Degrassi High steps into the next television generation:[

Degrassi High steps into the next television generation:[Final Edition]
Tony Atherton. The Ottawa Citizen.

Author(s): Tony Atherton
Article types: Column
Dateline: TORONTO
Column Name: Television
Section: Arts
Publication title: The Ottawa Citizen. Ottawa, Ont.: Dec 27, 2002.

Full Text (1058 words)
Copyright The Ottawa Citizen 2002)

TORONTO — The paper-thin divide between fantasy and reality on any TV set is mere gossamer on the set of Degrassi: The Next Generation.

It’s not just the seamlessness of the make-believe, that fact that you can walk from a well-appointed junior-high classroom, across a locker-lined school hallway and into a fully functioning school gymnasium flanked by bleachers without once being reminded that it’s all an illusion, smoke and mirrors in a converted suburban warehouse. The blurring of boundaries only begins there.

What really gives you pause is when you’re seated in said classroom, chatting amiably with the irrepressible Joey Jeremiah — sorry, series regular Pat Mastroianni — and in walks Yick Yu, former Degrassi High uber-nerd. He’s wearing a headset and saying, “Pat, we need you on set now.”

Of course, it’s not Yick Yu, but Siluck Saysanasy, the actor who played Yick in the 1980s CBC hit that preceded Degrassi: The Next Generation. He’s now an assistant director on The Next Generation, which airs Sundays at 7:30 p.m. on CTV. He has a special responsibility for the new batch of young actors bringing the Degrassi ethic — teen angst without the melodrama — to a new generation.

The new series’ roster of directors includes Anais Granofsky, better known to Degrassi fans as Lucy Fernandez, the willowy teen who wanted to be a film producer in Degrassi High. Lucy — that is, Anais — has fulfilled her Degrassi character’s ambition, having produced (and written and directed) two independent features.

Granofsky’s Degrassi connections go all the way back to 1979. She was in the original repertory company that teacher/TV type Linda Schuyler drew on to create The Kids of Degrassi Street, a series of dramatic shorts about inner-city Toronto elementary school students.

Schuyler, who has watched Granofsky, Saysanasy and Mastroianni — not to mention Degrassi High grads and TNG stars Stefan Brogren (Snake) and Amanda Stepto (Spike) — grow over the past 24 years, is as hard pressed as ever to draw a line between her life and that of her Degrassi family. But she says that her role in the family has changed.

She’s still the executive producer of the series, as she was for every other Degrassi incarnation, but, she says, “I feel very much like the grandma of Degrassi this time and not the mom of Degrassi.”

She has effectively given over the mentoring of the show’s new young cast to her surrogate children from her old cast.

Mastroianni, who started on Degrassi when he was 14 and is now 30, isn’t sure he’s up to the task. “If I spend an hour with these guys on set, the young actors, I totally regress to 13, 14 years of age. I get infected with their enthusiasm and their energy and I get giddy,” he says.

And even when he does have advice to offer, he’ll hang back until asked, he says. “I always remember I didn’t like it when I was told what to do.”

If Mastroianni has trouble being a parental figure off camera, that’s not the case for his character on camera. Once the principal mischief maker of Degrassi High, Joey Jeremiah has emerged in the second season of Degrassi: TNG to become not only the single father of a sweet moppet named Angela but, through a dramatic series of events, a loving but uncompromising stepfather to Angela’s teenage half-brother Craig (Jake Epstein).

It was this relationship that drew Mastroianni to the series this year. Originally, he had agreed only to appear in TNG’s first- season kickoff, which was a kind of Degrassi reunion. Schuyler had offered him a recurring role, but it was vague and hadn’t appealed to him. Schuyler, intent on bumping up the presence of “classic cast members” in response to interest from older viewers, approached him again in the summer with a new storyline.

“I thought, wow, what an interesting dynamic for my character to now be the one in charge, setting the rules and disciplining, when he was the one that was always breaking the rules and causing trouble,” says Mastroianni. “It seemed so much better than just popping my head in for the sake of popping my head in.”

Finding the balance between new and old Degrassi characters is part of the show’s formula for improving ratings. The series has been drawing about 500,000 viewers this fall, about the same as last year and nowhere near the more than one million who watched the CBC show more than a decade ago. But CTV, which increased its order from 15 half-hours last year to 22 this season, likes the fact that the series is delivering a largely younger audience, which is often hard to reach, says Schuyler. Meanwhile, the series has been selling well abroad, and is on the air in the U.S., Australia, Britain, France, Scandinavia and Latin America.

CTV hopes to give the show a boost in January by broadcasting each episode twice a week: on Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. from Jan. 1 to 15 as well as in the show’s regular Sunday slot.

Producers are counting on an audience spike on Jan. 5 when an hour-long special again concentrates on Degrassi’s classic cast. Spike, mother of young lead Emma (Miriam McDonald), and Snake, now Emma’s teacher at Degrassi, have shared a blossoming romance this season. They are set to be married in the special, although there are last-minute complications that could upset the whole thing.

Despite such dramatic incursions by the adult cast, and plot developments that would never happen on earlier, kidcentric Degrassi series, Mastroianni maintains Degrassi: The Next Generation “is still about the young people and seen through their eyes.”

And the series’ young cast members, many of whom — unlike Mastroianni and most of the original cast — were seasoned professionals before Degrassi, are more than able to hold their own, he says.

“The performances are already there, the camaraderie is already there, the timing that the actors have with each other. That took us four or five years to get. They’re already ahead of the game. Now it is a matter of allowing the audience to fall in love with them.”

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