Degrassi daring dazzles U.S.
Groundbreaking series tackles trials of adolescence head on, just like it did in its ’80s incarnations Little Canadian show goes where American teen dramas haven’t, writes Star TV critic.
Unlike drugs, terrorists and shoppers, Canadian television rarely crosses the American border.
So the stateside success of CTV’s Degrassi: The Next Generation is both a noteworthy aberration and cultural curiosity. The series, now in its fourth season, has attracted a loyal following and led to features in the New York Times, Washington Post, and most recently, Entertainment Weekly.
It has been called “a dramatic series that tackles the trials and tribulations of adolescence head on” (Chicago Sun-Times); a show that “deals with some of the most controversial and taboo topics (Washington Post); and, simply, “a teen drama standout” (Hartford Courant). On top of the critical praise, this season’s premiere was the highest-rated original program in the history of The N Network, which airs Degrassi stateside.
Last night’s episode, the conclusion to a two-part story titled “Time Stands Still,” provided some insight into why the kids at Degrassi Community School are raising eyebrows across the continent.
“Time Stands Still” tackled the timeless subject of teen bullying but pulled no fairytale punches: By the end, Jimmy (Aubrey Graham) had been shot and Rick (Ephraim Ellis) was dead.
The storyline involving Rick, Terri’s (Christina Schmidt) abusive boyfriend, traces back to last season. It was Rick who put Terri in a coma after knocking her down in the woods.
Rick’s return to Degrassi this year was thus met with bitter hostility.
He was mocked, ridiculed, tormented, ostracized, and turned into a pariah. This unrelenting cruelty, motivated as it was by misplaced schoolyard vigilantism, was often difficult to stomach.
It climaxed last week when Rick, smiling and standing triumphantly on stage after helping win a quiz tournament, was doused with yellow paint and feathers, turning his ephemeral moment of glory into yet another embarrassing trauma.
Disgraced and humiliated, Rick went home. He put a handgun in his backpack and, still caked with paint, returned to school, his eyes glazed, his face etched with an unsettling blank expression.
“This is the one time I actually want to be in school,” he tells Toby (Jake Goldsbie) ominously, as he trudges up the front stairs, suddenly oblivious to the laughing and finger-pointing he has endured for weeks.
Rick is led to believe, wrongly, that Jimmy was involved in the paint-drop. But Jimmy had nothing to do with it; last night, he even got into a dust-up with Spinner (Shane Kippel), one of the students obsessed with making Rick’s return to Degrassi a living hell.
So when Rick meets Jimmy in the hallway, his gun on the ready, the scene is front-loaded with dramatic irony. It’s one of those rare television scenes where you actually felt sympathy for both the victim and the perpetrator.
“If those guys give you any more problems, I’ve got your back,” says Jimmy.
“You stabbed me in the back,” replies Rick, almost in a trance.
“You set the whole thing up.”
“Rick, come on. I defended you.”
Rick pulls out the gun and points it toward Jimmy, who backs up two paces. He turns to run. Rick shuts his eyes and pulls the trigger.
The immediate post-shooting confusion is captured in slow-motion. Students are running. Jimmy lies motionless. Seconds later, Rick points the gun at Emma (Miriam McDonald) but a struggle ensues and it goes off; later, we learn Rick has died.
The episode ends with a montage, a series of inter-cut snapshots shocked characters silently watching the news, flowers and candles being laid at the school under a symbolic cover of darkness.
Unlike other teen dramas except perhaps Degrassi’s previous 1980s incarnations, The Kids of Degrassi Street, Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High Degrassi: The Next Generation takes on hot-button social issues such as gay bashing, abortion, alcohol abuse, cyber stalking, self-mutilation, date rape and mental illness and isn’t afraid to deny viewers the happily-ever-after endings.
When you combine this with the cast relatively cute but decidedly less photogenic than the flawless specimens showcased on The O.C. or One Tree Hill the show resonates with a realism often simulated on American television but never fully realized.
Last season, a storyline involving abortion proved too real for The N Network, which refused to air it. And with its honest storytelling and nuanced characterization, last night’s episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation is sure to kick up more buzz in the U.S.
And that’s the weirdest thing: This little Canadian show is succeeding by boxing-in subject matter American teen dramas would never dare to unwrap.