October 15, 2001
New kids on the block
Degrassi Street is back, and its young people are as engaging as ever
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 MusicWorks, 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 L.A. 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.