Saved by the Bell's Elizabeth Berkley says caffeine pill episode deserves more than laughter
"The reason why people are obsessed with that episode is that it must’ve struck some sort of chord," notes the actress.
For four seasons, the teen comedy series followed six friends who attended Bayside High School and their silly adventures. No problem that couldn't be fixed within the show's 30-minute runtime ever plagued the student body, until the season 2 episode titled "Jessie's Song."
Elizabeth Berkley Lauren portrayed Saved by the Bell's straight-A student Jessie Spano, whose caffeine pill addiction was at the center of "Jessie's Song." The overachiever was under a tremendous amount of pressure to succeed and used the extra energy from the supplements to help her manage her school workload and the responsibilities of her new singing group, Hot Sundae. Eventually, an exhausted Jessie breaks down in front of her best friend Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), when he arrives to take her to a talent competition, but ends up confronting her about her addiction. “I'm so excited, I'm so excited," she sings, before breaking into tears. "I’m so… scared!” she cries as Zack comforts her and tells her that they're going to get through this.
For three decades, Jessie's dramatic meltdown while singing the Pointer Sisters' "I'm So Excited" has been both revered and ridiculed. Berkley Lauren gets it — she laughs at the memes too. Still, she hopes that people don't miss the real message of the episode.
“I remember at that time, our show dealt with a lot of lighter topics. You know, who has a crush on who or who would take who to a dance. Once in a while, we’d deal with some emotionally based issue as well, but this was the first time we dealt with something more," Berkley Lauren tells EW, noting that the episode was originally supposed to be about Jessie getting hooked on a drug that was much harder: speed. "But at the time, caffeine pills were the way to go — and the reason [the episode] got approved by the network.
“I remember Mark-Paul and I were really looking forward to having a scene we could really go somewhere with — and we did! [It] really let us have the opportunity to emotionally go there. And what I mean by that is that the issues we go through at that age, while also dealing with teen angst, are extreme. Jessie was dealing with perfectionism. Many others struggle with overextending themselves and anxiety. Adults, from their perspective, can say, ‘Oh, this won’t last forever,’ but kids many times can’t see it that way."
Berkley Lauren released The New York Times best-selling book Ask Elizabeth in 2011, a self-help title for teenage girls. As a teen facilitator, the actress has also hosted self-esteem workshops for middle schools and high schools. Supporting young women is a cause close to her heart, which is why she hopes fans of the show recognize the importance of Jessie's experience from the popular episode.
"People laugh at some of Jessie's most vulnerable moments from that episode and make funny gifs and memes. Trust me, I’m the first person to laugh at it too, but let's not forget these are very real situations," she says emphatically. "I have a great sense of humor about it, especially if it’s a wink or a nod to it. But those moments were rooted in something passionate and sometimes can feel over the top. It was fun and broad, but I think at the core, the reason why people are obsessed with that episode is that it must’ve struck some sort of chord."
She adds, “To see a character be vulnerable with her best friend who she felt safe with is what I remember the most. Mark-Paul and I, by that point in the shooting, had a real solid foundation. We were very close. It was something very unique to be able to look at him and know that I trusted him wherever we were going to go emotionally.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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