Head of the class: `Degrassi' wins adult audience with realistic drama

Head of the class: `Degrassi’ wins adult audience with realistic drama
By Amy Amatangelo
Friday, October 8, 2004
You’re an adult. You know this because you have a mortgage, car payments and an employer who expects you to show up every weekday.

And, sure, in the past, you’ve hung with the kids on “Dawson’s Creek” and followed the gang on “Beverly Hills 90210” well past college graduation. Even now, your calendar is counting down to the second-season premiere of “The O.C.”

But none of this explains your current obsession with “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” The half-hour drama about eighth- through 12th-graders at Degrassi Community School airs on The N, a network exclusively for tweens and teens (Fridays at 8 p.m.). You, however, have not been a tween in quite some time.

The fourth-season premiere last week was the highest-rated program for the night for teens and female teens, but even this writer will admit to being 20 years older than the show’s target audience. So why are adults so passionate about “Degrassi?”

The kids look how we remember looking: I don’t know about you, but I didn’t look like Katie Holmes in high school. (I don’t look like Holmes now, either, but that’s an article for another time). The actors on “Degrassi” look real. They’re awkward and not rail-thin, with buck teeth, imperfect hair and even (gasp!) acne. It’s great for adolescents who watch this show to see themselves reflected and not some glammed up Hollywood version of what teenagers should look like.

“I’m as hungry as Paris Hilton looks,” one student says.

Go, healthy body image!

The social issues of the week: This season alone the series will tackle such topics as alcoholism, mental illness and school violence. The season kicked off with the courtroom trial of Paige’s (Lauren Collins) rapist. Terri (Christina Schmidt) had an abusive boyfriend who put her in the hospital. Ashley (Melissa McIntyre) took ecstasy in Season 1. Marco (Adamo Ruggiero) is a gay teen who came out to all his friends last season, and he even has a serious, long-term boyfriend (something poor Will on “Will & Grace” has trouble with).

Not even Aaron Spelling put his characters through this much drama. But each issue is presented responsibly, and problems don’t easily disappear. Paige is still dealing with the ramifications of being brutally sexually assaulted in Season 2. But whatever it takes, we know these teenagers can make it through.

The familiarity: We grew up watching the precursors to “The Next Generation.” “Degrassi High” and “Degrassi Junior High” aired from 1986 to 1991 and followed students from middle school through high school. During a time when many topics were television taboo, the show tackled serious issues such as abortion, AIDS, homosexuality, drug addiction and suicide. Original star Snake (Stefan Brogren) is now a teacher, and Emma (Miriam McDonald) is Snake’s stepdaughter and original star Spike’s (Amanda Stepto) daughter.

The acting: As with the original “Degrassi,” the acting is amateurish, but that was part of the show’s charm. The flat line readings make us love the characters more. Each guest star is usually a worse actor, thus making the main characters look better. It’s kind of like grading on a curve. And because we’re growing up with these kids, their acting gets better every season. Particularly notable is Collins, who has deftly handled Paige’s heavy story line.

The romance: We’re all suckers for a good teen romance. This show is brimming with star-crossed romance, cheating boyfriends and love triangles. But unlike an episode of WB’s “One Tree Hill,” you won’t be horrified by what these kids are up to.


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