New kids on the block: Degrassi Street is back, and its young people are as engaging as ever.

by: Shandra Deziel
When a gang of 50 kids, including Spike, Snake, Wheels, Lucy,
Caitlin and Joey Jeremiah, threw open the doors to Degrassi Junior High on
Jan. 18, 1987, they brought more to television than just oversized backpacks,
bad hair styles and the insult “broomhead.” The CBC’s Degrassi was the first
show to look at teenage issues strictly from the kids’ point of view.
Drinking, buying a training bra, teenage pregnancy and drug abuse were all
handled in an intelligent and non-condescending manner.

By now, those subjects have been beaten to death on Beverly Hills 90210, Party
of Five, Dawson’s Creek and the like. Young audiences are bombarded every day
with images of sex, alcohol and drugs. “Kids are a little more sophisticated
than they were 15 years ago,” says series co-creator Linda Schuyler, who first
launched the Degrassi franchise with The Kids of Degrassi Street in 1980.
“They seem to know more, but that doesn’t mean they have necessarily
internalized it any better.”

Schuyler will try to reach this new breed of teens with Degrassi: The Next
Generation, which premieres Oct. 14 on CTV. After two unsuccessful adult
series, Liberty Street and Riverdale, Schuyler, a former junior-high teacher,
is happy to be back in familiar teenage territory. As are some of the original
Degrassi performers, who will return for the series premiere–a one-hour
reunion special in which they will pass the torch to a new group of
seventh-and eighth-graders. “The new kids,” says Amanda Stepto, who played
teen mom Spike on the original, “have their heads together a little more than
we did.”

That wouldn’t take much. None of the original 50 cast members in Degrassi
Junior High were actors. They were half playing a role, half being themselves.
Off-screen they attended regular schools in Toronto, while coping with their
newfound celebrity. “I remember I would be on the bus and be terrified that I
was sitting near a `CBC and You’ poster,” says Stacie Mistysyn, who played the
driven and popular Caitlin. “A couple of times, I would look up and I was
sitting right underneath a picture of myself.”

After three years, the characters naturally moved into high school and the
name of the show was changed to Degrassi High. The shows became an
international success, airing in 100 countries and racking up awards. But
after five years of being on TV–their puberty and growing pains endlessly
documented–the students of Degrassi graduated in the two-hour 1992 movie
School’s Out.

Over a decade later, the series lives on in cyberspace. Obsessive fans post
their own scripts, dissect Caitlin and Joey’s relationship, fight over which
twin is sexier, Heather or Erica–and track the whereabouts of each star. Some
actors are easier to find than others. Pat Mastroianni, who played the fedora-
and Hawaiian shirt-wearing Joey, is now 29 and hosts Music Works, a variety
show on the CBC. Mastroianni also puts in time at his father’s construction
sites and recently got married–he invited Degrassi fans to attend his
bachelor party.

In 1995, Mastroianni took a role on Liberty Street–Schuyler’s first series
after Degrassi–and left for Los Angeles after it was cancelled two seasons
later. In four years, he got one big break–a role in the 1998 blockbuster
Godzilla. But most of his lines ended up on the editing-room floor. “I
realized that I could stay there for another 10 years and not accomplish
anything,” he says, “or I could go home and get work.”

Mistysyn, 30, has been living in Los Angeles for almost six years working in
independent movies and TV pilots. She’s come to realize her time on Canadian
TV means nothing down there–except to director Kevin Smith (Dogma, Jay and
Silent Bob Strike Back). The New Jersey filmmaker, who became addicted to the
show when it ran on PBS and later spent $3,000 (U.S.) for the entire Degrassi
archive, wanted her to star in Mallrats, but the studio insisted on a bigger
name. Coincidentally, the part went to Shannen Doherty of 90210–Mistysyn was
often called “the Canadian Doherty” because the two actresses played similar
characters. “That’s all right,” laughs Mistysyn, “he made her wear a Degrassi
jacket throughout most of the film.”

At least one original cast member hit the East Coast after graduation. Anais
Granofsky, who played class valedictorian Lucy, went to New York University
film school and has since written and directed three features–the last of
which, On Their Knees, premiered at this year’s Toronto film festival. She
also stars in Invitation, a small film made by Stefan Brogren, a fellow
Degrassi alum.

Brogren, who will reprise his role as Snake–now a teacher, Mr. Simpson–on
the new Degrassi, used the money he made on the original series to attend the
American Academy of Dramatic Arts in California. After five years and numerous
TV and film credits in L.A., he moved back to Toronto. “By the time I got
back, Degrassi had turned into this cult thing,” says the 29-year-old. “To
this day, I can’t walk down the street without someone yelling out `Snake.'”

Stepto is well aware of the continued fascination. “I get these phone calls,”
she says, “usually at 4 in the morning from people who are drunk and at a
party.” After Degrassi, Stepto got a degree in political science and worked at
a clothing store. Now 31, she works as a human resources co-ordinator in a
Toronto securities firm and is back playing Spike on Degrassi: Next
Generation. Her daughter on the show, Emma, now entering Grade 7, has followed
her to Degrassi Community School.

Also hanging around the set is Siluck Saysanasy, Yick from the original. “I am
like the camp counsellor guy,” says Saysanasy, who works as children’s
co-ordinator for the new show. “I know exactly what they are going through.”
Yet Saysanasy is the first to recognize the differences this time around. Some
of the 11 new cast members go to schools for the performing arts and already
have acting careers; for them, Degrassi is just another gig on their resume.
“I want to do Degrassi for as long as I can,” says Miriam McDonald, 14, who
plays Emma. “Then I want to take whatever acting jobs come my way, and if
there is an opportunity to go to LA. and pursue it in Hollywood, then that
would be great.”

These kids are stars in training and are treated as such. “They have dressing
rooms, makeup, wardrobe, a studio,” says Mistysyn. “We never had that stuff.
We had to do our own dishes.” Despite the new cast’s perfect skin and ability
to talk in sound bites, on-screen they possess the same magical quality of
their 1980s predecessors–vulnerability. One actor in particular, Shane
Kippel, who plays the bully Spinner, exudes a sense of innocence both on
camera and off. “Sometimes I still don’t believe it,” says Kippel, 15, one of
the few cast members with no prior experience. “I go to a regular public
school, and this is a really big thing. Some people work their whole life and
never get a chance like this.”

Schuyler agrees–“I consider it a tremendous honour to go into people’s homes
once a week and tell them a story.” And she’s excited about adding
21st-century storylines to the Degrassi formula. Cyber-stalkers and Ritalin
are covered in the new series, as well as updated parenting techniques. When
two kids get caught surfing Web porn sites, they’re forced to discuss the
objectification of women while looking at female and male X-rated sites with
their parents.

Like adolescent life, each episode is packed with humour and pain–and the
lessons go down easy. Degrassi: The Next Generation is one of the year’s best
new shows. But after years of slick and sexy teen dramas, will there be an
audience for the realism found in the hallowed halls of Degrassi? If there is,
and the show does as well as the original, Schuyler will be more prepared this
time. “We never thought of it before, but maybe we should have introduced new
characters each season, as the Grade 7s moved into Grade 8 and the Grade 8s
moved into Grade 9. It is something we’ll definitely talk about for next
year.” Whether or not that happens, it seems Degrassi will live on forever.


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