In the fourth episode of the final season of “Saved by the Bell,” Kelly Kapowski and Jessie Spano are conspicuously absent and a new character is introduced: Tori Scott.
While the Saturday morning sitcom was never known for its attention to detail, the lack of continuity in the episodes that followed were notable even for a show that famously aired episodes out of order and even moved half the characters from Indiana to California with no explanation.
Tori (Leanna Creel) appeared in a total of 10 episodes, which alternated with those featuring Kelly and Jessie — but Kelly and Jessie’s disappearance was never acknowledged in Tori’s episodes and Tori was never mentioned in the others. In the series’ third-to-last episode, Tori joins Bayside’s departing seniors in an effort to leave their mark with a new school song. But then she’s never heard from again, even when the entire gang graduates two episodes later.
“I didn't know what a brouhaha that my character would cause,” Creel told TODAY. “The whole idea that I wasn't in the graduation episode.”
In fact, Creel is aware of the “nefarious theories online about what Tori might have done with Kelly,” as well as the writer Chuck Klosterman’s 2003 essay “Being Zack Morris,” which takes on “the Tori paradox” and argues that social circles are fluid and the characters’ comings and goings are realistic after all.
“I thought that was hilarious,” Creel said. She further realized Tori’s impact on pop culture when she found herself onstage at an irreverent off-Broadway parody of “Saved by the Bell.”
“It was definitely a point of reference for comedy in the parody and that's when I really became aware of it,” she said.
She also recalled a humor piece on Funny or Die that imagined Tori’s response when part of the “Saved by the Bell” cast reunited on “The Tonight Show” in 2015 — which some incorrectly assumed that she wrote herself.
“Even my brother-in-law texted me and was like, ‘That's hilarious, Leanna, that’s so funny that you wrote that,’ and I was like, ‘What?’”
“And the stuff that people wrote about it, they so didn't get that, A, it was on Funny or Die for a reason,” she said. “But there was definitely a lot of people that didn't get the joke and thought I wrote it, and they wrote in the comments, like, ‘You're just a loser, you thought you could take over for them and you didn’t,’ like horrible things. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you guys.’ Geez. So, yeah, I realize that my character has been the brunt of many a joke. And so, you know, it's totally fine. It was an absurd kind of pseudo-reality to begin with.”
The Tori episodes, which aired in fall 1992, were filmed after Tiffani Thiessen and Elizabeth Berkley left the show, and Creel doesn’t recall hearing production discussions about how the swap would be explained.
“I just remember them saying, you know, ‘Don't worry about it, it won’t matter, these are gonna play in all different orders and it doesn't really matter.’ And, again, I think the one that's really the most egregious is the graduation episode, and I don't think I was aware about the graduation episode at the time, blissfully unaware.”
Of her 10 episodes, Creel said the most absurd was “Earthquake,” in which Mr. Belding’s wife goes into labor while trapped in an elevator with Tori and Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar). Her favorite is “The New Girl,” in which Tori is introduced as a tough girl with a motorcycle.
Citing episodes such as “Drinking and Driving” and “Teen Line,” Creel recalled, “I remember going, ‘Oh, my gosh, every single episode is like a thinly veiled morality tale.’”
“I look back now and I'm like, oh, my gosh, like, it was definitely of its era,” she added. “You know, some of the things, I just cringe now, like, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ the stereotypes and the sexism and, oh, my gosh, it's really shocking. And at the time, again, I was so young and naive and that's just the way things were done.”
Creel has also heard from fans that thought Tori was a “really strong” character.
“A lot of gay women have come up and told me I was like their first crush,” she said. “I'm like, ‘Thank you.’ So, I don't know if she was, like, a little nod to maybe today she would be gay.”
“I think Jessie's character was similar, but somehow she was a little more preachy; I got to be a little less preachy,” she added.
Creel said some viewers confused the two characters, sending fan mail that began “Dear Tori/Jessie.”
Creel was a student at UCLA during “Saved by the Bell,” and knew Berkley from acting classes even though they never overlapped on the show. After college and film school, she went on to a career as a producer and runs the production company Creel Studio with her wife, Rinat Greenberg.
Her latest venture is an app called Vuse, which aims to empower real estate professionals to create branded content. Creel said the app was a fun opportunity to merge her entrepreneurial and video backgrounds.
Creel stopped wearing a black leather jacket “for many years” after leaving Tori behind, since she wanted to move on from the character. But more recently she’s embraced the experience, recording messages for “Saved by the Bell” fans on Cameo, where she often receives requests for 40th birthday greetings.
“Saved by the Bell” isn’t Creel’s only TV credit making her popular with former kids of that era. She also starred with her triplet sisters, Joy and Monica, in 1989’s “Parent Trap III.” And in 1992, Leanna and Monica guest-starred on “Beverly Hills, 90210.”
“I was probably the audience for the show so that was really fun to do,” she recalled of the episode, in which they played twins who date Brandon (Jason Priestley) and Steve (Ian Ziering).
“I remember, it could have been paranoia, but I remember thinking, 'Oh, my God, they are deliberately putting us in the worst outfits and doing our hair super dorky because of the other girls on the show, like so it would make them look better,’” she recalled. “It might’ve just been my paranoia. We had to wear the dorkiest clothes.”
Creel said she ran into Ziering when their kids were in preschool together.
“We had a good giggle about that show and the episode and, you know, that was actually really fun, so that was a trip running into him,” she said.
Out of the “Saved by the Bell” cast, Creel has kept in touch with Mario Lopez the most. They hung out in 2018, when Creel attended the Saved by the Max pop-up restaurant in Los Angeles.
Creel said she’s “super psyched” for Lopez’s success with Peacock’s “Saved by the Bell” reboot.
“I remember thinking, I wonder if the kids could do a better job, a little more realistic version of the show, and I remember having that thought, way back when,” she said. “And I feel like Elizabeth (Berkley) and Mario are doing that. They're getting a shot at doing, like, a more realistic, more, you know, obviously it’s a comedy and it’s a situational comedy, but I think that they're getting to finally do that, so I'm excited.”
Creel gets why “Saved by the Bell” still resonates with fans who came of age with it.
“I think it's connected to their childhood,” she said. “It reminds them of their childhood, and my guess is it reminds them of their fantasized view of what high school would be like, and so maybe it was also comforting, like, here's what it's going to be like. So I think it's like a warm childhood blanket.”
During her time as a history major at UCLA, Creel organized an independent study on children's television and interviewed executives at NBC.
“I remember realizing then how ‘Saved by the Bell’ was the first live-action (show) on Saturday morning, and how radical it was, and so I get it if you were a kid growing up and there was nothing but cartoons and then all of a sudden there's this live-action show for you to watch,” she said.
But Creel said she couldn’t have predicted the phenomenon the show became.
“The factors that create that are not ones that show up in a spreadsheet, and you can't,” she said. “That was a mix of timing, and the lack of availability of other things and, you know, Mark-Paul and the other characters being likable, but I think it struck a chord with a certain group of people.”