Even admirers of the movie “Showgirls” can concede that it was not a movie with its star’s best interests in mind.
The 1995 box-office bomb was, in its moment, pilloried for its indulgent taste for sleaze; with some distance, it’s possible to see it as director Paul Verhoeven’s lovingly manic embrace of American trash culture. But re-evaluating the movie hasn’t rescued the prospects of its star, Elizabeth Berkley Lauren, who as recently as last year said she was “bullied” for the role and made “a pariah in the industry I had worked so hard for.”
For all the glee that imbues “Showgirls,” there’s a bummer of a story at its center: Berkley Lauren (who at the time of “Showgirls” just went by Berkley) won worst actress at the mean-spirited Razzie Awards and had limited future prospects. Coming off her role on the teen show “Saved by the Bell,” her future suddenly had been foreshortened just because she, as she has said, “fulfill[ed] the vision of the director.” Though she appeared at a public screening of the film in 2015, there’s clearly still some bruised feelings there: “I still feel protective of that 21-year-old girl,” she said last year.
That sense of overcoming is what makes Berkley Lauren’s performance in the new season of the “Saved by the Bell” reboot so redemptive and so fun. In the main, the adult cast’s presence on this season of the revamped, joke-denser “Bell” has been amped up, a choice that yields somewhat mixed results, but Berkley Lauren has an episode-long tribute to or lampoon of her “Showgirls” work that sparks with the fun and joy of being able to laugh at oneself.
Hanging out with her friends (played by original “Bell” costars Lark Voorhies and Tiffani Thiessen), Berkley Lauren’s character Jessie Spano admits to feeling unsexy and miserable; she decides to channel the way she felt on a couple months spent in Las Vegas, “after college.” Soon enough, Berkley Lauren is dressed like “Showgirls” protagonist Nomi Malone, executing Nomi’s strange hand-dancing and her aggressive pout; asked where she’s from, she uses Nomi’s famously bizarre reply, “Different places!”
Writing more of what happens wouldn’t do the subplot justice. None of this, as far as comedy writing goes, is reinventing the wheel: What’s exciting here is not necessarily the reprise of Nomi’s moves and her lines but Berkley Lauren’s gameness and willingness to revisit a role that has entered the pantheon of culture for some not-quite-right reasons. As Jessie says to Mario Lopez’s A.C. Slater character, “I was trying to be sexy, but I just looked insane.” It’s as true now as it was then, but Berkley Lauren allowing herself to have some light fun with the matter helps to close the book on what was, for a young star on the rise, a hindrance as well as a humiliation. Jessie declaring that she loved wearing “Versayce” again, mimicking Nomi’s comic mispronunciation in “Showgirls,” allows Berkley Lauren to be in on a joke culture’s been making, lovingly and not, for 25 years.
Unlike its predecessor series, the “Saved by the Bell” reboot seems largely aimed at adults, and pop-culture obsessives at that; many of these viewers will understand what the “Showgirls” bit means for Berkley Lauren. But for actual high-school-aged viewers of this high-school comedy, this likely will represent an introduction to “Showgirls.” What better way for the new generation to experience it than with the understanding that Berkley Lauren was utterly committed to the bit then, and now stands by her work, even if it looks a bit extreme? Television reboots trade off the public’s long-running familiarity with their stars; kudos to this one for allowing Berkley Lauren the chance to turn the page.