Friday, October 12, 2001
AllPop’s ‘Degrassi’ cheat sheet
By STEPHANIE McGRATH — AllPop
There are two types of “Degrassi” fans. The first watched the show when it was shiny and new and can still discuss the plot lines of each and every episode. The second discovered the program in reruns and, hypnotized by the scary ’80s hair and issue-heavy plot lines, and egged on by vague Kevin Smith references, found themselves just as hooked as the original “Degrassi” fans.
But AllPop knows that many of our readers are barely aware of the existence of “Degrassi”, which started in 1982 with “Kids Of Degrassi Street” and finished up in 1991 with “Degrassi: School’s Out”, so we’re offering you a crash course and a sneak preview of the first episode of “Degrassi: The Next Generation”. Those of you who are already fans can skip this story and head right over to the plot synopsis of “The Next Generation” pilot.
The classic cast
Classic “Degrassi” elements:
1. There must ALWAYS be an issue. Teen parenthood, abortion, drugs, drinking, eating disorders, relationship trauma, peer pressure, suicide, alcoholic parents, and abuse were mainstays of the classic “Degrassi”.
2. The actors MUST look like average public school students. Some of the classic characters were cuter than others, but there were no Katie Holmeses or Sarah Michelle Gellars in that crowd.
3. The show MUST have easily identifiable Canadian elements. The classic episodes featured references to Canadian locations (it was filmed in Toronto) and events.
4. There MUST be characters you like and characters you love to hate, but the ones you despise MUST eventually reveal the reason for their troubled behaviours. One of the classic evil characters was Kathleen. She was sarcastic, uppity and snappy but … she also had an alcoholic mother and an abusive boyfriend.
5. There MUST be bad hair, scary acid-wash jeans, and odd-looking headgear (think hats, head-bands, sweat-bands) to create the overall image of really-bad fashion.
6. There MUST be a multicultural cast. This was no “90120”.
A Few Main Characters:
Joey Jeremiah — The fedora-wearing trouble-maker who got all the girls. A member of the bad band The Zit Remedy.
Archie “Snake” Simpson — The lovable, gangly goof and side-kick of Joey Jeremiah who hardly ever got the girls. Also a member of The Zit Remedy.
Derek “Wheels” Wheeler — The troubled third member of The Zit Remedy who eventually lost his way and ended up in jail for drunk driving.
Caitlin Ryan — The all-star student and probably the favourite character of most “Degrassi” fans. Her issues included dealing with her ex-boyfriend Claude’s suicide, adjusting to her epilepsy, and dating Joey.
Christine “Spike” Nelson — The punky gal who got pregnant in junior high and kept her baby, Emma.
Lucy Fernandez — The aspiring filmmaker who dabbled in shoplifting and was injured in Wheels’ drunk-driving accident.
Erica Farrell & Heather Farrell — The twins dressed alike but they were different! One loved the boys, while the other was a bit more conservative. (Only a truly crazed fan would be able to tell you which was which).
Stephanie Kaye — The popular student council president was truly two-sided and ran into trouble when she treated her friends badly. Her lowest moment? Telling brother Arthur not to let anyone know they were related.
Arthur — The friendly geek.
Yick Yu — Yick started out as a geek but became cool in the later “Degrassi” years, causing problems with his best friend Arthur.
Mr. Raditch — The teacher who followed the “Degrassi” kids through their school years.
Tessa Campanelli — Dated all the boys, starting with the geeks and working her way up to Joey.
Kathleen Mead — The cranky friend of Caitlin who once shocked her clique during a sleep-over by pulling out a joint.
Why did/do people love “Degrassi”?
The easiest and possibly the most common explanation for the popularity of “Degrassi” was the absence of cable in many small towns across Canada when the program first hit TV land. CBC was really the only choice for many young TV watchers; it aired “Degrassi”, so people watched it.
But even when cable came into existence in the far reaches of the Maritime provinces, in the northern corners of Ontario, and the picturesque towns of B.C., people continued to watch. Why?
At that point, there wasn’t really a wide variety of teen programs out there — even on cable. The boom that has given birth to a thousand teen mags, movies, CD compilations, and clothing lines had only begun to explode. Most “teen” programs featured actors that were well beyond their junior high and high school years, and looked like models.
While “Degrassi” met issues such as abortion and suicide head-on, many teen programs attempted to conquer these issues and chickened out at the last minute. Julia of “Party Of Five” talked about having an abortion for an entire hour-long episode, but a miscarriage allowed the producers to resolve the matter safely without upsetting militant anti-abortion groups.
On “Degrassi” meanwhile, one of the famous “twins” decided to have an abortion and carried through with the task. The show followed her to the clinic, where she was harassed by anti-abortionists who held up mini-fetuses to the camera before the episode ended with a freeze-frame of her entering the clinic.
But something more than issues and absentee cable attracted fans to the show. There were the distinctive Canadian elements, the identifiable characters, the cheesy clothes, the kitschy dialogue — the whole “Degrassi” package.
“Degrassi” highlights – what true fans remember:
1. Less-than-cool characters Arthur and Yick call a radio sex-show to ask about wet dreams.
2. Snotty but good-at-heart Stephanie Kay changes into racy clothes in the school bathroom every morning so her mom won’t find out about her wild side.
3. Spike (bad ’80s spiky hair) gets pregnant and eventually has Emma, who is now the main character of “The Next Generation”.
4. Snake, Joey and Wheels (the trouble-makers) and their terrible “Zit Remedy” band.
5. The twins and their odd, semi-corresponding black & white outfits.
6. Claude kills himself, Snake finds him, and is never quite the same.
7. The bully gets AIDS.
8. Caitlin & Joey’s on-going will they or won’t they (have sex).
9. The final chapter: “Degrassi School’s Out” — Wheels goes to jail, Caitlin & Joey break-up because he sleeps with the evil Tessa Campanelli, the F-word is used.
This Sunday (Oct. 14), CTV will air the pilot episode of “Degrassi: The Next Generation”. All the old favourites are back to usher in the new program and to help introduce the new students of Degrassi Community School. An early look at the pilot episode is promising. The new teen actors are talented, the clothes aren’t as odd-looking (not now anyway — check back in 10 years), and the plot-lines are solidly dramatic with a Canadian flair.
We know there are a million companies that are marketing shows and products at you right now, pitching them as being “for teens” and wrapping them up in a bright-Britney-Spears-coloured bow, and that you get nauseous at the mere thought of another network peppering you with programming they think you want to watch. But give this one a chance.