Degrassi does a good job of growing up

ANDREW RYAN

The kids of Degrassi: The Next Generation have seen heartaches by the number and troubles by the score. Over five seasons, the Degrassi players have survived teen pregnancy, eating disorders, same-gender snogging and STDs transmitted through oral sex. And repeated visits from Kevin Smith. Teenage wasteland has been difficult.

And those were The Wonder Years compared with what lies ahead. The sixth season of Degrassi: The Next Generation (Tuesday, CTV, 8 p.m.) spins the story in a new direction as its teen players edge into adulthood. Most of the established Degrassi cast are now in their late teens and finishing high school; some are already off to university. The new season touches on drag racing, drug abuse and exotic dancing as a career choice. This year, wrong decisions mean jail time — or worse: The future will bring the murder of a central character. These things never happened to Joey Jeremiah.

But it’s a different world today and late-stage teens face bigger issues than finding a date for the prom. “The kids are growing up,” says executive producer Linda Schuyler, who has overseen all incarnations of Degrassi over the past 25 years. “They’re dealing with more adult problems now, most of which come with bigger consequences.”

Unlike The O.C., which appears to have gone off the rails after three seasons, Degrassi: The Next Generation still commands respect in the pantheon of teen-themed drama. Last year’s campaign notched the million-viewer mark in this country, and the Degrassi message extends beyond our borders: It’s one of the most-imported shows in Canadian TV history, airing in more than 150 countries. While visiting the Wailing Wall, cast member Lauren Collins, who plays Paige, was surrounded by Israeli soldiers seeking autographs. Degrassi is a worldwide phenomenon.

The Degrassi concept still works because the current version remains true to the era of Joey, Snake, Spike, Wheels and the rest. As per the original series, Next Generation focuses on touchy teen topics, but in tasteful Canadian fashion. “We never set out to be sensational. If kids are talking about it at the school yard or talking about it at the mall, we can talk about it on Degrassi,” Schuyler says.

And consequences are important on Degrassi. Case in point: The infamous oral-sex episode from two seasons back, in which the character Emma got a little risqu at a bonfire party and contracted a dose of oral gonorrhea. “If anyone had told me years ago that we would be doing a show on oral sex, I would have been totally astounded,” Schuyler says. “But things have evolved and kids are in a place now where they know about birth control and so some of them might think, ‘This is oral sex, we’re being safe.’ It was a topic we wanted to talk about, but we didn’t sensationalize it.”

The same tack applies to the sixth season of Next Generation. The double-episode debut is a timeless teen saga: Feuding high-school males Sean and Peter both own hot wheels and both are vying for the affections of Emma. The obvious solution involves a midnight drag race that ends very badly and with one of the drivers behind bars. “It was just a year ago, remember, that we heard about the terrible drag-racing accident on Mount Pleasant in Toronto,” Schuyler says. “We decided we had to do an episode on it.”

There is still room for school dances and secret crushes, of course. All the regular teen characters — Danny, Liberty, Alex, Dylan, Darcy and others — now older, maybe a little wiser, are back at school. The sixth season will also follow the postsecondary careers of Paige, Craig, Ellie and Marco, and Degrassi mainstays Spike and Snake will appear as needed to dispense advice. Next Generation has the longest cast list of any current Canadian-made series.

“We do have a large ensemble cast and you never know who will have the lead story,” Schuyler says. “It means that when we tell big issues — whether it’s someone getting pregnant or someone with a problem with drugs — we don’t bring in a day player just to play that role. We give it to one of our regular actors. The same character doesn’t have to be the A-story week after week; they can just be in the background.”

Parents of teens should probably watch Degrassi: The Next Generation, but their children are likely a step ahead. Next Wednesday’s season opener already aired last Tuesday on CTV’s broadband service — a network first. The pre-release was the first stage of a multilevel broadband rollout that includes 19 scripted webisodes titled Degrassi Minis, the same number of behind-the-scene specials streaming under the banner Degrassi: On the Set and two animated shorts, called Degrassi Mangasodes — all available on-demand all season. The kids watch TV differently today.

“It’s a very different experience watching a show on your computer, compared to watching on a TV set,” Schuyler says, “but we have to continue to grow with the kids, and right now we’re exploring the broadband platform. Next year, there might be other new things out there.”

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