Calling all 'Degrassi' fans, past and present generations

Calling all ‘Degrassi’ fans, past and present generations

By MELANIE McFARLAND

SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER TELEVISION CRITIC

Being a teenager is tough in any decade, but let me tell you, back in my day — the rough and tumble ’80s — we didn’t have half of what you kids have.

There was MTV, sure. No “My Super Sweet 16” or “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County” though. We had “Beverly Hills 90210,” “21 Jump Street” on Fox and that was it. You kids have “The O.C.,” “One Tree Hill,” “Gilmore Girls” and “Veronica Mars.” Not to mention three, count ’em, three broadcast networks that make it their mission to attract your eyes and spending power.

Stop rolling your eyes, because we did get one treat you’re also fortunate enough to experience, and that’s the “Degrassi” franchise.

I have to argue that when it comes to “Degrassi,” yesterday’s teens had it better than today’s. Production- and fashionwise, not so much. We definitely had an advantage in terms of accessibility, though. In the American markets that aired “Degrassi Junior High” and its follow-up, “Degrassi High,” until the early ’90s, high school and college students devoured it on public television. For free.

Today, “Degrassi: The Next Generation” is available only on digital cable, where it’s a cornerstone of The N, Noggin’s teen block, and a favorite among teenagers and adults alike.

That’s right, a significant portion of the latest “Degrassi” fan base left high school several presidencies ago and don’t necessarily have an adolescent in the house.

They may not flock to the mall whenever “Degrassi” cast members visit town on a publicity tour, but those adults love the show for the same reasons that kids do: In comparison with those other teen dramas, it doesn’t sugarcoat the experience. “Degrassi’s” teens also look like normal kids. You can’t say the same of the ones on MTV or Fox — they all have perfect hair and skin, and are scrawny enough to Hula-Hoop with Cheerios.

Another plus? The “Degrassi” kids are actually teenagers. Adam Brody, who plays “O.C.” high school senior Seth Cohen? A ripe old 25. Benjamin McKenzie, better known as Ryan, is 27.

No matter what age you are, though, it’s an excellent week to be a fan. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the franchise, The N has acquired the rights to air the 70 classic “Degrassi” episodes, including the movie that tied up all the loose ends, “School’s Out.”

So in addition to “Degrassi: The Next Generation’s” fifth season kicking off on Friday (airing in Seattle at 5, 7 and 9 p.m.), The N is airing a two-hour block of episodes from “Degrassi Junior High” and “Degrassi High” tonight between 5 and 7, repeating them on Saturday afternoon between 3 and 5.

They’re not just any four episodes, either — they bring you up to date on the series’ legacy.

One shows when Spike (Amanda Stepto) first has to deal with being pregnant with Emma (Miriam McDonald). This is only slightly more gratifying than seeing the first time Joey (Pat Mastroianni), currently stepfather to the troubled Craig (Jake Epstein), finds the guts to ask out Caitlin (Stacie Mistysyn). In “The Next Generation,” Caitlin became Joey’s fiancee, only to have “Clerks” director Kevin Smith, appearing as himself in the last season’s final three episodes (rerunning Friday beginning at 3:30), come between them.

That’s right, Kevin Smith, a huge “Degrassi” fan, went up to Canada to romance the character he probably had a crush on, way back when.

What’s not to love about this show?

Hard to believe that “Degrassi: The Next Generation” stretched all the way back to a 1980 documentary — produced then, as it is now, for Canadian television by Linda Schuyler. The series as we know it today began life as “The Kids of Degrassi Street” in 1982. By the time it aired here, between 1987 and 1991, it was known as “Degrassi Junior High.” and “Degrassi High.”

As much as times have changed, the unflinching way in which the series depicts teenagers remains the same. The Degrassi kids go to dances and dates, sure, but they also face hardships such as physical abuse, parental death, date rape and mental illness. In the premiere, Manny Santos (Cassie Steele) considers plastic surgery and makes a video she lives to regret.

Resolutions to challenges like this don’t come easily, and often, they’re not exactly happy. But the way in which “Degrassi’s” characters accept them and move on with their lives — or fail to — are satisfyingly honest.

Viewers young and youngish should consider themselves fortunate that “Degrassi,” in all its forms, continues to thrive. Years from now, you’ll really appreciate this show. Trust me.

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