Teen drama Degrassi hits 100 [Toronto Star]

VINAY MENON

It’s a milestone for both the characters and the show.

Degrassi: The Next Generation celebrates its 100th episode tonight (CTV, 8:30 p.m.) with a season finale that includes a first for the teen drama: a graduation ceremony.

Somehow, this coming-of-age ritual seems doubly appropriate. In 2005, you see, the “Degrassiverse” celebrated a quarter-century and expanded with its very own Big Bang: a CD compilation (featuring Canadian artists such as Buck 65 and Sam Roberts); a hot-selling DVD; popular books (including an illustrated history and the Official 411); an upcoming series of character-extending graphic novels (Degrassi: Extra Credit); Web-based minis (brief shorts available for download), and plans for the students at Degrassi Community School to hit the big screen in a feature that may corral director and superfan Kevin Smith.

This season, Degrassi was the top-rated Canadian drama, tipping past the vaunted 1 million mark while averaging 746,000 viewers. In the United States, where it exploded into a cult hit, Degrassi’s blistering summer run on The N turned it into the network’s flagship series.

“I can’t explain the show’s success, to be perfectly honest,” says Miriam McDonald, 18, who plays Emma Nelson. “It’s one of those things that people are just drawn to. We’re not trying to be a slick, over-produced American show. We just show things as they really are.”

This emphasis on unadorned realism, a focus on teen storytelling that neither condescends nor panders, has captured young imaginations across the planet; Degrassi has been sold to more than 120 countries.

Two years ago, Adamo Ruggiero, who plays Marco Del Rossi, was in Los Angeles for an autograph session. Burly security personnel were needed to keep the boisterous crowd, in excess of 6,000, from rushing the stage.

“I remember thinking, `Oh my God, this is surreal,'” says Ruggiero, 19. “At that moment, I really started to grasp how big the show had become.”

Ruggiero makes an important observation: living as we do, in the monstrous cultural shadow of America, Degrassi has inverted the usual import-export relationship.

“Kids in the states are screaming for a Canadian show and they know it’s Canadian,” he says. “They want to come to Canada. They want to come to Toronto and talk about the CN Tower. This is really important. I think our show has proved that our television, our work, our culture can reflect back.”

A friend of co-creator Linda Schuyler recently returned from a trip to China. Upon learning the tourist was Canadian, a translator remarked, “Ah, Bethune, Degrassi.”

So how does Schuyler, who executive produces with husband Stephen Stohn, explain the show’s success? “I always figure that’s your job,” she says, laughing. “No, I’m thrilled by it. But I was so petrified when we came back with The Next Generation. Much as I wanted to do it, I also thought to myself, `Linda Schuyler, you must be crazy.'”

After all, her successful franchise The Kids of Degrassi Street, Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High was already scorched into the minds of Canadian viewers.

Why would she tempt fate with a new project that might very well end in failure and leave a black hole in the Degrassiverse? The short answer: she had more stories to tell.

“We’re always analyzing drama in this country and saying, `How can we make it right?'” she says. “It’s like catching lightning in a bottle. But it’s not just a question of getting good stories.”

Yes, just ask producers of This Is Wonderland or Godiva’s, two excellent but underappreciated shows that were recently cancelled. To this end, Schuyler credits CTV and The N for providing all the things a successful TV show requires in these competitive days: a good and consistent time slot, season orders of more than 13 to 15 episodes, and the strong arm of network publicity.

“There has been this confluence of great things and here we are able to celebrate 100 episodes five years into it,” she says, a landmark none of the other Degrassi series can boast.

Whereas many teen shows eventually sell out, Degrassi continues to buy in to its set of “founding principles.” Point-of-view storytelling, on-camera realism, age-appropriate casting and the fearless tackling of hot-button issues: date rape, anorexia, cyber stalking, domestic abuse, school violence, drug abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, teen homosexuality, to name just a few.

As Jimmy (Aubrey Graham) sardonically cracks in tonight’s episode, the school is “such a unique combo of shootings and gonorrhea outbreaks.” Or, as the New York Times noted in a lengthy feature last year, “(Degrassi) confronts controversy in a way that American network television wouldn’t dream of.” (See: the 2004 two-part story involving Manny’s abortion that The N never aired.)

Looking ahead, Schuyler is contemplating a spin-off for the older kids. But her focus, for now, is on Season 6. After tonight’s graduation, some new faces will undoubtedly arrive when school doors open in the fall.

“I talk about Degrassi as being that wonderful time in people’s lives where they have a foot in childhood and a foot in the adult world,” she says. “And that push-pull is the very thing that gives us our drama.”

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