Updated Mon. Nov. 27 2006 9:30 AM ET
TORONTO — Linda Schuyler still recalls in astonishment the rock-star reception the young cast of “Degrassi: The Next Generation” received during a visit to Manhattan earlier this year.
The venue was New York City’s Hard Rock Cafe, and hundreds of people showed up to meet the cast of the internationally successful teen drama before a screening of the “Degrassi” premiere on the U.S. cable channel The N. But neither Schuyler nor “my gang,” as she calls them, were prepared for the sea of frenzied fans who turned out that September evening.
“There were fans all over the place screaming and yelling – I thought my gang was never going to come back down to earth,” the “Degrassi” creator says with a laugh.
“It was really lovely for them – they were genuinely treated like stars. People were pushing and shoving and screaming for autographs.”
And then, Schuyler says, the cast members returned to Canada.
“They came back home and it was like: ‘Oh yeah, I have to do that load of laundry.’ Nothing like Canada to keep them honest!”
The sixth season of “Degrassi: The Next Generation” premieres Tuesday night on CTV with back-to-back episodes at 8 and 8:30 p.m EST. The Canadian premiere comes weeks after “Degrassi” started running on The N, and almost a week after CTV streamed the show online for those who prefer to watch their TV on the web.
The show has enjoyed stunning success abroad – “Degrassi” is a hit in countries like France, Switzerland and Australia. But it’s enjoying much of its success in the United States, where it’s the most popular show on The N, routinely outperforming the other teen dramas on the network.
That might explain the expansive studio where the show is shot in a remote, industrial part of Toronto’s Leaside neighbourhood. The massive building is the home of two house cats in addition to the dozens of elaborately designed sets for “Degrassi” – among them the high-school science lab, a portion of a shopping mall, Spike and Snake’s home and the university dorm house that viewers will be seeing lots of this year.
“Degrassi,” indeed, is spreading its wings this year – some of the kids are heading off to university, and for the first time, the cameras will follow along.
“We had quite a lot of discussion talking about where we should go,” Schuyler says of the powwows she held with the show’s writers last year as they mapped out the sixth season. “Should we even follow them after graduation, and would we be breaking the ‘Degrassi’ mould and not in a good way? But we decided that there were certain characters who we felt still had stories in them, and still had audience appeal.
“Part of the mandate of ‘Degrassi’ is to talk about stories of first-time experience, so you know, getting a new roommate, having to move away and go to university – those are big things in a young person’s life.”
Even though much of the action will remain at Degrassi High, the cast members heading off to pursue their post-secondary educations are excited about the change in course.
“Paige is off to university and she’s all about starting this new life,” says Lauren Collins, 20, of her troubled character. “She’s really confident about it, but I think she’s in for a bit of a shock. It’s dealing with this whole new world, the whole concept of a small fish in a huge pond at university.”
Adamo Ruggiero plays the beloved Marco, the heart and soul of the “Degrassi” gang.
“He’s growing up, he’s in university and is just moving in with his boyfriend and living on his own, but in doing so, a little something happens to him that’s very unexpected and a lot of viewers will be shocked,” Ruggiero says during a recent break in shooting. “But it’s a great episode and I get to take my character in a new direction, so this season will show a different side of Marco.”
There are, in fact, many surprises ahead this year. For the first time in the entire “Degrassi” franchise history – the show first aired as “The Kids of Degrassi Street” in 1983 – a character gets murdered. But none of the cast members on hand during the recent shoot were breathing a word about who might be headed for the chopping block.
Schuyler, for her part, says she’s as excited about the new season as she’s ever been – partly because the show has now crossed a generation, with parents who watched what she calls the “classic Degrassi” now taking in “Next Generation” with their kids.
Characters like Spike and Snake from “Degrassi Junior High” now play parents – and a newly married couple – on “Next Generation.”
“I’ve seen mother and daughter and father and son lining up to get signatures from the cast – the parents were into the classic show and the kids are into this,” she says.
“I can’t tell you how gratifying that is. The year we came back with ‘Next Generation,’ I thought I was certifiably insane. I was afraid I would mess up the show. And yet at the same time, I thought there were still stories to be told for this young audience. So the fact that here we are having this conversation today, and six years into the new show, is quite thrilling for me.”