It's like Degrassi, only older and set in Boston

It’s like Degrassi, only older and set in Boston

GAYLE MACDONALD

May 22, 2007

When the American teen network The N decided it needed a new prime-time drama, it looked to its own programming schedule for inspiration and settled on its No. 1-rated show, the Canadian-made series Degrassi: The Next Generation.

Smartly written, topical and enormously popular with adolescent viewers (as well as women in their 20s and 30s), the U.S. broadcaster then went one step further and invited Degrassi’s head writer Aaron Martin to come to New York to pitch them a prime-time pilot.

Recruited right out of the Canadian Film Centre four years ago to work on CTV’s Degrassi, Martin says he jumped at the chance last spring to come up with what would, he hoped, be an original take on a much-tried genre – the coming-of-age drama.

What the Brantford, Ont.-born Martin gave The N and its Canadian broadcast partner, CanWest Global, is a 13-part series called The Best Years. Martin describes it as a cross between the college-girl hit Felicity, Degrassi (produced in Toronto by Epitome Pictures) and the soapy Dawson’s Creek.

The Best Years is the story of a college student in Boston, Samantha Best (played by Los Angeles-based Charity Shea), and her five dorm pals who are on a quest to figure out who the hell they are – and where they should be going. The Best Years debuts on Global tonight at 10, replacing the long-running Gilmore Girls, and on The N starting June 29.

“It’s really trying to explore that time in your life when the decisions you make are going to determine who you are the rest of your life,” says the boyish-looking Martin, who is in his mid-30s.

“That’s what happens in college. You go from being a high-school student with all the baggage that comes with that. And then at college you get to throw that baggage off. And you’re left with that question everyone grapples with – who am I?” says Martin, chatting breezily in the lobby of Toronto’s Drake Hotel, a stone’s throw from his house.

“What I’ve borrowed from Degrassi is character-based storytelling. It’s not educational TV. It’s simply about life-learning experiences,” adds Martin, a Queen’s University grad whose first job in the entertainment business was assistant to the veteran children’s entertainers Sharon, Lois and Bram.

The first episode kicks off with Sam – an orphan who spent her youth living in a long list of foster homes – beginning her freshman year (on a scholarship) at fictitional Charles University in Boston. While partying, a new friend is killed. And so begins the series about the dramatic lows – and highs – of college life.

Martin says he scoured the country for his six college freshmen, so all of them hail from Canada except for Shea, who got the lead after The Best Years’s creator saw the actress’s online audition. “We only had enough money in our budget to bring one person from outside Canada. We couldn’t find anyone right to play Samantha, so eventually we opened [the casting] up to New York and L.A.,” Martin explains.

“Then I saw Charity … and she had a different take on the character than anyone else. She was beautiful and yet really sympathetic. She had this great smile, and I was like, okay, I like that girl a lot.”

The other main cast members include Brandon Jay McLaren, Jennifer Miller, Athena Karkanis, Niall Matter and Randal Edwards (who plays the show’s token Canadian character, a slightly neurotic intellectual from Montreal).

The hour-long episodes, produced by Blueprint Entertainment, CanWest MediaWorks and The N, were shot in Toronto, Hamilton and Guelph, Ont. – the Boston campus where Sam and her gang attend school is actually the University of Guelph.

Martin says The Best Years is set in Boston simply because The N wanted an American show. He was happy to oblige: He wanted the Ivy League stature of the fictional Charles University because it dramatically raised the stakes if his lead character happened to flunk out.

“I really wanted an East Coast prep school, Dead Poets Society feel,” he explains. “And the University of Guelph – which we shot in the fall – has the lush, autumn look I was after.”

Martin believes his new series will target a slightly older demographic than Degrassi’s. “We want teens, but we’re looking for women in their 20s, 30s and 40s as well.”

The N ordered 13 episodes last June, and Martin started shooting The Best Years in October. As of late last week, he had just finishing mixing. Both The N and Global, he adds, see the program as a summer series, which means it won’t be up against the autumn avalanche of new American programming, and it gives The Best Years a better chance to take root.

Next month, Martin’s heading back to Los Angeles to pitch more new TV series to a raft of studio heads. For now, though, he plans to stay put in Toronto, an hour’s drive from his parents’ home in Brantford, Ont.

“My older brother is a teacher, and my younger sister is a children’s aid worker, so I was able to draw on both of them to write this show,” says Martin, who adds that his mother still watches Degrassi every afternoon just so she can see his name in the credits.

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