Back to Degrassi…

What! A Magazine
Back to Degrassi: one of the most popular TV shows for teens went
off the air nearly a decade ago. This fall, Degrassi returns to
the tube, reaching out to a new generation of viewers.

By: Matt Semansky

When the original Degrassi series ended its run in 1992, Linda
Schuyler thought she’d gotten the teen genre out of her system. Now, almost a
decade later, the executive producer and co-creator of one of Canada’s most
popular cultural exports has had a change of heart.

“I really love storytelling for young people,” says the former junior high
school teacher. “It’s just such an exciting time of life.”

Schuyler is hard at work on the Toronto set of Degrassi: The Next Generation,
a new show for teens that carries a well-recognized name. Airing in the late
’80s and early ’90s, the original show followed the trials and triumphs of its
teen characters, from the seventh grade right through to graduation. Degrassi
Junior High and Degrassi High were tremendous hits in Canada and around the
world, broadcast to hungry audiences in over 40 countries. Although most of
the actors had little experience and the production values were low, Degrassi
connected with young viewers who felt that other teen shows were slick,
glossed-over versions of real life. The appeal of the show, according to
Schuyler, is its uncompromising realism.

“We’ve always approached the storytelling from the kids’ perspective, showing
things the way they see it,” she explains, “and we’ve tried to always be
honest about it.”

Schuyler promises that this philosophy will extend to CTV’s The Next
Generation, which introduces a new set of seventh-and eighth-graders to the
screen. While episodes will contain their fair share of the usual junior high
fun and games — parties, pranks and the like — they’ll also focus on more
serious issues like drugs, sex, family problems and death. And, as in real
life, these problems won’t necessarily be solved in a half-hour of screen
time.

The new Degrassi will sport some interesting changes, including the updated
style and slang of 21st-century teens and a more refined look. Also,
Degrassi.Tv, a documentary series dealing with gripping teen issues, will
follow the show each week. And a Degrassi School web site will provide a
virtual school environment where viewers can virtually enrol and be assigned a
student number and locker (space to create their own web pages). The fictional
students from the series will interact with the new, virtual students (who can
also interact with each other). It will be as if the school were real.

Schuyler and her team were faced with one storytelling dilemma — how to
connect the old show to the new one. To solve this problem, they focused on
the character of Spike Nelson, a teenage girl whose pregnancy was a major
storyline in the original series. Fans of the old Degrassi will remember that
Spike gave birth to daughter Emma; it just so happens that Emma is now of
junior high school age. As the most obvious link to the old graduates, she is
the one who introduces the audience to the Next Generation.

If she’s feeling the pressure about playing Emma or following in the footsteps
of the incredibly popular original show, Miriam McDonald certainly isn’t
showing it. She was just a toddler for Degrassi’s first run and is hardly
affected by the hype — although she does understand it.

“I’ve seen a few episodes of the old show,” says the 14-year-old, “and I like
how they’re not afraid to talk about issues. I think we’re still doing that on
this show.”

Emma is just one character in an entire school full of them. Like the
original, The Next Generation doesn’t play favourites with its stars. Each
episode will focus on a different character or storyline, meaning that an
actor who’s front and centre one week may find themselves in the background in
the following show. This ensemble philosophy suits Miriam just fine.

“It’s nice, because we’re all getting along so well and helping each other
out. It’s like a team.”

Ryan Cooley plays class clown J.T. Yorke, a confident kid who sports the best
wardrobe in all of Degrassi. And according to him, J.T. and the real-life Ryan
are a lot alike. “I like to joke around and be the centre of attention,” says
the 13-year-old.

Like Miriam and many of the other cast members, Ryan boasts a lot more acting
experience than his counterparts from the original series. He’s been in
several commercials and TV projects, including the Canadian-produced sci-fi
series Lexx. Ryan and Miriam agree that their training, as well as their
everyday school experiences, has allowed them some creative input into the
show.

“They always ask us to read the script and point out anything we don’t think
the character would really say or do,” says Miriam. “We have a lot of say in
forming our characters that way.”

But as Schuyler points out, the path to success for the new Degrassi requires
that cast, crew and audience all understand one central philosophy: “The star
of the show is the school itself.”

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