High school soap 'Degrassi' rings true to teens

High school soap ‘Degrassi’ rings true to teens

By Ken Parish Perkins

Star-Telegram Staff Writer

The teen-TV caretakers often fret over what’s too much and what’s too little when it comes to what young minds ought to digest and regurgitate. And that sounds perceptive and attentive until you’re reminded that network decisions are usually based on research rather than instinct, profitability rather than educated enlightenment.

Television geared to those younger than 20 is a little like tightrope walking — it takes a great deal of balance to first catch, and then retain, an audience raised in a TV universe where another program is merely a click away. Make a mistake — like sounding phony, trying too hard or not trying enough — and down you go, drowned out by headphones, traded in for a trip to the nearest mall.

So it goes for Degrassi: The Next Generation, the feisty series that returns tonight looking more enticing and sounding bolder than before, with the first of 22 new episodes on the tween/teen cable channel N. This is the brainy soap opera that breaks the rules without actually knowing it, proving that good television might be the result of good instincts, after all.

Degrassi has picked up additional eyes with each of its seasons on American television (this is the fourth season for the Canadian broadcast, and the show has been around in various forms for two decades). When two of its stars made an appearance at The Parks at Arlington mall over the summer, fans who packed the atrium to see them nearly tore the place apart.

What Degrassi does that American teen series haven’t managed to do is write episodes full of honesty and brevity, then let teen-agers, not 25-year-olds, act them out, giving their characters the kind of natural responses older actors might have long since discarded.

Much has been said about Degrassi tackling subjects other series refuse to deal with, but that’s merely a passed-along media myth. American television also deals with homosexuality, cutting, eating disorders, death, teen pregnancy and date rape. The difference is that, at Degrassi Community School, the problems are messy and emotional and can’t possibly be brought up, dealt with and resolved by the 22-minute mark.

Even prime-time series have trouble being storytellers. Plotlines on Degrassi are drawn out like those in paperback novels; details must be given and scenes set up with the payoffs coming much later.

This sort of storytelling is, of course, considered suicidal by networks convinced that our appetite for instant gratification must be fed.

That it refuses to take this bait is what makes Degrassi such a welcome delight, even when its story lines get a bit heavy. Just when it seemed as though Paige (Lauren Collins) had gotten past her date rape (What happens when the guy who hurt you seems changed? A nice guy, even?), certain incidents open the emotional floodgates. Marco’s (Adamo Ruggiero) coming to terms with his homosexuality depicts an ongoing emotional growth. Relationships come, they go. There’s pain, there’s jealousy, there’s resentment.

“The joy of series TV is being able to explore story lines by looking at various issues within the context of larger issues,” Degrassi executive producer Linda Schuyler says in a recent telephone interview from her office in Toronto. “You don’t decide one day to come out. You come out to one or two people. Then a few more. Then a family member. The stories become layered and more interesting as you go.”

Degrassi started out layered and interesting, airing in Canada on a broader-based network, the equivalent of a TBS here.

There’s standards-and-practices oversight, sure, but in Canada, the network aims the show at viewers up to age 34. If episodes are edited for broadcast on N, they are done so for language and visuals, such as a fight sequence involving aggressive moves.

“It’s a success because it has great characters and great drama, no matter the age,” says Sarah Tomassi Lindman, vice president of programming and production for N.

“The writers on Degrassi are incredibly gifted storytellers and do a good job of presenting life situations everyone can relate to. Story lines are relatable to adults. Some of the school-age issues might be a little different. They have the Internet. Drinking was the thing for us, now it’s ecstasy.”

It isn’t simply that Degrassi tackles the subjects. It’s how it presents, executes and illuminates them. They have a saying in the writers’ room of Degrassi, and it extends to N: If kids are talking about it in the schoolyard, it’s game for plotline treatment.

At Degrassi, that’s their audience research.

Degrassi: The Next Generation
7 tonight, the N network


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