Silver and stronger than ever [playback mag]

By: Etan Vlessing

After 25 years in the trenches, Toronto executive producer Linda Schuyler has a venerable hit TV franchise on her hands, thanks in part to the attention paid it by Hollywood, where the cachet for all things Degrassi continues to grow.

The silver anniversary of the Degrassi franchise was recently capped off with a Teen Choice Award and a Television Critics Association Award stateside for its latest incarnation, Degrassi: The Next Generation, which airs on CTV in Canada and the Noggin cable channel in the U.S. (The series has been sold in more than 70 territories worldwide, with international distribution handled by Alliance Atlantis Communications out of London.)

And Hollywood indie director Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy) has followed up cameo roles on The Next Generation by developing a movie version of the series with Schuyler’s Epitome Pictures and Noggin parent Viacom.

“Degrassi’s celebrity and success in the States has helped a lot,” says Schuyler – who runs Epitome along with husband Stephen Stohn, Epitome’s executive VP – from inside her north Toronto office.

Stohn throws luck into the mix in explaining the longevity of the Degrassi franchise. “There’s something to be said for hanging around long enough,” he sighs.

For 25 years, high school for Degrassi characters has meant more than botched dates and crushes. The series’ writers have dared to have characters deal with issues including abortion, teen suicide and oral sex well before other comparable series, and in a realistic way unlike the others. And it has dared to be Canadian.

“Degrassi isn’t trying to be something that it’s not,” says 19-year-old Lauren Collins, who plays Paige Michalchuk on The Next Generation. “We’re filmed in Toronto, and we openly embrace that with shots of the CN Tower and the TTC. We’re not trying to pretend to be California.”

Certainly, the series’ characters are all lookers, but not at the expense of realism.

“If a cast member shows up on set with a zit, they don’t shut down the production,” Collins insists.

All of which has made Degrassi characters such as Spike (Amanda Stepto), Joey Jeremiah (Pat Mastroianni), Caitlan (Stacie Mistysyn), Emma (Miriam McDonald), Marco (Adamo Ruggiero) and Paige among the best loved on Canadian television.

But the latest hardware for Degrassi: The Next Generation should not disguise the reality that, like most Canadian TV producers, Schuyler began humbly.

Those old enough to recall Degrassi High may also remember Degrassi Junior High. Those only now getting their driver’s licence wouldn’t know that the roots for the original The Kids of Degrassi Street anthology series emerged by accident in 1979 when Schuyler, then a grade-eight teacher at Earl Grey Public School in Toronto, sought alternatives to the dreary educational films that her students were forced to watch, and which mostly bored them.

“I was looking for the right vehicle that would touch a chord with my students and get them to open up,” she recalls.

At one point, Schuyler screened the 1966 National Film Board short drama The Summer We Moved to Elm Street, a portrait of a nine-year-old girl and her alcoholic father. A lively classroom discussion followed, and Schuyler recalls one young girl talking about her home life, all the while gradually moving from the third person to the first person.

None of the students noticed the transition. Schuyler did: “Suddenly, I realized she was like the girl in the movie.” Schuyler took the young girl aside, learned through her tears that her father was an alcoholic, and secured her counseling.

But more significantly, the young teacher saw in the NFB film a powerful medium that could bring home life lessons for kids and get them to open up and air concerns.

When a school librarian brought Schuyler a book about a nine-year-old girl who decides to direct her own film, Kay Chorao’s Ida Makes a Movie, the teacher caught the film bug.

Schuyler sought advice from a young lawyer, Stephen Stohn, on how to secure the rights to Chorao’s kids book. He gave her novel advice: forget the lawyers, write a cheque and acquire the rights from Chorao herself.

That first half-hour film was meant to be a one-off. As it happened, Schuyler and then-partner Kit Hood turned Ida Makes a Movie into the first episode of The Kids of Degrassi Street, which aired on CBC on Sundays at 5:30 p.m., beginning in 1980.

And it was Ivan Fecan (today president and CEO of Bell Globemedia and CEO of CTV), having just returned from NBC in Los Angeles to join the CBC as a programmer, who lifted Degrassi into primetime by calling Schuyler in for a meeting.

“He’s the man. Listen to what he says,” Stohn recalls advising Schuyler after she returned to him for advice.

At first Schuyler balked at Fecan’s plan to sandwich the Degrassi series between two U.S. sitcoms on Mondays at 8:30 p.m., worrying that would come with compromises that might make Degrassi into just another sitcom.

“Just keep doing what you do,” Fecan assured her.

The gamble worked. Stohn recalls a similar gut-check when he recently met with executives on the Paramount lot in Los Angeles about Smith directing a feature film based on The Next Generation.

“Let’s be realistic. We do television and a feature is a different planet,” Stohn argued, telling Paramount that the Hollywood studio was better suited to produce the movie.

As Smith kicked Stohn under the table, both were told that any feature production belonged in Toronto, using existing cast, crew and locations.

“‘You understand the Degrassi world. We need you to be involved. We can help with the creative, but we’d like your scriptwriters on board,'” Stohn recalls the execs saying.

Indeed, while the Degrassi world has evolved over the years – Degrassi Junior High bowed on CBC in 1986 and on PBS in the U.S. in 1988, while Degrassi High was launched in 1989 as original characters graduated into high school – its creative vision and direction has remained remarkably intact.

“We try to tell the truth and be brutally honest,” says James Hurst, head writer on the fifth season of Degrassi: The Next Generation, which goes to air on CTV on Sept. 19.

That bluntness was carried through to School’s Out!, a 1991 MOW that followed the characters after graduation, and Degrassi Talks (1992), a 6 x 20 doc series in which Degrassi regulars including Stepto and Mistysyn hosted shows exploring topics covered in the dramatic version, including sex, alcohol, abuse, depression and drugs.

To remain authentic, the series has always employed actors of high-school age, not twentysomethings, and written well-researched true-to-life storylines that fearlessly confront serious issues.

Keeping it real has also kept it challenging for young, aspiring actors.

“You want to get into trouble. You don’t want to be on the sidelines,” says Stefan Brogren, Snake on Junior High, and now a teacher on Next Generation.

Having Degrassi actors run the gauntlet of experiences and emotions has helped alumni land jobs elsewhere in film and television.

For example, Dayo Ade, who played “B.L.T.” Thomas on Junior High, has gone on to appear in U.S. series The Shield, Joan of Arcadia, Alias and Scrubs, while fellow actor Christian Campbell (Todd) played Bobby Warner on All My Children.

Elsewhere, Cameron Graham, or Dale in Junior High, starred in Paradise Falls, while Michelle Goodeve, who played Karen Avery, cowrites and coproduces Barnstormers on the Outdoor Life Network.

“I’ve always wanted to empower young people,” Schuyler says of her rule that Degrassi characters make mistakes and are changed by the solutions they find.

For example, in one recent episode, Ellie (Stacey Farber) is deliberately cutting herself and becomes angry with Paige, who reports the self-abuse to a guidance counselor.

Schuyler says the writers had to have Ellie see a therapist, but Paige would ultimately get her there, not an adult.

The absence of mentors, or mea culpas when kids do make mistakes, has sometimes caused culture shock with U.S. broadcasters, which have chosen to not run certain episodes.

Schuyler recalls telling PBS executives, when they were first considering acquiring Degrassi Junior High, that her series’ characters “got messy and dirty.”

PBS responded that they wanted an adult for the kids to go to, “even a nice old lady on the block that they could visit.”

Where the Degrassi franchise has changed over the years is in appearing slicker and hipper as time goes on – and even more controversial, as characters contend with the Internet age and societal change.

A dramatic school shooting episode in season four was the series’ highest-rated episode ever, bringing in 930,000 viewers.

And the past season saw audience numbers spike when Smith, actor Jason Mewes and singer Alanis Morissette did star turns.

It’s all a prelude to Degrassi: The Movie, coming soon to a cinema near you (see story, p.21).

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