gift than to be an artist who can, however small or however great, contribute to showing love in many different ways. I have played roles, whether it be in Showgirls or The L Word, and I feel really lucky,” Berkley tells the Advocate. “Someone might say in playing certain roles I’ve played, ‘Oh, that’s brave.’ To me it’s a gift and a treat to be able to help move the needle in any small way, in any big way,” she adds.

“I look forward to doing even more projects that do the same, but I personally have felt such support from the community, even if you just take Showgirls alone,” she says. “It’s been kind of an anthem for the gay community — the appreciation that I have felt and I think what it has meant in a lot of people’s lives, which I think I never quite understood so much as when there was a screening a few years ago. The day that gay marriage became legal, it was at Hollywood Forever Cemetery and I came to speak, and [the love and support] it was so palpable.”

With the new Saved by the Bell, which features several of the originals in regular or recurring roles including Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Zack, whose son goes to Bayside, and Mario Lopez as the school’s Coach Slater, Totah is able to incorporate her trans identity into the role while also being gifted with with bons mots tailored to her style.

“I just feel so blessed that I’ve been able to meet people who really understand my voice and are able to weaponize it for the benefit of the show and making it crazier,” Totah says of her character who delivers endless zingers.

For Berkley, there’s something full circle about playing a role in the series that is deeply funny but also in which most of the characters are at or have surpassed Jessie level of concern about the state of the world that began decades ago. 

“When I was playing Jessie as a 15-year-old, as a 16-year-old, as a 17-year-old in the early ’90s, there weren’t many models of young women speaking out, using their voice to help others, being of service, whether it be the environment, animals, seeking justice for certain people. She did it in an unapologetic way, and it was really kind of a first model of an adolescent girl doing that without being punished,” Berkley says. “There were examples of that, but Jessie stood in it bravely and she got teased for it. She often felt alone in it, but it is such a beautiful commentary on how far we’ve come to see many characters in many different types of shows and films since then who do the same.”

“Also on this very show, you see the main characters, these kids who are growing up with that kind of language and permission to use their voice for the greater good in all realms, and it’s really moving,” she adds.

Episodes of Saved by the Bell’s second season are available on Peacock now. 

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