Degrassi: 25 years young

Degrassi: 25 years young

By JOHN ALLEMANG

Monday, September 19, 2005 Posted at 12:48 AM EDT

Globe and Mail Update

Let’s call this the 25th anniversary of Degrassi and, like the perennial teenagers we are, face the consequences later.

If it’s not entirely true, it’s not actually false either. Life is complicated, as Degrassi has been telling us all these many years, and given that we’re probably going to have to accept responsibility somewhere down the line, where’s the harm in playing with the facts while we can? If Marco can kind of be out of the closet, and Emma didn’t have real sex with Jay, and no one could tell twin Erica from twin Heather way back when least of all Clutch what’s the big deal about a missing year or two?

The roots of Monday’s season-opening, 25th-anniversary episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation (CTV, 8:30 p.m.), along with this past Saturday’s epoch-marking documentary The Degrassi Story, go back to a little TV show that aired on Sept. 20, 1980. Do the math: Unless you’re Joey Jeremiah, it all adds up so far.

Here’s where the Degrassi mythology starts to get tricky you can almost see Arthur and Yick back at Degrassi Junior High wondering in their pricked-by-conscience way if it’s quite right to take the next step. But of course there wouldn’t be a thriving Degrassi franchise, complete with DVDs, souvenir student planners, oral-sex controversies, sales to more than 100 countries and autograph signings at the mall, if everybody listened to their inner adult all the time.

That first show, produced for CBC by current Degrassi guru Linda Schuyler, was called Ida Makes a Movie, and it was essentially a one-off vrit-style production that didn’t yet know it had launched a prime-time dynasty. The next year came Cookie Goes to Hospital and Irene Moves In no mention yet of the now-legendary east-end Toronto street and the schools that provided a stage for its wayward-yet-responsible youth. Five new episodes turned up in 1982 along with a name to acknowledge all this staying power The Kids of Degrassi Street.

The Kids, as we all know, went to junior high, and then high school, drank too much beer, got pregnant, bought condoms, tried to grow sea creatures ordered from the back of a comic book, contemplated abortion, campaigned for the environment and, against pinup photos in the boys’ lockers, relived memories of sexual abuse, crashed the odd car and tested positive for HIV. By now, as the range of issues might suggest, it was the early nineties. When the Degrassi: School’s Out special aired in 1992 to a now-astonishing audience of 2.4 million viewers production came to an end. After that, it was endless repeats, a cult following among the punk and slacker sets who loved Degrassi’s non- 90210 matter-of-factness, and the inevitable Jonovision reunion.

But then Schuyler came back with Degrassi: The Next Generation, which has been airing on the CTV network since 2001, and in recent months managed the rare feat of being honoured by the mutually exclusive Teen Choice crowd and the Television Critics Association. So if it’s now 2005, that has to be 25 years, correct?

In all that time, says Schuyler, who used to be a teacher and therefore wouldn’t mess with our impressionable minds, Degrassi has never been off the air.

Kevin Smith needs a little more convincing, at least when it comes to the niceties of chronology. I don’t know, says the 35-year-old director of Clerks and Mallrats, a long-time Degrassi fan and ongoing guest star, the numbers seem a little funny. You start adding them up, I’m not sure if it works or not.

Smith knows about numbers he’s now working on Clerks II, which he has so far refused to call Clerks: The Next Generation. But being a starstruck fan, he is more focused on Degrassi’s long-lasting appeal than he is on the minutiae of dates and years.

It gives you a much better sense of identity than watching something like The O.C., he says. Let’s face it, most of the world is not as good-looking as the people on The O.C., and when you’re watching Degrassi, the people look like you and the settings are the world you come from.

Degrassi’s latest incarnation has created considerable buzz in the United States, where its unflinching approach to teen misbehaviour stands out in a network landscape that prefers pretty to real. At The N, the teen-oriented cable channel often referred to as The Degrassi Network, vice-president Sarah Tomassi Lindman says the show’s popularity begins with this desire to be authentic.

There’s no other show on TV quite like it, she says. This is a teen drama that actually stars teenagers, not 25-year-olds pretending to be 18.

Faithfulness to age has been key to Degrassi’s success as a drama, Schuyler believes. On other shows, the actors bring more life experience than their characters have. But with age-appropriate casting, they only bring their own limited amount of life experience it helps keep the show honest.

That honesty extends to showing teenaged actors with actual pimples and not dressing them up in designer duds though admittedly The Next Generation, reflecting these CosmoGIRL! times, is infinitely more flashy than the appealingly dressed-down original. At the dramatic level, it means keeping all-knowing adults out of the action as far as possible (even if The Next Generation producers couldn’t resist importing the now-grownup Snake, Spike, Joey and Caitlin from the original series), and letting the kids mess up and muddle through as best they can.

Rather than putting issues such as oral sex out there and insisting that they’re flat out wrong, observes Allison Graham, a Montreal student teacher and Degrassi follower, the show gives the characters and viewers the facts they need to make their own decisions.

Their own decisions, but not necessarily the right decisions. Degrassi’s Canadian-ness, rooted perhaps in the country’s strong documentary tradition, shows through in its reluctance to moralize or pass judgment, and its unwillingness to force simplistic conclusions on complex situations.

It’s a given fact that actions have consequences, says Schuyler, but we make them happen at a peer level. Yes Ashley takes ecstasy, but then she acts like an idiot and eventually loses her friends. And often what helps us keep the truthfulness is that the story is told in increments and not crammed into one very special episode with a guest star who’s going to be the one who gets pregnant or gay-bashed.

For those who like their rights and wrongs to be clear-cut, this refusal to rush judgments can be problematic. In the conservative U.S. broadcasting climate, even The N has occasionally balked at Degrassi’s liberal values. Scenes of child abuse, date rape, a suicide attempt and an apparent erection in drama class were all cut back or edited out. Episodes were rejigged so that misbehaviour would lead immediately to its consequences. Experts have been brought in to analyze issues left unresolved in the dramatic action. And a pair of episodes where a character considers an abortion were simply not shown.

The crass side of me says, maybe it will help DVD sales, jokes Schuyler. She now collaborates more closely with The N to anticipate incidents that might cause anxiety south of the border, and shoot scenes in such a way that adults more nervous than her can cut out the bad bits.

I certainly don’t feel our stories have been compromised, she says. Americans still say to us, Degrassi could never be produced down here.’ They seem to want to protect their children from anything bad happening. Our approach has always been that we give them the toolkit, and then they’re better prepared to face life.

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