Degrassi, Eh?: Sarah Bunting relays a young Americans journey into Canadian pop-cult

Sarah Bunting relays a young Americans journey into
Canadian pop-cult .

brother and I looked forward to church every Sunday morning –
or, more accurately, to getting out of church. Starting at
eleven on Sunday morning, one of the local TV stations ran two
episodes of Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi
back to back, and if we could hustle our parents out
of “coffee hour” in a timely enough fashion, wed get home in
time to see the second episode. (Summertime brought with it a
respite from regular church services, which in turn meant that
we could watch the entire hour of Degrassi programming
uninterrupted by annoyances like religious observance.)

I dont
remember which one of us discovered Degrassi, or how –
though if I had to guess, Id lay odds on my brother; he
ingested TV in such cancer-causing quantity that the entire
family relied on him for accurate program scheduling
information. Regardless, everything about the show tickled us.
The exposure of the average New Jersey child to Canadian
culture consists of the occasional Yankees-Blue Jays game, and
Degrassi was our window into an alternate universe.
Strange pronunciations given to words like “about” and
“drama,” outlandish insults which we promptly incorporated
into our vocabulary (“Shut up, you narbo!” “You shut
up, you broomhead!”), unfamiliar terms like “Grade Eight” –
all these things proved irresistibly exotic.

If the
allure of Canadian pop culture drew us in, the regrettable
fashions modeled by the cast kept us coming up back. I hardly
cut a stylish figure myself, and we got the reruns reasonably
promptly in the States (I think I was about the same age as
the oldest “Degrassi kids”), but I still couldnt
believe the clothes. The girls in particular boggled the mind;
never in my life have I seen such aggressive accessorizing
with scarves. I wont mention Spikes various hair-donts, or
Joey Jeremiahs prescient anticipation of Swingers
chic, or Melanies tendency (shared by Kathleen) to attire
herself in the garb of a fifties schoolmarm. I will, however,
observe that acid-washed denim hung on a lot longer at
Degrassi than it did in American high schools – and
remember, we grew up in New Jersey – and that I wouldnt have
minded if Wheels wore looser jeans.

and apparel aside, the Degrassi shows encompassed a
high-school experience not only completely alien to my own but
also completely different from any high school Id ever seen
represented on television. Degrassi had an element of
reality, of sincerity, that fascinated me. Mercifully free of
the customary preachiness of an ABC After-School
, it still had all the hallmarks of a traditional
soap opera, but without the odious Beautiful People; the boys
had pimples, and the girls had hips, and neither of these
things made them any less attractive to the opposite sex. I
didnt go to school with boys, but watching Degrassi, I
felt like I grasped the basic essence of co-education. Plus,
unlike most of my classmates, the kids at Degrassi
seemed genuinely nice, most of them.

Of course,
Degrassi managed to wedge enough “important issues”
into its series run to tie up the 90210 writers for
twice the time. My favorite episodes:

1. Spike gets pregnant. I think most
people remember this one the most vividly. I can still recall
the bleak light in the pharmacy where she buys her pregnancy

2. Erica gets pregnant and has an
abortion. I always felt bad for her twin sister, Heather, in
that episode, because Heather wanted to support Erica, but at
the same time she sort of resented her for having more sexual
experience, and in my high-school role as “Sarah, Pure As
Driven Snow,” I could so relate. Erica acted like a total
beeotch in that episode, too.

3. The students spread rumors that
one of their teachers is a lesbian. It pains me to admit this,
but in seventh grade – pardon me, “Grade Seven” – my friends
and I did that to teachers we didnt like also. Not that it
ever worked or anything, but still.

4. The father of Spikes baby (Sean?)
does acid, falls from a great height, and winds up in an
irreversible coma. As if Spike didnt have enough to deal
with. At least she ended up meeting that cute Irish lad with
the Pogues t-shirt.

5. L.D. gets cancer. I got misty
whenever that one aired – the part where Lucy visits her in
the hospital got me every time. In any case, L.D. ruled; I
admired the way she waged a constant battle against

6. The Caitlin-Joey-Claude love
triangle. Caitlin dates Joey but sort of starts seeing Claude;
Caitlin dumps Joey to go out with Claude, but volunteers to
work with Joey on a class project; Caitlin dumps Claude;
Claude kills himself. My brother and I called Claude “Drone,”
because of his tiresome Green-Party blathering and silly
goatee, and because for whatever reason we couldnt ever
remember his actual name. Still, we couldnt believe hed
actually offed himself over Caitlin, who to tell the truth
kind of chafed us.

7. Scott the football player uses
“niner” Kathleen as a punching bag. Kathleen kind of chafed us
too, but no way did she deserve that kind of abuse from a runt
like Scott. (Scott had his uses, though, namely inspiring us
to coin the term “gerbilicious” to describe his mustache.)

8. Wheels and vehicular homicide.
First both his parents get killed in an auto accident; then he
gets drunk in the finale and kills Lucy. Dude, figure it

9. Michelles parents get divorced.
The main plot of this one didnt stick in mind as much as the
fact that her boyfriend, whom her father has forbidden her to
see because hes black, acts so understanding and sweet that I
wanted to transfer to the mythical Degrassi immediately, since
Toronto boys seemed to know how to treat their girlfriends.

10. Joey has to repeat Grade Eight. A
pox upon ye, Mr. Raditch!

11. The adventures of Stephanie and
Arthur. Yeah, yeah, Arthur had that crush on Caitlin (and now
that I think about it, I found the wet-dream subtext in that
episode kind of icky), but who could forget his older sib
Stephanie, who took the word “scary” to a new level with the
outfits she brought to school and changed in and out of so
their strict parents wouldnt find out shed turned into a ho?

12. The musical stylings of The Zit
Remedy, a.k.a. The Zits. “Everybody wants something,” indeed.
The episode in which The Zit Remedy makes its stunningly bad
debut at the school dance rules, of course, but dont
underestimate the one in which The Zits shoot their stunningly
even-worse video. Suffice it to say that Joey plays a
guitar-strap keyboard, and that nut-wedgies do not get more
flagrant than the one on Wheels.

13. Alexa and Simon knock it
off with the PDA. Oh, wait, that never happened.

Sarah mixes it up about TV and more over at Tomato


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