‘Degrassi’: A Series For Children That Goes for the Gut
By JOHN BURNS
Published: February 5, 1989
LEAD: Over the coming months, viewers of more than 250 stations affiliated with the Public Broadcasting Service will have an opportunity to re-acquaint themselves with the real-to-life dramas of Degrassi Junior High, site of the weekly half-hour program of the same name that has been remolding the pat-a-cake image of what the industry, with at least some sense of paradox, likes to call ”children’s television.
Over the coming months, viewers of more than 250 stations affiliated with the Public Broadcasting Service will have an opportunity to re-acquaint themselves with the real-to-life dramas of Degrassi Junior High, site of the weekly half-hour program of the same name that has been remolding the pat-a-cake image of what the industry, with at least some sense of paradox, likes to call ”children’s television.”
Just as it did with its initial run of 26 shows in the United States during the 1987-88 season, the new ”Degrassi Junior High” series, whose 16 episodes began on some PBS stations in December and are making their debut on WNET, the New York affiliate, this morning at 10:30, deals with some of the harshest aspects of adolescent life. Sparing few sensibilities, the show is being talked about among people in the television industry as the adolescents’ version of ”Hill Street Blues” or ”L.A. Law” – a series that dispenses with tidy morality and goes for the gut.
Sample, for instance, the plot line of episode five of the new series, due to be broadcast on WNET in March. Snake, a 15-year-old ninth grader, is excited when his 21-year-old brother, Glenn, long his hero, returns unexpectedly from medical school. When Glenn picks up Snake at a school basketball game and tells his younger brother that he has to talk to their parents about ”something important,” Snake’s curiosity is only slowly aroused. Glenn: I’m moving in with this guy. Snake: Yuh, so what? Glenn: Well, he’s gay. Snake: Why would you want to move in with one of those guys? Glenn: Because I’m gay. How Snake handles the news that his brother is not a conventional campus jock is only one of the provocative story lines in the new series. Other episodes follow the troubles of a 15-year-old, Wheels, after his parents die, innocently, in a drunk-driving accident; the drug-induced suicide attempt of Shane, a ninth-grade student whose girlfriend’s pregnancy was one of the dramas of last year’s series, and the sudden cooling of one student’s parents when she brings her boyfriend home and they discover that the fellow is black. The turns of life at Degrassi have attracted one of the strongest worldwide audiences ever for a series aimed specifically at adolescents, defined by ”Degrassi Junior High’s” producers as those who are 10 to 15 years old. All or part of the first 26 episodes have appeared in more than 40 countries, including such unlikely candidates for tell-it-as-it-is programming as China, South Africa and South Yemen. Audiences include the 3.5 million U. S. viewers registered on a week-by-week survey for PBS last year, about 1.6 million who watch the program regularly on Canadian television and 5.5 million in Britain, ”Degrassi’s” strongest market overseas.
The drawing power of the first batch of episodes surprised even the series’ backers.
”The response has been extraordinarily positive,” says Kate Taylor, the 40-year-old head of children’s and family programming for WGBH, whose work in raising financial support for the series played a crucial role in getting ”Degrassi Junior High” launched.
The idea germinated in an earlier children’s series. Two Canadians, Kit Hood and Linda Schuyler, he an editor of television commercials and she a junior high school teacher moonlighting in documentary film making, formed a production company in 1977 called Playing for Time, a title taken from one of their first ventures, a documentary about a 76-year-old marathon piano player. A friend sent Ms. Schuyler a children’s book, ”Ida Makes a Movie,” and its success as a half-hour film attracted backing from the CBC and Telefilm, Canada’s government film agency, for a series that became ”Kids of Degrassi Street,” forerunner of the current show.
Twenty-six episodes of the ”Kids” series were made, featuring a cast of 6-to-10-year-olds on Degrassi Street, a residential neighborhood in downtown Toronto notable for its mix of immigrants and WASP’s, blue-collar and middle class. The idea was to make a program that looked at the world from a children’s viewpoint, without the moralizing, cuteness or condescension that ”Degrassi’s” mentors saw as characteristic of most children’s television, and without the intrusive adults. In 1985, Mr. Hood, now 43, and Ms. Schuyler, 40, sought the financial backing to have the show ”grow,” along with the children, into its current format.
From the start, ”Degrassi Junior High” was a more ambitious project, with budgets that began at about $180,000 a half-hour episode (up to about $200,000 for the current series) compared to the $20,000 for the early episodes of ”Kids.” But the film makers’ approach was unchanged. From her teaching days, Ms. Schuyler was convinced that adolescents would respond to a series that pictured their lives as they found them. She found an ally in Mrs. Taylor of WGBH, who arranged for a third of the financing to come from PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. With contributions later on from individual PBS stations, the total U. S. outlay for the series has passed $3 million.
”Often the kids don’t want to talk to their parents about their problems, even if their parents do,” Ms. Schuyler said during a break from filming at the old primary school in Toronto’s West End that serves as the ”Degrassi Junior High” set. ”What we’re trying to do is to fill the gap. It’s not our job to tell kids what’s right or wrong. What we’re trying to do is to present these really tough situations to them so that they’ll be better informed when they have to make their own decisions.”
The plots have pulled few punches. In the series seen last season, ”Degrassi’s” appealingly ragtag cast was seen struggling with such issues as lesbianism, abortion and more mundane dilemmas of awakening sexual consciousness, including one episode in which a young couple’s passions were short-circuited when the girl’s mother saw her daughter’s 14-year-old suitor buying condoms.
Along with the problems of sexuality, the shows have traced everyday adolescent problems, including campus jealousies and friendships turned sour.
Audiences have been broad. Although surveys show that 40 percent of viewers in the United States are between 6 and 18, many are middle aged and older. But the production has never pretended to offer adults equal time. Teachers and parents appear only incidentally and never without youngsters. Camera levels are set to adolescents’ height, and the school principal, Mr. Lawrence, is referred to but never appears.
As important, the program depicts parents and teachers as no less complex – and flawed – than the children. In the episode about lesbianism, Miss Avery, the teacher who is the object of a teen-ager’s crush, leaves her sexual preferences purposely ambiguous when she asks her admirer, at the end of the show, whether it would ”make any difference” if she really were gay. And parents, seen and unseen, contribute to their children’s troubles with their drinking, their frequent absences from home and their unsteady marriages.
”We’re trying to show that not all teen-agers have fathers like Bill Cosby,” said Mrs. Taylor, who reviews all the scripts. In Britain, at least some of the material has proved too strong for the BBC; four of the initial 26 episodes, including the one dealing with lesbianism, were held off the air by BBC1, the channel with the widest viewing audience, and finally run in a later time slot by BBC2. In the United States, according to Mrs. Taylor, negative reactions have been sparse.
”We looked at this as a show with a certain amount of risk,” she said. ”We thought some parts of the country might have some problems with the fact that we were using public money to deal so frankly with sexuality on some of the other issues. But it hasn’t happened.”
Mrs. Taylor, a former junior high school teacher in Roxbury, the predominantly black inner-city neighborhood in Boston, is especially proud of PBS’s success in promoting the series as an instructional tool. Part of the money spent on the series by the public-TV system has gone to producing teachers’ guides and other materials that assist schools using the show in their curriculum. ”When I was teaching, I would just have loved to get my hands on something like ‘Degrassi,’ ” Ms. Schuyler said.
Part of the ”Degrassi Junior High” formula is the decision to sick with the repertory company of amateur actors, teen-agers drawn from Toronto’s schools and taught what they know about acting mainly on the run. While this can lead to stiffness, Mr. Hood and Ms. Schuyler believe that the approach more than compensates with its freshness. The actors are encouraged to argue for changes in the dialogue and plot to make it more realistic. ”We’d never say, ‘He’s a square.’ We’d say, ‘He’s a narbo,’ ” said Stefan Brogren, the 16-year-old who plays Snake. ”So, if something like that comes up, we get it changed.”
Just as ”Kids of Degrassi Street” had to grow with its actors, ”Degrassi Junior High” has reached a critical juncture with the completion of the current 16 episodes, which bring many of its leading characters to the point where they are graduating to high school. At a recent meeting in Toronto, Mrs. Taylor, speaking for WGBH, gave her backing to a new series, as yet unnamed, that will carry the program forward, in the 1980-90 season, into a high school setting.
Characteristically, Mr. Hood and Ms. Schuyler made their own decision before the financing for the new series was completed. Concerned that ”Degrassi” was in danger of becoming repetitive, they had the scriptwriters put an end to the school, at least in strictly physical terms, by having the building burn down during the graduation dance that closes out the current series. The origins of the fire are left unclear. Like so much else about ”Degrassi Junior High,” there is no neat solution at the end.