The Blackboard Chronicles
July 2, 2004
BY LISA FRYDMAN Staff Reporter
Getting off on Ecstasy, stealing (of boyfriends or MP3 players), popularity contests, hooking up, gay bashing, online porn, date rape and detention. Just another day in high school. Just another episode of “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” a dramatic series that tackles the trials and tribulations of adolescence head on, with no apologies.
And teenagers, in 50 countries worldwide (and counting), can’t seem to get enough. Chicago kids watch religiously on Friday nights at 7, go out with friends, and then catch the repeat a few hours later. The same episode is aired throughout the weekend, and reruns of old episodes air throughout the week. Obsession? Mostly, it’s a girl thing — a “Sex and the City” for the teen/tween crowd. Three-fourths of “Degrassi” viewers are girls between the ages of 12 and 17.
“The acting sucks, yet you just get absorbed by the characters and their stories,” says Emma Gerstein, 17, who goes to Walter Payton College Prep in Chicago. “It deals with real issues almost better than any other show I’ve seen. A lot of teen shows focus on a problem per episode and then move on. In ‘Degrassi,’ you see the character evolve.
“Last season one girl was date-raped. And they didn’t just drop it. You see how the experience completely changed her. You grow with the characters, and become attached.”
Shot in Canada, “Degrassi” appears south of the border on The N, the nighttime teen cable channel that by day is the preschool outlet called Noggin. The N reaches 40 million households nationwide and can be seen locally on Comcast Digital Cable, as well as on the DirecTV and DISH satellite networks.
“We feel the characters are extremely responsible and face real consequences for their actions. But we also believe it is great for teachers, parents and caregivers,” says Sarah Tomassi Lindman, vice president of The N’s production and programming. “We offer adults a discussion guide [discussions .the-n.com]. The show can be a catalyst to approach very real issues, and to connect with teenagers. We see it as opening the door to their world.”
“Degrassi” isn’t about Armani-clad spoiled rich kids deciding between a Porsche and a Jag a la “90210,” nor is it WB fare, in which 25-year-old actors play 15-year-olds. Rather, it has a feel reminiscent of “My So-Called Life,” in which actress Claire Danes got her start as an angst-ridden adolescent trying to make sense of her out-of-control world. (Its 19 episodes now air on The N.)
“Degrassi” is about teenage rebellion, with a sign ordering parents to “Keep Out (and Stay Out) of My Room.” All issues, all consequences are exposed and solved in a half-hour time span by the kids. High school, “Degrassi” students are reminded on a weekly basis, is not about making the grade or cleaning your room — it’s boot camp for real life.
While the stars are young, the show is far from it. It hit the Canadian airwaves 25 years ago as “The Kids of Degrassi Street,” followed by “Degrassi Junior High” and “Degrassi High,” reruns of which still air throughout the world. “Degrassi: The Next Generation” is a spinoff series in its third season, introducing a whole new generation to the fictitious world of the newly refurbished Degrassi Community School.
Carly Rehbock, 15, who attends Deerfield High School, says her favorite episode was when 9th-grader Manny changed herself so other people would like her. She dressed provocatively and, when she made the cheerleading squad, dropped her old friends.
“This is so realistic as to what’s going on in high school. Trying so hard to fit in,” Rehbock says. “What’s interesting about this show is that I really learn things. For example, when Emma meets an older guy online, you see the dangerous consequences of how something starting out innocently could end up badly.”
And there are lots of difficult scenarios. Take the 14-year-old good girl who takes Ecstasy, or the teen who deals with her homefront problems with self-mutilation. This particular episode evoked criticism in Canada, where some parents felt that it gave kids ideas that they wouldn’t normally think about.
“Degrassi” co-creator Linda Schuyler, who was once a junior high school teacher in Canada, says, “This show is my heart and soul. Our storytelling is very frank. If kids are talking about it in the schoolyard, then we talk about it on ‘Degrassi.’ For example, one boy came out of the closet to his friends, and we heard criticism that ‘Degrassi’ was encouraging homosexuality. I find this ridiculous. ‘Degrassi’ is not about being provocative but about empowering this generation. The key to its success is that it’s not about parents giving kids all the answers but about teens finding out information, becoming their own decision-makers and dealing with the consequences of their actions.”
Actress Stacie Mistysyn, 33, who plays Caitlin Ryan, a one-time Degrassi student who now produces documentaries, says, “I’ve been with ‘Degrassi’ longer than any other actor — since I was 10. I grew up on the show. I’m so thankful that I had ‘Degrassi,’ especially when my parents were going through a divorce. It truly helped me sort out my own issues.
“The show has evolved, but what is so interesting is that kids still go through the same issues today that we did then. Only now, kids grow up so much faster and have to confront so much more, especially sexual pressures and the whole world of the Internet.”
So how does a show based in Canada work in, say, India (where it is dubbed), Australia, Germany, Italy, Latin America and Chicago’s North Shore?
“Look, I’ve been lucky. I have not had bad experiences like the ones portrayed on the show,” says Abby Korol, 15, a student at Highland Park High School. “I’ve never been confronted by a high school bully, for example. Degrassi appeals to high schoolers because it really shows the way friendships work and don’t work, especially issues with boyfriends and girlfriends. Sometimes someone who is supposedly your friend does something, and you’re like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ These situations are universal. They can flare up in any high school anywhere. ‘Degrassi’ doesn’t talk down to us — but tells it like it is.”
Who’s Who at Degrassi
The ‘cool’ crowd, the losers, the burnouts, the indies — the cast diversity proves high school is boot camp for life.
Emma (Miriam McDonald)
Some people call Emma a cause-girl, but she fights for what she believes in. She’s permanently off with her on-again off-again ex Sean Cameron, and she’s found a new guy, Chris. She’s also having some major issues with former best friend Manny Santos.
Paige (Lauren Collins)
Girlfriend of Spinner, captain of the Spirit Squad, self-appointed leader of the fashion police, Paige is the girl that everyone wants to be. At least, that’s what she thinks. Paige has toned down her ego since she went through a horrible experience last year — date rape.
Hazel (Andrea Lewis)
Wherever Paige goes, you can usually find Hazel. Hazel made her mark when she admitted to the class that she’s Muslim; she’d convinced them all that she’s Jamaican, but when she saw the mistake she’d made by hiding the truth, she promised never to be ashamed of who she is again.
Manny (Cassie Steele)
Manny seriously changed her image in 9th grade. She was tired of being “cute,” so she went for sexy. She got lots of attention from boys; the problem is, she alienated her best friends Emma and J.T. in the process.
Ellie (Stacey Farber)
Ellie is smart, cool and a total individual. She has dealt with some serious issues — like self-mutilation — especially when her dad went overseas on a peacekeeping mission and she had to take care of her alcoholic mom.
Ashley (Melissa McIntyre)
Ash has gone through more changes than anybody else at the school. She went from being the most popular girl to one of the least, because of some totally bad behavior she pulled at a party. But after a huge struggle, Ashley finally seems to have found herself as a person.
Craig (Jake Epstein)
Craig’s had his ups and downs. First, he moved out of his abusive dad’s house and into his stepdad Joey’s house. Then his dad died. This year, he was happy — dating Ashley, but “playing the field” with Manny. Now Ashley won’t talk to him, he’s not with Manny, and everyone thinks he’s a dog. He spends his time rocking out with his band, Downtown Sasquatch.
Jimmy (Aubrey Graham)
Jimmy was half of Degrassi’s hottest couple when he dated Ashley. Then Ash alienated him with a majorly bad move. Jimmy plays in Craig’s band with Spin and Marco.
Sean (Daniel Clark)
Sean ditched Emma to run with a new crowd: a bunch of hoodlums. He’s always teetering on the edge of the dark side, but he seemed to be turning things around since he’d fallen in with Emma. Oh, well.
Spinner (Shane Kippel)
Spinner, boyfriend of Paige, is the Degrassi goofball but used to be the school bully. He was also longtime best friends with Jimmy, until Spin got jealous and stole Jimmy’s MP3 player. They’ve since made up and even play in the same band.
Marco (Adamo Ruggiero)
Marco’s in with bandmates Jimmy and Craig, but he’s upset with Spinner, because of his unwillingness to accept Marco for what he is: gay. Luckily not all his friends are the same way; when a group of idiots assaulted Marco for being gay, Jimmy was there to help him in a flash.
J.T. (Ryan Cooley)
J.T. has always been best friends with Toby and part of his crowd, along with Emma, Manny, etc. But since J.T. stood up for Paige during her really bad time — and since he hit puberty — he has been in with the cool older kids, kind of leaving his old friends behind.
To the sounds of Zit Remedy then and Downtown Sasquatch now, three generations have grown up on “Degrassi” sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
1976: Canadians Linda Schuyler, a former eighth-grade teacher, and Kit Hood, a former child actor, establish Playing With Time, a production company creating educational videos for junior high students.
1979: Production begins on “Kids of Degrassi Street,” shot around the company’s offices on the east end of Toronto. It airs until 1985.
1986: Many of the actors move on to “Degrassi Junior High,” which gives birth to tough preteen story lines, not to mention the band Zit Remedy.
1987: PBS brings “Degrassi” to U.S. viewers.
1989: “Degrassi High” premieres with some original cast members and a larger, diverse cast.
1991: “School’s Out,” a made-for-TV 90-minute drama, sums up the series.
1992: On the documentary series “Degrassi Talks,” six “Degrassi” actors deal with a different adolescent issue each week.
1994: Schuyler and Hood split up. Schuyler produces a loose continuation of “Degrassi” called “Liberty Street,” a twentysomething “Melrose Place” wannabe that’s canceled after two seasons, and the steamy soap opera “Riverdale.”
2001: Schuyler rises again with the tried and true — “Degrassi: The Next Generation” — and the rest is history.
2004: “Degrassi: The Next Generation” is named best family television series at the Young Artists Awards, beating out “Joan of Arcadia” and “The Simpsons.”
New episodes of “Degrassi: The Next Generation” air at 7 p.m. Fridays on The N, with repeats at 9 and 11 p.m., and then again at 7, 9 and 11 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Episodes from past seasons air at 6 and 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
The fourth season kicks off Friday, Oct. 1.