Degrassi returns with new, old faces: Unfortunately, the stories are stuck in the old ruts

Degrassi returns with new

Degrassi returns with new, old faces: Unfortunately, the stories are stuck in the old ruts

Journal: The Ottawa Citizen
October 14, 2001 pg A12
Authors: Tony Atherton
Special Features: Color-Photograph
Document Type: Column
Publication Date: 011014
Word Count: 1068
Accession Number: OC200110140080

Fulltext:

First the good news: Degrassi: The Next Generation is every bit as good as its beloved predecessor, the groundbreaking teen series that was a Canadian hit in the late ’80s, and an international cult favourite in reruns.

In fact, in some respects it is even better.

However, it almost certainly won’t have the same impact as the original. It offers almost nothing new to viewers familiar with the 70 episodes of the series that went out of production more than a decade ago, nor to anyone else who’s watched the deluge of teen dramas since.

The series begins on CTV tonight at 7 with a one-hour premiere that doubles as a reunion for the old Degrassi cast members; they return to a newly refurbished Degrassi Community School to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their graduation. Caitlin (Stacie Mistysyn), now the crusading host of an environmental TV show, comes back with her boyfriend, a hot-shot L.A. director (Don McKellar).

Lucy (Anais Granofsky), who still needs a cane to walk because of the injuries she suffered in a car accident seen in the series’ denouement, is finishing up doctoral studies at Queens, and Snake (Stefan Brogren) has returned to Degrassi as a teacher.

Joey (Pat Mastroianni) is a car dealer and single dad who wants to take a pass on the reunion; he’s still getting over the death of his wife a year before.

Spike (Amanda Stepto) is returning to Degrassi in more ways than one. Emma, the daughter she bore in Grade 8 is just about to start Grade 7.

Emma is our link to the new Degrassi; in the opener she becomes involved in the kind of kid-centric issue that was the original series’ bread-and-butter; she has an Internet flirtation with someone she believes to be a high-school student in Yellowknife, and agrees to meet him over the protests of her friends.

The premiere, and a couple of other episodes available for preview, suggest the new series has the same simple narrative told from a kid’s viewpoint, and the same regard for unvarnished reality. Degrassi: The Next Generation is light years from far-fetched high-school melodramas like Boston Public and Dawson’s Creek.

The new series also has a cleaner and more interesting look than Degrassi fans are used to, and a more uniformly capable cast. Whereas none of the original Degrassi kids had professional experience, about half the new bunch are trained actors, says producer Linda Schuyler.

But while the new Degrassi has gained polish, it has lost its edge. When the first show aired, it was breaking ground. No one was making teen drama, and certainly no one was tackling issues like teen pregnancy, abortion, homosexuality and AIDS.

In the decade since, teen drama has become one of TV’s most popular dramatic genres, from the semi-realistic (Freaks and Geeks) to the surreal (Buffy, The Vampire Slayer). Nor were such overproduced and overwrought U.S. efforts — usually featuring overage actors — the only examples of the form. In Canada, Degrassi inspired similarly honest and direct teen series like Ready or Not and Fast Forward, which often dealt with Degrassi-like issues.

So in the new Degrassi, when a young girl thinks she is too fat to go to the school dance and works up her nerve by getting drunk, or when a pair of Grade 7 boys get caught cruising Internet porn sites, there is a sense of deja vu. There is by now little ground left to break in teen drama.

The plots aren’t the only thing familiar about the series. Many of the cast members seem like shiny new tintypes of the those who went before. Emma (Miriam McDonald) is a burgeoning Caitlin, pretty and committed to a variety of causes. Like Caitlin she is taken with a kid who stands out from the pubescent pack, although unlike Joey Jeremiah, Sean (Daniel Clark) is not cool because he’s funny. He’s cool because he’s aloof.

Standing in for Stephanie and Arthur, the original series’ misfit step-siblings, are Ashley and Toby (Melissa McIntyre and Jake Goldsbie), who are miffed because their respective parents have moved in together. Like Stephanie, Ashley is good-looking, popular and full of herself, and like Arthur, Toby is rotund, sardonic and prone to getting into trouble with his best friend, J.T. (Ryan Cooley). Just like Arthur and Yick of the original series, Toby and J.T. provide much of the comedy relief.

What The Next Generation has going for it is momentum. Given the cult status of the original series, the new Degrassi is the most anticipated Canadian drama since Sullivan Film spun off Road to Avonlea from his successful Anne of Green Gable miniseries. The new Degrassi has already been sold to U.S. cable and is a hot property at European TV markets this fall. However, hype can only carry it so far.

The show is targeted at 11- to 14-year-olds, but CTV has put it in a family slot on Sunday evenings, clearly hoping that The Next Generation, like Degrassi High, will appeal to a wider audience. The question remains whether adults are willing to take to the angst of 12- and 13-year-olds the way they have to that of older teens.

If they don’t, will CTV have the patience to wait until the kids grow into their audience?

Also coming up:

The Ponder Heart: Tomorrow, PBS at 9 p.m. Peter MacNicol (Ally McBeal) plays the good-hearted but wilfully aimless youngest son of the richest man in Clay County, Mississippi, in this warm and gentle Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of the comic novel by Eudora Welty.

Daniel is generous to a fault, and would give away the family fortune if left unchecked, so his grandfather (Boyce Holleman) and niece (JoBeth Williams) plot to marry him off and settle him down. But when Daniel hitches himself to a backwoods waif who is even more childlike than him, calamity ensues.

Mob Week: Beginning tomorrow, Discovery Civilization at 9 p.m. A three-part series, The Rise and Fall of the Mafia, looks at the western world’s most famous organized crime operation, and its code of honour.

The nightly one-hour installments are followed on Thursday by Dragons of Crime, an NFB documentary about Asian crime syndicates, and on Friday by the hour-long profile Al Capone: The Untouchable Legend.

Copyright The Ottawa Citizen 2001 All Rights Reserved

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