Degrassi vs. The Shark
For the first time, series writers have to handle a graduating class that’s left the school behind
A `sexier’ and `more adult’ Degrassi is being promised for Season 6,
Jun. 13, 2006. 07:49 AM
On a bubblegum-coloured North York film set, pre-teens are auditioning to become the next homegrown face of teen angst. Scripts in tow, knees together, they are almost indistinguishable from one another: first-growth spurt, too thin, stick-straight long hair. The girls wear tight jeans and layered spaghetti-strap camisoles with baby-flower pastel prints.
The boys are coiffed punk. Curly hair, clean baseball caps, baggy T-shirts and bicycle-chain jewellery. The parents, whose minivans wait in the parking lot, coach their Noxzema-fresh hopefuls from the side.
They are eager and beautiful. And any one could be the next face of Degrassi: The Next Generation.
While the faces of aspiring of Degrassi kings and queens remain all lollipops and light and high teen drama, the rest of the show is moving away from its innocent origins. Production began this month for Degrassi’s sixth season, and for the first time, cameras are following graduating cast members into university.
That means the shark is lurking.
“The spectre of jumping the shark is something we deal with every day,” says executive producer James Hurst, on the set of the show in the first week of filming.
The phrase, by now, is familiar: a popular show jumps the shark when, because of slumping ratings or staid storylines, its writers begin to rely on extreme plots to liven things up. The phrase originally comes from Happy Days, which jumped the shark when Fonzie, literally, jumped over a shark.
The transition to university from high school is even harder on TV than it is in real life. Buffy, Dawson’s Creek, 90210 and other teen classics peaked when they moved to a show about young adults rather than one about teenagers. The O.C. is also grappling with post-G-Day jitters.
“In some ways, (Season 6 is) more about adult relationships,” Hurst says. “And adult sexual relationships.”
At the end of Season 5, “almost all of the characters had a lot more story left,” he says. So a decision was made: their stories won’t end.
According to the show’s co-creator Linda Schuyler, the cast members of the graduating class who are coming back have attracted a loyal following. The five returnees are Craig, Marco, Paige, Ellie and Alex.
“We’re just thrilled overall with the following the kids have got, particularly in the States,” she says.
Its creators have been paying attention to what the viewers like by checking fan web sites.
“We feel it from them constantly,” she said. “There’s a strong draw to these characters.”
Schuyler says the attraction probably stems from the fact fans have grown up with the characters, adding that, over the past few seasons, the 18- to 34-year-old demographic has grown sharply.
“Our characters do grow and evolve,” she says.
If the show were to stray, Hurst says, it would be because it had decided to become a drama that was about covering issues rather than characters.
“The show is not issue-driven, it’s character-driven,” he says. “I don’t think it’s (going to jump the shark) because it’s all coming from the characters.
“But it’s definitely going to be a sexier Degrassi,” he adds.
Ellie gets an older love interest, Jimmy works around sex in a wheelchair and there will even be a street racing storyline.
Will anyone die this season?
“Not in the street racing story,” Hurst says. “These are darker themes, there are more intense themes without giving away too many secrets.”
Even the actors don’t know what’s coming, says Stacey Farber, who plays Ellie.
Having just finished her first year at York University in her real life, the slender Farber seems out of place and over-sized sitting in a chair-desk on the Grade 8 English class set of Degrassi Community School.
The set is labyrinthine. Washroom doors lead into living rooms and school courtyards and blocked off by false skylights and plastic plants. The green grammar worksheets hidden in a folder on the teacher’s desk look like they have been photocopied from a nearby high school: “Make the following words plural: calf, leaf, child.”
In her real life, Farber’s now studying professional writing. On the show, she is becoming a student journalist at the University of Toronto.
“So far, it’s a whole new life, a whole new step,” she says. Though Farber’s acting has prevented her from becoming involved with extra-curricular activities at York, Ellie is struggling to fit in among an older cohort at U of T’s fictional student paper, The Core.
Back on set, she practises the miffed journalist look. Again and again.
Thump. The stack of papers lands on the chair. The office is decked out with natural light and clutter and doctored editions of U of T’s real student newspaper, The Varsity.
“It’s not here,” Ellie says while flipping through the pages.
“What happened to my article on the tuition rally?” she asks her editor.
“Oh, you mean the one filled with rookie reporting mistakes. I guess we forgot to publish it. Wonder why?”
“Don’t I get a chance to fix it?”
Cut. And repeat.
“A lot of Degrassi is really about embarrassment,” Hurst says. And firsts.
“Your first kiss, first break-up. Your first abortion,” he adds, laughing.
That’s not going to change.
It’s just that now Degrassi is also about the first crazy roommate, the first time being broke. “University pressures are a lot bigger,” Hurst says.
But Degrassi doesn’t plan on making any major departures from the way it tells its stories, he says. “Certainly the plan is to keep this going until the wheels fall off.”
Or until the shark nips them.