Degrassi legacy lives on
CP / Original Degrassi Jr. High cast members (back, left to right) Pat Mastroianni, Stacie Mistysyn, Stefan Brogren, Amanda Stepto, and new cast members (front) Ryan Cooley, Cassie Steele, Jake Goldsbie and Miriam McDonald
TORONTO (CP) — In a suburban backyard, a gaggle of 30-somethings gathers around a barbecue. Talk revolves around work and the high price of gassing up the minivan. Then the reminiscing begins.
Remember when Lucy made her horrid horror movie? Remember the musical stylings of the Zit Remedy? Remember when Joey Jeremiah streaked through the cafeteria to raise a few bucks for a car?
Snake and Wheels guffaw and high-five at the memory. Joey smirks as he wraps an arm around his wife, Caitlin. Lucy, fully recovered from a drunk-driving accident that temporarily stole her sight, raises an eyebrow at the criticism of her cinematic work.
Their kids splash around in the pool — except Spike’s daughter Emma, the eldest of the second generation, who slinks off to a shady corner to bury her nose in a gothic novel.
For legions of hardcore fans keeping the legacy of the Degrassi television series alive through fan fiction, this is how the graduates of Degrassi High spend a summer’s afternoon in 2007.
To the cult of devoted fans — spread as far as Australia and Israel and including the likes of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back director Kevin Smith, who owns every episode — it’s as if the quirky Canadian series, which ran from 1979 to 1991, never died.
And now the spirit of the show will live on in a sequel. Degrassi: The Next Generation, a 15-part, 30-minute drama series, kicks off Sunday on CTV with a one-hour special in which Degrassi alumni return for their 10-year reunion. The special also introduces the new cast of kids, around whom The Next Generation will almost exclusively focus.
Curious fans will likely tune into the special if for no other reason than to see what’s up with Joey, Caitlin, Snake, Lucy, Spike and the others, some of whom — albeit with different names — have been with the series since the beginning.
Degrassi actually got its start in 1979 with Ida Makes a Movie, a film by former schoolteacher Linda Schulyer and her then-partner Kit Hood, about an inner-city girl who wanted to make a movie about cleaning up her neighbourhood. Shot in Toronto’s east end, it snowballed into a series called The Kids of Degrassi Street, which later spawned the beloved Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High.
Teens and pre-teens watched as a group of Toronto kids struggled with peer pressure, poor grades, teasing, alcohol, smoking and dating. Unlike later American shows like Beverly Hills 90210, these kids had frizzy hair, zits, peach fuzz and squeaky voices. They wore dorky glasses and acid-wash jeans, took public transit and had to be home before curfew.
Hundreds of teenagers were petrified into chastity when they learned 14-year-old Spike’s one-night fling left her pregnant. Some swore off drugs after watching Snake drop acid, then fall from a bridge.
“I identified with every episode in some little way,” says 27-year-old uber-fan Mark Polger. “They did it in a really good way, they weren’t preachy about it. They showed the characters making decisions, and they showed the consequences.”
Polger got hooked on the show at age 12, when he was a self-described “nerd” fascinated by the teens’ daily traumas.
“I watched it, and I really took it seriously,” he says. “I memorized every show from front to back because everything they said seemed so profound at the time.
“Now I look back at it and I realize that the acting wasn’t so great and the way they covered some issues was pretty superficial,” he says.
But in the grips of his fandom, the university-trained librarian amassed boxes of newspaper clippings and magazine articles about the show. Today, he runs the definitive fan Web site, www.degrassi.ca
He also sends an electronic newsletter to fans each week, leads tours highlighting spots around Toronto where the series was shot and provides a venue for fan fiction, where diehard Degrassi-ites the world over envision and embellish a future for the old players.
“I am totally embarrassed about (that) now,” writes Natalie Earl, author of most of the 138 fictional episodes, in an e-mail interview from her Los Angeles home.
Two summers ago, Earl and Polger even organized a Degrassi convention in Toronto.
“It was amazing that an obscure Canadian show from the 1980s still had a strong following around the world,” says Earl. “I was age 25 at the time, but it shocked me that the fans most eager about the show were not of my expected demographic (aging Gen X-ers). Instead, the fans were all ages, all races, all sexual orientations, all socio-economic backgrounds.
“Everybody could relate to the insane highs and lows of adolescence portrayed through the halls of Degrassi.”
“The core of the classic Degrassi was its simple yet realistic storytelling, with the underlying message, ‘You are not alone,'” says creator Schuyler, who vows the same kind of storytelling will continue in The Next Generation.
But the slicker, professional offspring will likely be missing some of the endearing qualities of its less-polished precursor. Part of the original appeal, fans say, was the show’s realism, something it owed to a ridiculously low budget and its use of people with no acting experience.
In its prime, Degrassi was the highest-rated show in Canada and went on to be syndicated in more than 70 countries. In 1991, some 2.7 million viewers watched as Wheels drunkenly ran over a child in the two-hour finale. It was the CBC’s highest rating to date.