Back in class: The latest Degrassi focuses on issues, but will a new generation tune in?

Back in class

The latest Degrassi focuses on issues, but will a new generation tune in?

By CATHERINE DAWSON MARCH

Saturday, October 13, 2001 Print Edition, Page 6

The clothes and the hairstyles are hip, the technology is cutting edge, but there’ll be no raves or ecstasy experimentation in this remake of the award-winning late-eighties teen series. The plotlines in Degrassi: The Next Generation haven’t evolved much at all. And that’s just the point.

“Wherever this world takes us, we’ll tell stories about that,” says executive producer and co-creator Linda Schuyler. “However, there are still teen pregnancies and there are still people dealing with their sexual identity and racism.”

The 15-episode series is set 12 years after Joey, Caitlin, Wheels, Spike and Snake graduated high school. There’s a new cast of young teens about to take their first drink, fall in love and write math tests. Spike’s baby girl Emma (played by Miriam McDonald) is now in Grade 7 at Degrassi Community School, the built-for-TV reincarnation of Vincent Massey Junior High in Etobicoke, where the original Degrassi Junior High was shot. The new school was built on what used to be the set for Riverdale in an industrial area in Scarborough. It sits behind an enormous steel gate on the lot of Epitome Pictures. Despite the security (Degrassi fans are notoriously ardent), there’s still a good view from the parking lot of the school’s front steps and its TTC stop.

The school set has been built to meticulous standards. Passing through the front doors takes you right back; the hallways, lockers, cafeteria and classrooms are nostalgically real. Even the set bathrooms, complete with slimy green soap, rough paper towels and graffiti, are used by the cast and crew. The lockers make a satisfying metallic clang when slammed; the classrooms have student essays and haiku poems stapled to the walls. It reeks of chalk dust. But what’s different about this school, and the series, is the use of new technology. Computers dominate at home and in the school’s media lab: in one of Emma’s classes students post their homework on their own Web site, notebooks and pens becoming relics remembered by teachers and parents.

Shane Kippel, 16, is one of the new cast members. He says despite the new technology, “We’re still dealing with problems just like [the original show] did, just more modernized. There’s no stuff about the radio, we’re dealing with MP3 players, the Internet and pagers.” Kippel is familiar with the old series only because his own Grade 10 health and family studies teachers used it in class. Kippel says they watched the abortion episode, the one when Spike had her baby and another about rumours: “When Joey comes and says Liz is this new girl, and she does it.”

The old cast symbolically hand off the Degrassi franchise to Kippel, McDonald and the new gang in the first hourlong episode. Joey (Pat Mastroianni), Caitlin (Stacie Mistysyn), Lucy (Anais Granofsky), Spike (Amanda Stepto) and Snake (Stefan Brogren) catch up over drinks before heading to their high school reunion. (Fans will notice Maya, Kathleen, Alexa and Simon in the background but there’s no mention of what they’ve been up to.) Stepto and Brogren play recurring characters on the new series. Spike is now known as Miss Nelson, Emma’s mom, and Brogren plays a teacher at Degrassi. He says portraying Snake as Mr. Simpson, an adult, makes him feel old, especially as he watches the new cast members getting to know each other. “There’s a little flirting going on. They’re between 13 and 16 years old and – I hate to say it because they used to say it about us – but the hormones are raging.”

At the reunion, Joey and Caitlin still can’t take their eyes off each other, Wheels (Neil Hope), sporting new glasses, turns up briefly and Lucy is still in physiotherapy from the car accident in School’s Out (airing Saturday at 7 p.m. on CTV). Don McKellar guest stars as Caitlin’s fianc (the part was supposed to be played by film director Kevin Smith, a rabid Degrassi fan, but a busy schedule kept him in Los Angeles). Brogren says the old cast “clicked back into place very quickly,” and it shows when they start playing with one of Joey’s old fedoras (yes, it is one of the originals). “[The hat] started off really inconspicuous in a scene,” remembers Stepto. “Then it was like, ‘Where else can we put this?’ It became a joke.” The debut also has a cautionary tale about cyber stalkers, a theme inspired by an Australian fan now facing charges for pursuing a former cast and crew member in the mid-1990s.

The opening special is a nostalgic treat for old fans, but Brogren warns “if they’re expecting full-on nostalgia all the time, they’re not going to get it.” Those old fans are pushing 30 and the new Degrassi, says Brogren, “is really not meant for them.” Degrassi: The Next Generation aims to be true to the original series with positive morals and messages as real teens face real problems. With the exception of Stepto and Brogren no other original cast will be turning up in guest roles.

But is there a next generation of Degrassi fans? There are more teen shows than boy bands on the air these days, and the new series is seeking a demographic that has changed significantly since Generation X came of age in the 1980s. Connecting with realistic stories about the high-school experience is all well and good, but what drew legions of viewers to the old Degrassi has been excised from the new series: cheap production values, ugly clothes and bad acting. “No one went to Degrassi for clever, thought-provoking treatment of a social issue,” says self-described mega-fan Sion Wulffhart, 29. For Wulffhart and his friends Degrassi was pure cheese, and they couldn’t get enough of it. “Degrassi gave Canadian TV its bad reputation to people my age,” he adds.

This time around, a bigger budget means better sets and a cast dressed in designer duds and bling-bling knockoffs, not Salvation Army finds. A bigger market for kids shows means many of the new actors are better trained at 13 than most of the older returning cast. Degrassi: The Next Generation is a quality show in a climate where potential new fans will be tempted by the cheesy competition, Global’s airhead reality series Supermodels. Linda Schuyler realizes all of this. “The worst thing we could do is start to run scared and adjust our scripts to attract that audience. If they’re going to go there, they’re going to go there. I hope they find us.”

Degrassi: The Next Generation, Sunday, 7 p.m., CTV

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