Gospel according to Degrassi

September 17, 2005 Saturday

By: Jon Filson, TORONTO STAR

As Degrassi hits its 25th anniversary, there’s finally enough evidence to crack The Degrassi Code.

Two new books, Kathryn Ellis’s fan-friendly Degrassi Generations and the academically inclined Growing Up Degrassi, try to spell out the appeal of the Canadian drama’s four incarnations – The Kids of Degrassi Street begat Degrassi Junior High, which begat Degrassi High and, after a 10-year hiatus, Degrassi: The Next Generation.

The Degrassi Story, a documentary hosted by Stefan Brogen (a.k.a. Snake), airing tonight at 7 p.m. on CTV, will shed further light on the success of the series before we’re trapped under the spell again when the new season starts Monday.

By now, the show’s vivid depiction of teenage joys and sorrows is familiar. But watch enough episodes and you start to see that Degrassi has become a world unto itself, with its own set of laws. It combines elements of the Bible, the story of Hercules, X-Men and Sex With Sue into every episode; it’s a show that could teach life lessons to Ghandi.

Here are 25 clues to The Degrassi Code, a glimpse into the reasons why, after so long, the show continues to work so well. (The hard part is limiting the list to 25. There could easily have been another 100.)

1. DEGRASSI’S GOLDEN RULE

Nowhere is the rule of cause and effect applied more rigorously than in the land of Degrassi. It’s like the Old Testament set in a Canadian high school. You can’t do anything dirty just for fun – you do it due to stress over almost getting shot by a lunatic, who was driven to insanity by bullies, who in turn … it never ends.

Anyone who does whore around gets gonorrhea in the throat, an abortion, AIDS, cheated on, or a baby. Right, Emma, Manny, Dwayne, Caitlin and Spike?

2. THE IRON LAW

Degrassi operates under Murphy’s Law to the 1,000th power: whatever can go wrong, will go horribly wrong. That means if Wheels drives drunk, he must kill a baby. Not sure how Next Generation will top that: “Oh, did you hear? Spinner just ran over Kevin Smith!”

3. HIGH SCHOOL AS HELL

No one escapes the school without something horrific happening: a broken spine, a date rape, a laxative overdose. … Bad fortune must be a graduation requirement. As an institution, Degrassi is more frightening than Oz.

4. MYTHOLOGY IS REAL

Greek mythology encourages action and penance as a path to redemption – as does Degrassi.

Consider the myth of Hercules. Driven into a rage by his step-mom – cause and effect – Hercules kills his wife and children. He then learns a Valuable Life Lesson: Famicide is bad.

In Greek mythology, the implicit lesson always is, “When you screw up, get off your ass.” So Hercules performs 12 labours, and afterwards, he can renew his life. Incidentally, Hercules was bisexual, which is the kind of thing Degrassi would use to keep things interesting.

Joey Jeremiah perseveres, and has overcome dyslexia, bullying, going broke, his own infidelity, the death of his wife, baldness … and he’ll get through the latest Caitlin dumping too. He’s Degrassi’s Hercules.

5. DEGRASSI AS BADASS

Dawson’s Creek tackled student/teacher sex and friends-with-benefits, The O.C. has experimented with lesbianism, and Beverly Hills 90210 perfected having terrible 35-year-old actors play high school kids.

But only Degrassi has been keepin’ it real. Teenagers play teenagers. And nothing that a teenager would do is off limits: when necrophilia becomes hip, Degrassi will be there first.

6. DEGRASSI’S ANTITHESIS: NAP. D.

Napoleon Dynamite is a rambling movie, devoid of plot, with an absence of character development but filled with gargoylesque characters. The only similarity is that Napoleon looks like an older Bartholomew Bond from Kids of Degrassi Street, which kicked off the series in ’82.

A quintessential moment in Napoleon Dynamite is when the hero is standing, doing nothing, in front of a row of lockers. A guy walks by, and for no apparent reason, slams him into the wall. This random act would be impossible on Degrassi.

7. SECRET SHAME

While every young mutant at the X-Men academy has a special power, every young student on Degrassi has a secret shame. This can range from having a gay brother, having a learning disability, failing a grade, taking E and freaking out…. Every new episode reveals new shame.

8. EQUALITY RULES

On Degrassi, no one can be simultaneously good looking, well-balanced and intelligent. On the flip side, no one is obviously unattractive, stupid and mean. Everyone gets two out of three. Eric Lindros is a perfect Degrassi kid: great talent, cut down by concussions.

9. OH, IT’S A CAR! SOMEONE’S GOING TO BE HIT BY IT!

It’s a theatre rule: if you’re directing a play, and you put a vase on a table on the stage, you’d better make use of that vase, or everyone is going to wonder, “Why the hell is that vase on the table?” instead of listening to your dialogue. This is why a car on Degrassi will a) break down or b) kill/maim someone. It can never just be used to get chips: Canadian television has no budget for red herrings.

10. NO EASY WAY OUT

Degrassi is as hard to get out of as Alcatraz, The Truman Show and Snake Pliskin’s New York. And it may be hell, but elsewhere is worse.

Consider two characters who tried to flee: Wheels ran away, and ended up getting his blue-jeaned thigh squeezed by a randy man. Not brave enough to experiment with his sexuality, Wheels escaped, surprisingly, without getting oral gonorrhoea. On Next Generation, Craig did a disappearing act after he found out he was bipolar, had acne and his girlfriend thought he was a pain in the ass. (That’s overkill – any two of those would have been enough). Then someone beat him up and stole his guitar.

Sometimes characters do leave, but generally it’s in the off-season. Stephanie Kaye, who carried Degrassi before Caitlin got hot, actually left for Learning the Ropes, the worst Canadian show ever. Which means the Degrassi as hell theory applies – if you try to get out, you only end up worse off.

Actually, there is one way to truly escape: someone else can pay tenfold for your freedom. Where have you gone, Mr. Raditch? It only took a suicide to get him written off the show (and Rick, too).

11. HOTTER IS BETTER: GENDER AND THE NEXT GENERATION

Anyone who leaves the show must be replaced by someone hotter of the opposite sex. Dan Woods (aka Mr. Raditch) gets replaced by Melissa DiMarco as Ms Hatzilakos. This year, look for a major female character to depart the show, but a pretty-boy blond to join the cast.

12. ADULTS ARE BORING

What is Mr. Raditch to Degrassi, if not the equivalent of another loveable tough guy, Law & Order’s Lennie Briscoe? Of all the characters, we know the least about Raditch, Woods notes in Degrassi Generations. Adults, no matter how ambiguously interesting, are never the focus.

13. ENDLESS OPTIONS

DiMarco’s addition to the cast allows Degrassi to get into a decent teacher/student sex storyline. The show has wimped out a couple of times: Paige and an intern played around on Next Generation, and Lucy almost hooked up with a lecherous learner on Degrassi High. But that’s not the same as a willing teacher and a 14-year-old. C’mon, we want DiMarco to go Mary Kay Letourneau on us!

14. HOPE FOR MORE

There’s a great debate at http://www.imdb.com over what hasn’t been covered. Highlights:

Parental suicide: you know, it’s the only way Joey Jeremiah could leave the show.

Prostitution and/or teen stripping: it’s one thing to do something nasty for bracelets, Emma. But for cold, hard cash?

15. EMBARRASSING MOMENTS

With most shows, you’d think of the best episodes ever (and there are classics: the school shooting, the abortion episode involving the twins, every second of School’s Out). Since Degrassi’s stock in trade is teen humiliation, you’ve got to pick the most painful moment: Joey naked? Dwayne’s AIDS confession? Paige’s rape? Wheels smooching with a twin? Spinner’s reaction to Marco? Rick’s got a gun?

The winner is: Arthur’s wet dreams! Congrats to everyone involved for making a nation squirm.

16. KEEP IT DULL

No one will ever accuse Degrassi of being glib. So “You were f–king Tessa Campinelli!” from the movie School’s Out, which capped the series in ’92, takes the cake as the show’s greatest line. It’s worth noting that The O.C. came up with a gem in “Chrismukkah,” and everyone on Dawson’s Creek had horrifically large vocabularies. So it’s a strange credit to Degrassi’s writers that this is the only memorable line from the show. Not counting the immortal lyrics of the Zit Remedy’s smash hit, that is.

17. DID HE JUST SAY THAT?

Although Caitlin often gets the credit for the f-bomb, it was Snake who uttered the word for the first time on Canadian network TV, setting up her famous screech. Snake? I would have put money on Mr. Dressup too.

18. HEALING POWERS

A lot of people want to beat up on Next Generation because the actors are prettier and it has better production values than a family vacation film. Only in Canada do we want TV to look crappier. But it’s the healing powers of the new show that are its major flaw. If Kurt Cobain had just accepted that he was bipolar, maybe things would have turned out differently, Ellie tells Craig. Only Degrassi could get away with a line like that. Girls get pregnant, abortions, raped, and turn out fine. It’s a twist on Degrassi as hell: each week you forget what happened, so you can be punished again. Sisyphus would approve.

19. REAL-LIFE DEGRASSI

It’s a game if you live in the GTA: how many Degrassi actors have you seen? Everyone I know in T.O. has a story about meeting Joey/Lucy/BLT/Emma/Ellie/Toby and squealing, “Hey, you’re on Degrassi!” only to have the actor wisely run away.

20. ONLINE INTERACTION, PART I

There was once even a great site – it got a lot of press a few years ago – in which civilians emailed, revealing where they saw a cast member in the GTA. (Sadly, it’s been down for more than a year.)

21. OVERLY REAL-LIFE DEGRASSI

The only character who wasn’t updated on that fan site was Melanie. That’s because the actress who played her, Sara Ballingall, was stalked by a crazed Australian. I know: it sounds like an episode.

22. DEGRASSI ONLINE, PART II

AJ’s Degrassi Universe at http://www.fu-manchu.com/degrassi is worth a look (sadly, it only deals with the first generation). The “Erotic twins” page is worth it in itself, as are the web designer’s rantings that Pat Mastroianni hasn’t paid him for helping out with his own site, http://www.patmeup.com.

23. THE SUSPENSE IS KILLING ME!

Each year, the pressure to up the ante increases. This season, two of the three below are going to happen. Spot the fake:

Yet another student pulls a Spike and gets pregnant.

There’s some hot, barely illegal lesbian action.

Sarah Polley guests stars in a very special episode about incest.

24. BIGGEST STAR

You might be surprised that the show’s biggest star is not Joey. No, it’s got to be Rachel Blanchard, who played Melanie Schlegel – who comes up with these names? – on Kids of Degrassi Street. Although best recalled as “Tif” in Road Trip, you can see her in Atom Egoyan’s new movie, Where the Truth Lies, screening at the Toronto film festival, in which she orders a double sausage sandwich with Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth.

Worth mentioning: Neve Campbell never got a name, but was a wallflower in a few episodes.

25. THE NEXT ‘NEXT GENERATION’

Look for the group of actors on Next Generation to do a lot better than the earlier casts: the current lot were all actors before coming to Degrassi, not “discovered” in Toronto high schools and pressed into duty, like the original cast.

Many will continue to be actors after it ends. So enjoy Degrassi now – here’s betting Emma et al. won’t be back to play teacher when it’s time for the third incarnation to roll around.

But in another 25 years, will Degrassi still be with us? Absolutely. Its impish, honest spirit has become ingrained. The show has been an ambassador for Canada around the world, shaped multiple generations of teens and twentysomethings, and taught us countless valuable life lessons.

May oral gonorrhea spare us all.

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