Degrassi: The Next Generation : Some Critical Observations
Written by: Mark Aaron Polger
With the fourth season in full swing, I do admit to watching the new Degrassi series, even though I am 30 years old. Even though the issues may not be relevant in my life right now, it is nice to reminisce and to be nostalgic for my youth. I enjoy the stories and I compare what these characters are going through to some of the experiences I went through as a teenager. Most of the situations have not changed and most of the episodes are updated versions of the original Degrassi series. I have found that the new series is very patriotic. They do not hide the fact that it takes place in Toronto. In fact, I would argue that the new Degrassi series is proud to be Canadian.
Maybe it is because it is 100% Canadian. The original Degrassi series was a co-production of CBC and Playing With Time (66.6%) and Taylor Productions/WGBH Boston (33.4%)
The new series does not hide that it takes place in Toronto. There are more cultural symbols that point to the fact that its a Canadian show. One episode discusses the Toronto maple leafs, a real life Toronto rock station with the two radio personalities (Mad Dog and Billie), there are more shots of the red streetcars that are representative of metro Toronto, as well as shots of the GO train and union station in the premiere episode for season three. Unlike the original Degrassi series which took place in an unnamed North American city, the new series is proud to take place in Toronto, Canada.
In season one Carla Collins, a radio and television personality gave out tickets to a concert in a large park in Toronto. Sue Johansen, a specialist in sexual issues, reprises her role as Dr. Sally in season two of Degrassi: The Next Generation. She is a famous icon in Toronto, well respected and well known in the community. Finally, a well known Canadian journalist played the minister in the episode entitled White Wedding in which Snake and Spike get married by Toronto Star writer Rob Salem.
As well, the new Degrassi series is coined as being up to date, techno-savvy, and current. I would argue that the series is more middle class than the original series. There are fewer ethnic minorities portrayed on the new series. Most of the characters come from middle to upper class backgrounds. They sport cell phones, pagers, laptops, and designer clothes. The girls all have perfect makeup and are near picture perfect. The characters talk in rhetoric that is well above their age group. The reason, of course, is that the actors who portray these characters are professionals who are trained in television, theatre, improvisational comedy, dance, and music.
They cannot hide this fact. This show is more glossy, slick, and professional than the original. The actors are also protected by ACTRA, the union for Canadian actors. The original Degrassi series did not protect the actors in such a way. They do not receive any residual earnings on any reruns at all. Only the producers of the original series benefit from syndication deals.
In terms of acting ability, the actors are talented in a variety of ways. As demonstrated in seasons one and two of Degrassi: The Next Generation, Manny (Cassie Steele,) Craig (Jake Epstein,) and Paige (Lauren Collins) sing professionally. Emma (Miriam McDonald) is a professional dancer as well as an actress and voice over specialist. Spinner (Shane Kippel) is trained from Second City and J.T. (Ryan Cooley) and Toby (Jake Goldsbie) are professional actors who have had a large repertoire of Canadian television credits below their belt.
As illustrated, the cast are not kids from the neighbourhood as in the original Degrassi series. They are accomplished professionals who have talents in television, film, music, and theatre. Another observation is the fact that the show is not shot by a multitude of younger directors. The style of the series is slick and savvy. The directors take more risks and a variety of different types of shots are explored.
Another observation is the degree of nostalgia on the new series. The old characters reminisce about their experiences and look back at older photos of them and sing old songs like Everybody Wants Something, an old song from the Zit Remedy, a band formed by Joey, Wheels, and Snake.
Degrassi: The Next Generation have also garnered a vast array of awards since debuting in October 2001. The acting is strong and the crew is larger and it appears that their production budget is larger. The show is more polished, more slick, and compared to original Degrassi that was once described as grass roots, the new Degrassi is glossy and stylized. Its the closest thing to a teen soap opera. The issues are the same, the characters and episodes recycled from the old series but the characters names are trendy (Liberty, Ashley, Dylan) and the dialogue, clothing, and style is hip.
Four of the original cast members are regular cast members of the new series. Spike and Snake are now married and raise Emma, the main character of the show. Joey is a now a widower and stepfather to Craig, one of the main characters who was brought onto the series at the beginning of season two. Caitlin is now an environmentalist who worked in Vancouver, B.C. and who just came back to Toronto to work. There are some original cast members who have made brief cameo appearances over the past three seasons.
Epitome Pictures collected some of the most famous Canadian directors who exhibit their own individual style through each episode. My last observation is the setting. Unlike the original series, Degrassi: The Next Generation is mostly shot in a series of soundstages and on an artificial street on the backlot of the Epitome Pictures studio.
The facade of Degrassi Community School is actually the back of Epitome Pictures. All of the soundstages in the Epitome Pictures studio are classrooms, a gymnasium, hallways, a cafeteria, bathrooms, and characters homes. It looks like a real school but in fact it is a series of soundstages. The homes on the artificial street used for the CBC soap opera Riverdale are actually the faade of homes found in the Toronto neighbourhood of Riverdale. The street is actually comprised of one block with the facades of 4-5 homes, an apartment building, and a variety store. It does look and feel like a real school but in fact, the lighting in the characters homes is artificially lit. The outdoor scenes are minimal, if at all, they are outside the school, in the parking lot of Epitome Pictures.