My day with the Degrassi cult:
Fans of the old CBC hit series are devoted, even obsessive.
With a new version of the show in the works, writes KIM HONEY,
their loyalty to the brand may be a problem
Saturday, April 7, 2001
TORONTO — Mark Polger pauses outside the front doors to Vincent Massey Public School in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke and looks up at the red-brick building with reverence.
This isn’t his first pilgrimage to the site where his all-time favourite TV show was filmed, the Canadian classic Degrassi Junior High, but it’s the first time he has been inside, walking the halls once roamed by Joey, Wheels, Snake, Spike, and Caitlin.
On the main floor, Polger spies a water fountain attached to the wall at knee-level. “This is where Snake asked Melanie on a date,” he says, presenting the pint-size porcelain sink with a hand flourish reminiscent of a game-show hostess outlining a prize.
As he reaches the landing on the stairway leading to the second-floor classrooms, he stops and spreads his arms. “This is where everything happened. This is so Degrassi,” he exclaims. It was where Spike and her boyfriend, Shane, discussed her pregnancy, where Spike tore a strip off Caitlin for distributing flyers without consulting her, and where, in the very first episode, Stephanie and Voula got into an argument.
If the 26-year-old University of Waterloo grad student sounds a little preoccupied with all things Degrassi, there’s more. Once a year the Kitchener, Ont., resident makes the 100-kilometre trek to Toronto to tour the show’s landmarks, a circuit that takes about six hours by public transit.
The operator of the biggest, most up-to-date Degrassi fan site on the Internet, Polger spends about $2,000 a year — money he doesn’t really have — to maintain about 10 domain names with the word Degrassi in them.
“You tell me a sentence, I’ll tell you the episode and the year. I know all of the dialogue,” he says, clapping his hand over his mouth. “Now I’m embarrassed.”
The depth of his Degrassi knowledge is astounding, and he’s not alone. He estimates his mailing list is 2,000 strong. Most fans live in Canada and the United States, but they can be found as far away as Israel and Australia.
Degrassi fans’ ardour shows in their attraction to street signs. Twelve were stolen last year, says Myles Currie, the city’s manager of traffic signs, and he’s already lost two this year. At $120 a pop, they’re not cheap to replace. “They’re heavy-duty groupies,” Currie says. “They’re like Trekkies. They’ve got to have a piece of the Starship Enterprise.”
The show, created by former teacher Linda Schuyler and her then-partner, Kit Hood, made its debut on CBC Television in 1979 with Kids of Degrassi Street. It wasn’t until those kids grew up and Schuyler and Hood moved them into Degrassi Junior High in 1986 that the show started to attract a real following. By the time Degrassi High, which made its debut in 1989, went off the air in 1990, CBC and PBS were clamouring for more, but the actors were getting a bit long in the tooth for a show set in high school.
Since then, the show has been in almost constant reruns on CBC and Showcase. It was also sold to more than 70 countries around the world, and now Schuyler, without Hood, is resurrecting the show.
After producing Liberty Street and the prime-time soap opera, Riverdale, for CBC-TV, Schuyler is now working on the scripts for a one-hour special and 13 half-hour episodes of Degrassi: The Next Generation for CTV. She hopes to begin shooting in July, although CTV has not decided whether it will air in fall, 2001, or winter, 2002. The project also includes a fully interactive Web site.
The old Degrassi appealed to Polger because it had that low-budget, Canadian-TV look, relied on untrained actors, and tackled issues that every teen had encountered but couldn’t talk about: eating disorders, suicide, alcoholism, bullying, sex and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV.
The university student, who was born in Montreal to an English-speaking Jewish family, describes his adolescent self as “a bit of an oddball,” someone who didn’t have many friends and who was teased because he was different.
It’s a common theme among Degrassi fans. Alienated and marginalized, as teens they found a school where they felt they belonged.
Natalie Earl, a fan from Los Angeles, says she probably won’t go to her high-school reunion this year because “Degrassi seemed more like my high. At the University of Toronto, sociology professor John Hannigan says television shows capture people’s attention because there is a “drought of identity” in our society.
In the past, people were born into a family whose place was fixed in the community depending on social status, cultural connections and education. Now families are much more mobile and few belong to churches or other community organizations, so people are searching for a way to replace that loss of identity.
All television shows and films rely on what sociologists call para-social interaction to engage the viewer. That means we relate to characters on the screen and “attribute a certain degree of reality to them,” Hannigan explains. “We all do that, or shows wouldn’t have any appeal.” Trouble arises when fans, usually those with pre-existing mental illnesses, can’t pull back, and the celebrity stalker is born.
In the case of Degrassi, it was an Australian accountant named Brian Andrew Sutcliffe who crossed the line between devotion and obsession, although Polger says a few of the fans he knows personally have gone through stages where they tried to contact Degrassi celebrities. Polger says Sutcliffe seemed like an ordinary fan when he first joined on-line conversations about Degrassi, but his e-mails became more and more offensive and Polger finally stopped posting his rants.
In 1994, the 37-year-old began harassing Degrassi actress Sara Ballingall, who played Melanie Brodie, as well as a female crew member who worked with Schuyler on her television series Liberty Street, by e-mail, snail mail and telephone. After a joint investigation by police in Canada and Australia, more than 70 guns were seized from Sutcliffe’s house in 1998 and he was charged with stalking and possessing unregistered firearms. The stalking case is about to proceed in Australia after the Supreme Court of Victoria ruled that it could hear the case despite the fact the alleged crimes occurred in Canada.
Schuyler, who says Ballingall and her family have been devastated by the case, was pleased with the decision to prosecute Sutcliffe, and promised that cyber-stalking would no doubt turn up as a theme in a future Degrassi show.
But Hannigan also gives credit for the show’s popularity to Schuyler herself, a former junior-high-shool teacher who drew on actual classroom experiences when she developed the show.
Schuyler talks about how she has to go forward on the new project “just hoping” she has the right ingredients, but she knows that timing is important. When the first Degrassi series aired, there were few shows for teens out there. “I think there was an audience that was just ready to lap it up,” Schuyler says. This time, it’s more of a gamble.
One of the problems, as Schuyler is discovering, is that fans can be more a hindrance than a help. She is now battling Polger over domain names that he has registered for his Web site. He owns the two most generic Degrassi domains, http://www.degrassi.ca/ and http://www.degrassi.org/. Schuyler wants them, particularly because an interactive Web site is such a big part of her future plans.
After a meeting last June where Schuyler offered to move Polger’s site to a new address, give him official fan status, and even offered him a job, the university student decided he didn’t want to hand over the domain names and registered even more domain names containing the Degrassi handle.
When Schuyler’s company, Epitome Pictures, sent a draft statement of claim to Polger, the university student started to worry that the company would sue him. Polger is working on his master’s in sociology on a scholarship (his first grad degree was in library science), and supports himself as a teaching assistant in the hopes of becoming a university librarian.
It also hurt his feelings that Schuyler doesn’t seem to acknowledge what his Web site has done for Degrassi. “It’s about being gracious,” he says. “Without me and my Web sites they would have no market, they would have no reason to make a new show.”
Schuyler agrees that Polger’s unofficial fan site was a “contributing factor” in the show’s on-going popularity, but she said it helped that the show has almost never been off air since it was produced.
She is sensitive to the fact that she may alienate the very fans who have helped keep Degrassi alive, but believes the new show will attract an audience on its own merit.
Although the shows are still being written and plots are top-secret, speculation is that Spike’s baby, Emma, will be central to the story line.
All Schuyler will say about Degrassi: The Next Generation is that it is a “convergence project,” which means an interactive Web site is being developed alongside the story lines for the TV show. Schuyler wants to open a virtual school on the Internet, where viewers can gossip about the characters, for example, or visit a guidance counsellor for more information about any issue highlighted on the show.
What is certain is that Pat Mastroianni, the actor who played Joey Jeremiah, “will have some involvement,” but Schuyler warns that fans of the old show can’t expect to see their old favourites all grown up. It isn’t called The Next Generation for nothing.
Despite Polger’s and Earl’s antipathy towards Schuyler, including claims that the show’s writers “lifted” some story lines from fan fiction posted on Polger’s Web site, they both look forward to the new show. Like most fans, they are worried that Degrassi will lose its gritty, low-budget look and become something glossier, like Party of Five or 90210.
“The time is perfect for a new Degrassi, with so many critical social issues such as school violence,” says Earl, who would have “flipped” for the chance to chat on-line with stars in the early days of her crush on Degrassi.
“I just hope they don’t get lazy/greedy and try to turn it into Dawson’s Creek or some stupid Britney Spears video.”