Teen-focused drama 'Degrassi' connects with teens on their level

By Kevin D. Thompson

Palm Beach Post Television Writer

Friday, July 01, 2005

In the 1970s, Linda Schuyler was a junior high school teacher who used her Friday afternoons to watch television with her students.

“I loved TV and I found sometimes it was difficult to get my kids to talk about more sensitive issues,” Schuyler recalls. “If we looked at a show, we could discuss things more.”

One day Schuyler was showing a film about a young girl growing up with an alcoholic father. The film moved one of Schuyler’s students so much, she wanted to discuss the movie after class.

“She was talking about this girl in the show and before I knew it, she was no longer talking in the third person, she was talking about herself,” Schuyler remembers. “I thought, ‘Gee, it’s pretty powerful how the media can get kids talking.’ But there were not a lot of shows that you could show a class and it would be appropriate for that.”

So Schuyler quit her job and made sure there would be at least one television show that spoke to teens in their language.

That show is Degrassi: The Next Generation (The N, 8 p.m.), an unflinching and achingly real teen angsty drama about a bunch of high school kids who spend more time confronting such real-life social issues as school shootings, date rape, STDs, Internet stalking and abortion than they do studying for tricky algebra exams.

Degrassi, which is produced through Schuyler’s Epitome Pictures, has been on the air for 25 years in various incarnations. Currently airing on The N, Nickelodeon’s teen sister channel available on satellite and digital cable, the Canadian-produced Degrassi has become the 3-year-old network’s most popular show, averaging about 330,000 viewers.

Degrassi also has a strong cult following overseas in such countries as Australia, Israel and Italy and is the most-discussed show on The N’s Web site message board.

“The show really knows how to speak to teens in a way that’s very real to them, but is also completely respectful of the teen audience,” says Sara Tomassi Lindman, The N’s vice president of programming and production. “The show tackles tough issues, but does it in a responsible way.”

In tonight’s season opener, for instance, bad boy Jay (Mike Lobel) tries to persuade goody-goody Emma (Miriam McDonald) to perform oral sex on him because that’s what all the girls are doing. And, quite surprisingly, Jay uses the graphic oral sex term you’d hear in just about every high school hallway in America.

“I think everybody had some degree of nervousness about it,” admits Schuyler, the show’s executive producer. “There were options that were discussed, but this is the language that kids use.”

It’s that kind of frank language, sexually charged dialogue and controversial subject matter that also has got Schuyler’s show in some hot water. The BBC and PBS stopped airing Degrassi. Even The N has edited episodes (about 10 of the show’s 88) for American television and refused to show the hotly contested abortion episode that aired in Canada last summer.

Lindman says the episode didn’t fit with the show’s other “lighthearted” programming. Schuyler, quite naturally, was disappointed in the network’s decision.

“I’d like to feel when a show leaves our office it is very responsible and very appropriate for the audience,” she says. “But there are sometimes circumstances that dictate otherwise.”

What makes Degrassi stand out from American teen dramas is that it actually features real teen actors who don’t look like they were peeled off the cover of Teen People.

“We have 15-year-olds playing 15-year-olds,” Schuyler points out. “We don’t have 25-year-olds playing 15-year-olds. It might sound like a subtle difference, but I actually think it makes quite a bit of difference to the show. If you take a 23-year-old who looks 15, he can absolutely do the part, however, they are bringing with them eight more years of life experience to the screen whether they mean to or not. There’s a sophistication that can’t help but come through.”

The show is also told from a teenager’s point of view since the writers have no interest in appealing to a broad-based demographic like the writers on, say, Fox’s The O.C.

“We never have adults in a scene unless a young person is in a scene,” Schuyler explains. “You will never hear adults talking about young people. It’s all about young people trying to find their own way through and coming up with their own conclusions.”

Schuyler says she even seeks advice from the cast before scripts are written. In one episode, popular cheerleader Paige (Lauren Collins) was supposed to say she was “stoned” after ill-advisedly smoking a joint before a critical interview with a college recruiter.

“The kids told me that nobody says that,” Schuyler says, laughing. “They said they would say ‘high.’ I said, ‘OK.’ I think that’s what happens when you take an ex-school teacher and turn her into a producer. I’m really interested in what kids have to say.”

As for chucking her beloved teaching job for a gig as a TV producer, Schuyler says she’s never regretted it.

“It’s unbelievably fantastic to know that there are some kids out there who are listening to our show,” she says. “Hopefully we’re making just a tiny little bit of difference in some people’s lives. What could be more rewarding than that?”

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