Degrassi rebirth delivered with care, class

Winnipeg Free Press Entertainment Saturday

Winnipeg Free Press
Entertainment Saturday, October 13, 2001 B9

Degrassi rebirth delivered with care, class

BRAD OSWALD – WATCHING TV

THEY say you can’t go back again.Yeah, well, who the heck are THEY, and what do THEY know about television, anyway?

Sunday night’s debut of the much-discussed Degrassi: The Next Generation (7 p.m. on CTV) proves that you absolutely CAN go back, and if you play your cards right, you can do it with style, class, humour and smarts.

This boldly considered private-network revival of the beloved CBC series focuses, as the title suggests, on a whole new generation of Degrassi youngsters who grapple with a very modern set of issues as they try — just as some of their parents did — to make sense of adolescent life at an inner-city school named Degrassi.

This time around, however, the drama takes place at Degrassi Community School, a newly refurbished, cyber-equipped, distinctly 21st-century facility constructed inside the shell of what was once Degrassi Junior High.

Obviously, we’re dealing with a brand-new bunch of kids here. But wisely, the new show’s producers have not completely severed ties with Degrassi’s impressive (and perhaps even imposing) legacy.

What they’ve done, instead, is launch the new series by paying tribute to the old. And in the process, they’ve created a perfect opportunity for parents who grew up with Degrassi to introduce their next-generation youngsters to the show.

Sunday’s hour-long premiere actually serves as a very clever bridge between the original Degrassi collection and this new venture. It has been a decade since the first Degrassi group (Joey, Caitlin, Spike, Snake, Lucy, Wheels and the rest) graduated from high school, which means it’s time for a reunion.

And Spike (played by a no-longer-quite-so-spiky Amanda Stepto), the teenage mom in the original Degrassi class, now has a 12-year-old daughter, Emma (Miriam McDonald) enrolled at the school.

The stage is set perfectly. While the grownups are getting all nostalgic about the ’80s, the new crew gets down to the serious business of being kids.

The reunion draws Degrassi alumni from all over the continent — Caitlin (Stacie Mistysyn) is a successful Vancouver-based actress and environmentalist, Lucy (Anais Granofsky), still recovering from injuries suffered in a grad-party drunk-driving accident with Wheels, is completing her PhD in Kingston, and Spike, as noted, is a working single mom in Toronto.

Joey (Pat Mastroianni) and Snake (Stefan Brogren) are still in town, too — Joey runs a car dealership and is a single parent since his wife died of cancer, and Snake is Degrassi’s new media-immersion teacher, who’d prefer to be addressed as Mr. Simpson.

While pleasantly reminiscent, the reunion portion of tonight’s premiere is actually the episode’s weaker storyline. What gets Degrassi: The Next Generation off to a full-speed start is exactly what made the original show so good — its intelligent, head-on handling of issues that are important to kids.

While Spike bustles about in preparation for the reunion, she’s oblivious to the fact that Emma has been communicating with a boy on the Internet. After several months of traded e-mails, her on-line “boyfriend” has announced he’s going to be in Toronto for the weekend and would love to meet Emma at a downtown hotel.

Her friends try to alert her to the dangers, but Emma decides to sneak away and meet her cyber-pal — a decision that could have tragic consequences. It’s up to her young schoolmates — Manny (Cassie Steele), J.T. (Ryan Cooley) and Toby (Jake Goldsbie) — to find her and alert the authorities before she’s harmed.

It’s a timely and well-executed cautionary tale that manages to accomplish that rare TV double-header of entertaining and educating at the same time.

Which is, of course, what Degrassi has always done best. In addition to presenting its young viewers with a cast of likable but decidedly non-glamorous characters whose problems and dreams are immediately relatable, the series is fearless about confronting young life’s most pressing issues.

In future episodes, the storylines will deal with topics ranging from dating, bullying and divorced parents to corporate marketing in schools, Internet pornography and teen gambling.

In keeping with its up-to-date attitude, D:TNG is supported by an extensive Web site component (www.degrassi.tv) that has been designed to create a “virtual school” environment.

Here’s hoping that those youngish adults who grew up loving Degrassi will use Sunday’s premiere as a means of introducing their children to The Next Generation. If they do, it’s a safe bet that this new version of an old classic will develop a large and loyal following — which will undoubtedly include some of those parents

PHOTO.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

LENGTH: Long

DOCUMENT NUMBER: 20011013WF0WINNIPEGdegrassi001

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