TORONTO (CUP)-Remember Degrassi? The sometimes painful and often poignant television show about a group of teenagers who attended the fictional Degrassi Junior High and later Degrassi High?
Sure you do. So does Natalie Earl. The difference between you and Earl, though, is a few thousand kilometres. She was living in California when she saw her first episode of Degrassi Junior High.
And, unlike Earl, you probably dont feel a passion to stroll through the “real” hallways of Degrassi – the show was filmed at Torontos Centennial College. Earl, however, has a strong Degrassi drive. So strong, in fact, she helped organized a conference this past summer at Centennial that saw some of the shows stars come out of retirement.
“The convention basically evolved out of the Degrassi Web Ring websites and the Degrassi Digest Mailing List,” wrote Earl in an email interview. “Fan participation became so high that we decided to invite the mailing list subscribers to a party in Toronto.”
Earl and her cohort, Mark Aaron Polger, rented Centennials Bell Centre – the building where the show was shot – for an afternoon. The event was pretty amazing, considering it was organized by someone who wasnt even in Canada when they first saw the show.
Degrassi made a splash down south via KCET, a public television station in Los Angeles which aired the shows. “Degrassi was relatively obscure in the United States,” wrote Earl. “However, Americans are brain dead when it comes to educational programming. Degrassi was sort of a cult alternative against American fodder such as Beverly Hills 90210.
“I became an obsessive Degrassi fan because it was the only program that portrayed teenagers in a realistic and gutsy sense. I mean, back in the 1980s, what other teen drama featured skinheads, punks, and goths as main characters? You did not see teen pregnancy, suicide or child molestation addressed on Saved by the Bell.”
As an aside, one Degrassi website said 90210 was largely based on the Canadian classic. The author claimed Fox Television courted the makers of Degrassi for sometime, but when Fox discovered it couldnt tamper with the shows hard-edged formula, the company decided to make their own teen drama instead. In other words, we can thank Degrassi for Brenda, Brandon, et al.
When Degrassi High went off the air in 1991, Canadian fans got their fix from Degrassi Talks, a talk show based on the trials and tribulations of the average teenager.
Earl had to be more creative. “I spent years trying to find information about the show at the library and on the internet,” she wrote. “Then in 1998, when the episodes went into syndication on Showcase Canada, TRIO Network in the United States and on Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the fans developed a revival on the internet.”
This revival has sparked new debate about 10-year-old episodes and even includes new adventures, written by fans with an awful lot of time on their hands, for the attendees of Degrassi.
Unfortunately, the revival has also dragged some interesting characters out of their desk chairs and into the light. While Degrassi stars have always had to deal with a certain amount of attention, some fans crossed the line between fanaticism and terror. In September, the Toronto Star reported that former Degrassi star Sarah Ballingal had been stalked by an Australian fan for a number of years. This mess made it difficult for Earl to get in contact with other Degrassi members for their reaction to the convention.
Polger, Earls partner in organizing the convention, shed some light on the situation. “I think the Degrassi stars probably want to keep their privacy,” he wrote in an email. “This was a show that was on so many years ago.”
While neither Earl nor Polger would stalk a former Degrassi star, Earl has her eye on the show for her own devious purposes. “Ultimately I want to develop my own television series that is very similar to Degrassi.”