For a certain vintage of TV viewer, ‘Saved By The Bell’ was a staple of Saturday mornings in our tweenage years, a fitting accompaniment to the sugary cereals eaten in front of the box.
The show ran from 1989 to 1993 on NBC and on Channel 4 in the UK, and its original frontman Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who played the show’s lead Zack Morris, adorned the bedroom walls of young fans and was never far from the front of celebrity magazines for the following three decades.
And now, in the ‘Saved By The Bell’ reboot, Mitchell Hoog — the subject of our Mr Feelgood profile this week — plays Mac Morris, the blue-eyed, blonde-haired heartthrob and heir to the throne of dad Zack, who is now the governor of California, as the airheaded king of Bayside High.
Just like show’s original stars have never truly left their characters behind (with most even reprising their roles in the new version) many of its original viewers have clung onto their warm memories of the show into adulthood — albeit viewed through rather kitsch-tinted glasses.
Partly thanks to this nostalgia, the reboot, which launched on new NBC streamers Peacock last week, is a hit. It’s fair to say the original was not exactly critically-acclaimed, but the new version has even won over critics. “The new ‘Saved by the Bell’ is, somewhat implausibly, one of the year’s best TV shows,” according to The Los Angeles Times. And The Washington Post agrees: “The new ‘Saved by the Bell’ has a big advantage over other reboots: It’s really good.”
And just as the reboot views Bayside High through a new 2020 vision — with showrunner Tracy Wigfield, who wrote on ’30 Rock’ and ’The Mindy Project’, painting Bayside High as a hotbed of white privilege and tackling topics of class and racial disparity — it’s new leading man Mitchell is very much a modern thinker off screen too.
Here the 21-year-old tells Mr Feelgood about working on the show alongside the original cast, and his reflective experience in lockdown, which has also included making an indie film ‘After Masks’ about the impact of coronavirus.
And unlike his self-obsessed ‘Saved By The Bell’ persona, he conveys a deep awareness of the world around him, and has wisdom that is a credit to himself and his generation.
I loved Saved By The Bell growing up, and even used to say I was going to call my son Zack, although I went off the idea by the time I had children aged 35! What did you know about the show when you first heard about the role?
I actually didn’t know much about it. I knew it was this kind of cultural moment but, of course, I wasn’t born yet so I hadn’t watched it. So once this came in, I didn’t binge it or anything, but I certainly made myself familiar. And Tracy Wigfield, our showrunner, does a beautiful job of intertwining a lot of the original with this new Bayside 2.0.
It was certainly a big phenomenon the first time around, did the original cast that you worked with give you any advice or preparation for what that can be like being involved in a huge show like that?
They gave us advice from the standpoint of wanting us to have our own take on it and do our own thing. They didn’t dictate or push us in a certain direction. We call it a reboot, but at the end of the day, it really is this new, fresh take on the world of Bayside. Some of the crew were from the original show, and everybody on the cast and crew, from the art department to costume, was having a good time. It didn’t feel like going to work at all.
Were you filming during quarantine? Or was it wrapped by then?
So we have a joke within the cast that this is a 10-month, 30-minute show. Because we started in January, and then we got shut down on March 13 due to coronavirus, then we went back in and finished it up in August because we had three episodes left.
I think like anybody who was affected by Covid-19, and then went back to work, it was a little bit hesitant because it didn’t feel like it did. It was much more structured and strict. But thankfully, our crew and everybody was very on board with being safe and the protocols. So it wasn’t puppy dogs and rainbows on set 24/7, because we were learning these new protocols. But we got it done, and that’s what matters.
The premise of this reboot is about these two different schools from different backgrounds integrating, so does it touch on some more serious issues amongst the laughs?
Completely, it touches on underfunded schools and the education system. It touches on racial oppression because Bayside is all white, then you have this new school coming in and exposing us to different topics and different causes that we didn’t even think about. Because we do live in a bubble, we’re habitual human beings, and so we tend to do the same things. So when other people come in, it’s inevitable it raises conversations around that.
That’s interesting and an important message to be sharing, especially within popular culture.
Yeah, and in a comedic way. One of the beauties about this show is the fact that, due to how big it was, it’s a world we are familiar with. And then you combine that with Tracy in our writers room, who have that ’30 Rock’ kind of aura to them, and then with those modern day subjects and conversations, it’s a beautiful cocktail of something that people can comprehend.
I’m also very interested in your other latest project, ‘After Masks’, what can you tell me about that premise and some of the themes that are tackled there?
It’s not about a pandemic, because there are countless films about the end of the world and pandemics and sickness. People know that story. We want to touch on what really happens when the world is taken out from under your feet, and you are forced to be alone. I think at the beginning quarantine, we all enjoyed the time to ourselves, but it’s almost like the honeymoon phase of a relationship. Then there comes a moment where you are angsty.
Things come up when you spend time with yourself, and have conversations with yourself, you find new habits and drop old ones. It could be pain, past trauma, relationships, because when we don’t have all these distractions to kind of numb us from the truth, you have to face it. And this film touches on that beautifully. There’s six different stories throughout the whole film that morph together. And everybody who is a part of it really just got on board and said, ‘We have time. So let’s kind of dig into ourselves, and make whatever we’re going through and dealing with, the story.’
Did the project just emerge organically from a group of friends?
It started with a few of us who were all friends. I wrote this little essay, and we were on a Zoom call one day, and I read it to them, and they loved it. And so that’s the through line through the whole story. And then we knew that we couldn’t have a 100% film crew. So then people started slowly coming in who knew this great person here and or there. On one day, we’re filming in three different states, but all shot on phones, and we shipped cameras to people too and we would direct over Zoom.
So speaking more broadly, obviously you’re a little younger than me, so I’m intrigued to ask you what sort of impact you think that Covid-19 has had on your generation in particular? Because it seems to me that’s a somewhat underreported element of this crisis.
Personally, it was really interesting, because for the past three years I feel like I’ve been doing 1,000 miles an hour — flights every week, hotels, and on the road for months doing this and that — and now I really have a time to pause. Everybody that knows me makes the joke that I’m 21 going on 80. And having that time to really sit down with myself and number one, comprehend what’s coming up, because I knew the show [Save By The Bell] was going to drop, and number two, just having the time to do things that I enjoyed.
Unconsciously, through the dopamine that comes when you’re in a rush, I think sometimes little habits and motives slip in that you don’t notice. And having the time to really sit down and kind of say, ‘OK, was I doing this for the fact of doing it and trying to be productive and busy, or was I doing it because I actually truly enjoy it?’ So seeing that in my habits was a really interesting thing.
I think I’m in a very interesting age group in this time, because there’s a lot of kids in school. I didn’t have that experience. I was talking to one of my good friends who goes to University of Wyoming and she is in the nursing program there. The worst thing that happens to me is that I’m not on set — and that’s pretty easy, I guess. But she was talking about how they’re doing everything online now. And she feels ill-prepared when the world kind of comes back to life, that she’s gonna be graduating, she’s gonna be in a hospital with a real human, and she does not know how that will correlate.
And these are obviously formative years for people of your age. Do you think people are missing out on some of those important experiences?
You could say that we’re missing out. But I also think that it’s healthy to look at it from the standpoint of, we are a part of a universal conscious shift that is going on right now. And we have the ability to comprehend it, accept it, and kind of spit it out in a way to move forward. We are in the perfect age group to come up with a plan. We are the future politicians and doctors and all that. So what will this time teach us? And how can we use that when we’re 40 and 50, 60 and 70?
So how are you keeping your mind healthy in this time?
It has been kind of a roller coaster, there were times where I was really on my game, using every minute of the day for something productive and mindful and learning. But I also realized that there comes a time where maybe that is not needed, and even if it’s not productive, to just take a break. So in the rush of things, when I was taking flights and all that I do, I’d meditate twice daily. Or if I’m in an airport, that kind of thing, a lot of the time I won’t listen to music at all, just kind of walk and try to be present. Because when you’re in a rush, things do get blurred.
But during this time, I kind of had to sit back and be like, ‘OK, what is mindfulness now?’ Because I think that definition changes. Because sometimes it’s easier to pay attention when there’s a lot going on. It’s harder when things are silent in the city silent. Your phone’s not dinging, there’s no audition emails coming in, to really sit down and say, ‘OK, what really is mindfulness to me?’ And that’s a question that I’ve had constantly had in my head over this time. I wouldn’t say I’ve found the right answer, but sitting with myself daily, and reading, and doing workouts, is all part of my routine that keeps me sane.
I know you used to be a competitive snowboarder, is getting outdoors and those kinds of activities still an important part of what you do?
I thrive when I’m in nature. That’s how I grew up. I grew up in the mountains, I grew up in the snow, in the sunshine, and when I don’t have that, my mental health deteriorates very quickly. And so during this time, I knew that was going to be something that I had to battle. I have a Jeep and a couple months into quarantine, I would drive about two-and-a-half hours outside of Los Angeles and I camped a lot on my own and spent quite a bit of time in nature.
And what about technology use, do you try to limit that?
Yes, I was raised like that. I didn’t really have video games growing up, I was constantly in nature. So it’s always been something I try to keep to. Whenever I have a day or a moment, I do put the phone down and lean towards drawing or painting or reading or that kind of thing.
One thing that we talk a lot about on our site is trying to encourage men in particular to talk about their mental health. Do you think that your generation is more in tune with that? Are you and your male friends comfortable talking to each other about these things?
I feel like my generation is one of the first to realize that masculinity does not mean you have to be this strong, macho man. Masculinity and femininity are in each of us. And asking for help and talking about things is OK. The friends that I have, we do all talk about that. We have wonderful conversations and sit down at night and say, ‘OK, what are you dealing with? What’s going on?’ There’s this community of artists that I’m very grateful to be a part of, and we’re all in this phase now, and maybe never ends, of really just trying to find peace with where we’re going, with an uncertainty, and just find solitude in that.
And going back a little bit, you worked with Janelle Monae and Cynthia Arivo on the movie ‘Harriet’, both really amazing artists. What was it like working with them and what did you learn from them?
Being on that set was incredible due to the level of artistry. I just got chills! Everybody wasn’t there to make a movie, they were there to tell a story and tell the truth of the story. And then you mix that type of mindset with those artists and commitment, being on set and seeing how they work, and how hyper-focused they were, going to set knowing that they prepared 100 hours plus, seeing Cynthia wake up every morning and run eight miles before even going to set. That was the first time that I was exposed to that level of acting and I knew where I wanted to go. That film really was a kind of guidance for me. So let’s put our nose to the grindstone and go.