Evergreen 'Degrassi':Contemporary Canadian series keeps drawing loyal American fans

By David Kronke
Television Writer

Sabrina Szymanski, a 15-year-old from Nevada City, Calif., first saw “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” a high-school saga appearing on the teen network The N, two years ago. “I thought it was kind of lame – in a funny way that was so good you watch it,” she recalls. “Everyone was unfortunate looking, and it was not as intense.”

Soon, however, the fact that the characters weren’t all pinups grew on Szymanski, and the series became more “intense” – in addition to the usual high-school concerns like grades and dating, episodes have dealt with difficult issues including date rape, gay-bashing, abusive parents, kids who cut themselves and school violence. “As the seasons progress,” Szymanski declares, “everything got better.”

Jenny Woodhead, a 15-year-old in Pasadena, had a similar experience. “At first, I didn’t really like it. I thought it wasn’t cool enough. After a while, I fell in love with it. The characters are more real than on any other show that I’ve watched and don’t get on my nerves as much.”

Szymanski agrees. “Characters affect you so that over the seasons, it seems like you’re friends with them, you know them so well. It’s more realistic. It deals more with our problems. ‘The O.C.’ is more soap-opera-ish. Not everyone’s rich and living in (Orange County) and going to the beach all the time.”

“Degrassi: The Next Generation,” the only series still running since The N’s launch in 2002, and far and away its most popular show, is a cult favorite lurching quickly toward becoming a runaway sensation. It’s currently shown in 150 countries worldwide; when its fourth season launched in October, more teens watched it that night than the networks’ youth-oriented shows “Joan of Arcadia” and “8 Simple Rules.” New episodes return Friday and run through the summer, with repeats shown frequently throughout the week.

“Kids had to work to find it” on the modest cable network in America, notes “Degrassi” creator Linda Schuyler, adding that part of its appeal is that fans “think they found it themselves, without parents or teachers.”

Schuyler is a former junior-high teacher who first produced the semi-documentary series “The Kids of Degrassi Street” in Canada in the early ’80s. That evolved into scripted melodramas “Degrassi Junior High” and “Degrassi High” (seen on some PBS stations) as the decade progressed. Characters and actors from the later shows appear in “The Next Generation” as adults, often parents of the current students.

“People always asked, ‘Why teach junior-high kids? They’re so miserable,’ ” Schuyler says. “I love them. They’re going through an incredible time in life, with their bodies changing and hormones raging. Attitude is just something they wear. Underneath, they’re really scared young kids who aren’t sure what’s going on. I like to meet those issues head-on.”

“Linda is completely committed to this age group,” says Sarah Lindman, vice president of programming at The N. “She’s very tuned in to teens and their needs and desires. Her passion for her audience shines through.”

And though the series is produced in Canada, where it airs on a mainstream broadcast network, those working on the show agree their American fans are far more passionate.

“Canadians love the show, but the American reaction is absolutely overwhelming,” says Miriam McDonald, 18, who plays Emma on the series. “In America, it feels like a bigger deal. We had mall tours last year – we’d expect 50 kids and hundreds and hundreds would turn out.” (Another mall tour is planned, with “Degrassi” stars scheduled to visit the Glendale Galleria Aug. 13.)

While McDonald’s character has been one of the more chaste on the series, Emma has endured much on the show: Her father was diagnosed with leukemia; she’s still recovering emotionally from her presence at a school shooting. As new episodes begin, Emma contracts a sexually transmitted disease after performing oral sex.

Of her character’s constant crises, McDonald says, “I love them – I feed off the dramatic scenes. I like to throw myself into the character.” She sheepishly admits she also recently played a teen in a Lifetime movie who contracted an STD. “I’m not like that!” she says, laughing. “There’s some embarrassment, but I separate myself from my character. I’m helping to tell a story about something people are going through, to shed light on the issue.

“Parents will come in with kids and tell us an episode helped opened up a discussion for them,” she adds. “They’ll thank us. It’s kind of nice for a parent to say to a teenager, ‘Thank you.’ ”

Schuyler says that experts consult on the heavy-issue episodes, and the young actors are counseled to maintain a sense of separation between them and their characters. “We’re refreshing for our audience because there aren’t 12 other shows like us out there. Because we’re a breath of fresh air, they feel they can trust us.”

“Degrassi” fan Woodhead says, “It has more of an ability to handle serious stories. On ‘The O.C.,’ when Marissa (Mischa Barton’s character) O.D.’d, it was kind of funny instead of serious.”

Of all the issues “Degrassi” has tackled, only one – abortion – was considered too touchy for American audiences. Lindman called The N’s opting not to run the abortion episodes – in which the pro-life Emma tried to talk her friend out of an abortion, then stood by her when the boy who got her pregnant did the same – “an editorial rather than political choice.”

Schuyler says in Canada, there was “no backlash,” and the episodes were among the highest rated of their season, adding, “Of course, we are a liberal country up here.” (The N held back the date-rape episodes for a time, then ran them together – from the incident to the trial – as a mini-movie.)

The occasional controversy did not prevent The N from asking Schuyler to create a new series, and the result, “Instant Star,” will premiere Friday after “Degrassi.”

Whereas “Degrassi” prides itself on its realism, “Instant Star” is all wish-fulfillment fantasy: Alexz Johnson stars as Jude, a 15-year-old singer-songwriter who wins an “American Idol”-style competition and is thrust into the glamorous music industry, recording her first album with a former boy-band hunk.

But “Instant Star” has serious issues on its mind, as well. Jude is constantly pressed to compromise her principles, from writing more upbeat songs to dressing more provocatively.

“That’s the basis of the whole show, to stay real to yourself, no matter what the situation,” Johnson says. “That plays on every level. She’s fighting to stay true to her sound. You don’t have to wear what the other person’s wearing. I love that message.

“It’s not all glitter and glamour,” Johnson continues. “Yes, it’s fun, looking stunning. But the show also portrays realism. That’s where it and ‘Degrassi’ are a lot alike – they go to places other shows are not brave enough to.

“I’m not sure why more shows don’t go there,” she continues. “Maybe because they’re aimed at young teens, parents want to feel safe and secure, knowing their kids are learning the right lessons. When you’re taking risks, you could get in trouble.”

And, as every teen knows, getting in trouble is, well, kind of fun. And every parent knows getting in trouble is their kid’s greatest talent.

DEGRASSI: THE NEXT GENERATION
What: Everyday life at a high school, with emphasis on hot-button issues affecting teens.
Where: The N.
When: Season premiere at 5, 7 and 9 p.m. Friday, with repeats many times during the week.

INSTANT STAR
What: A young winner of an “American Idol”-style competition negotiates the turbulent waters of the music industry.
Where: The N.
When: Premieres 6, 8 and 10 p.m. Friday; thereafter, 5:30, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Fridays, also with copious repeats.

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