Degrassi’s next generation: older fans may complain about the slick production of the new series, but they’re missing the point. The show isn’t about them anymore
by Greg Hughes
There are many events that Canadians of the under-forty set are familiar with when it comes to their teen years. Ultra-syrupy Bryan Adams tunes. Ben Johnson testing positive for steroids. Free Trade. Degrassi Junior High. Then Degrassi High.
Okay, let’s be real: Not all these events may be relevant to today’s web-enhanced mass culture. Yet from Degrassi Junior High’s 1987 series premiere to the 1992 series finale School’s Out!, the original Degrassi cast of Joey, Snake, Wheels and Co. have come to immortalize Gen-X’s period of arrested development quite handily.
Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High have emerged as two of the most successful Canadian television shows ever produced. The show’s appeal, which ranged from the use of unpretty (read: normal) actors to the bold, unflinching treatment of adolescence (name an American prime time show that has confronted HIV and homosexuality with such brutal honesty) made Degrassi immensely successful both in Canada and abroad.
Since the show’s departure in 1991, Degrassi fans worldwide have been forced to reside in rerun hell, overlooking the outdated fashions, music and show dialogue in favour of the still-relevant plot lines. Naturally, this fan base went postal last summer with the news that the original Degrassi production team was assembling a new series — a Degrassi show complete with a new cast, new network and new social realities.
Degrassi: The Next Generation premiered on CTV last October to widespread fanfare, complete with guest returns from old favourites such as Pat Mastroianni (Joey Jeremiah), Amanda Stepto (Spike) and Stefan Brogten (Snake). Ratings for the pilot episode of Degrassi: TNG went into the broadcasting stratosphere — at least by Canadian standards — and have remained strong.
Yet the reviews have not all been positive for Degrassi: TNG.
The show has come under fire from some fans for not being true to its origins: a glossy visual style that contradicts the low-budget image of the original series, actors that are far too pretty to exist in real life, and characters that, well, aren’t Joey Jeremiah. While some have attributed this to the shifting of the series from government-funded CBC to moneybags CTV, others fans have complained that Degrassi: TNG lacks characters that resonate with the audience as well as the old cast did.
These complaints may ring true with die-hard Degrassi fans, but the fact is that sequel series to old favourites have always had a rough ride — Star Trek: The Next Generation was initially panned by both critics and audiences alike, many of whom felt betrayed by late Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry for creating a sequel series that had none of the original series’ appeal. Purists will complain that, authenticity aside, no characters can ever replace the on-screen magic of Joey and Caitlin, Kirk and Spock et al., without losing something in the process.
This is total bunk. Degrassi creators Linda Schuyler and Kit Hood have made youth-oriented programming that focuses on the hard realities teens have faced for decades — they’re not just teen soap operas. Moreover, Schuyler and Hood had the opportunity to make Degrassi a teen shlockfest before denying Hollywood svengali Aaron Spelling the rights to Degrassi — an act of defiance that would eventually lead to Beverly Hills 90210.
Degrassi: TNG is for a new audience — the teens of today, not yesterday. Unlike the old Degrassi series, Degrassi: TNG has all the advantages of digital culture at its disposal: cellphones, PDAs and a snazzy website by Snap Media that creates a virtual community of Degrassi inhabitants. Even the Degrassi characters get into the digital act, with technology classes and web site construction being part of the show’s school curriculum.
More so, it is arguable that Degrassi: TNG characters are portrayed as “smarter” than the original series’ cast. Degrassi: TNG’s characters are less likely to use CBC-ized dialogue like “broomhead” or treat serious issues like losing one’s virginity with overtly comical intrigue. Being as the Degrassi: TNG audience is the first to grow up with the internet, these audiences are less likely to accept the unbelievable naivet that dominated the original series’ characters concerning hot button topics of abortion, teenage sex and drug use. In essence, Degrassi: TNG has become more “real” than the original series ever was; nowadays, the characters act, talk and think more like actual teenagers.
In any event, fans have flocked to Degrassi: TNG, albeit with mixed reviews. some adore the tech-heavy vibe while others vehemently dislike the show’s ultra-slick approach. Yet despite the criticisms, the whole culture of Degrassi remains stronger than ever.
And, of course, for the older generation, there are always reruns on cable…
PROFILE NAME: Degrassi Junior High, Degrassi High, Degrassi: The Next Generation
location: vaguely alluded to as Toronto
Pro-Degrassi sites: too many to possibly name
Most in-depth fansite: Mark Polger’s massive databank of Degrassi facts
Proof that Pat Mastroianni, a.k.a. Joey Jeremiah, was grown in a CBC laboratory::
Greg Hughes is a writer from Markham, Ontario. He thinks the Zit Remedy was cool — back in the day.