Degrassi's a model for new 90210: Degrassi blazed the trail for the new 90210 with Next Generation

Degrassi’s a model for new 90210:
Degrassi blazed the trail for the new 90210 with its Next Generation

Joel Rubinoff

torstar news service

Here’s the thing no one at least in the U.S. has twigged to about the upcoming Beverly Hills 90210 spinoff, the hipsterifically titled 90210 (8 p.m. Tuesday on Global).

Despite media hand-wringing over how the new show with the legacy of Brandon’s hair gel and Dylan’s sideburns hovering over it like L.A. smog will live up to its kitschy ’90s predecessor, the idea of taking a megasuccessful teen hit and remoulding it for a new generation has already been done.

That show, of course, is Degrassi: The Next Generation, the award-winning Canadian series that reinvented itself despite naysayers who swore it would die a quick death.

The ’80s originals, Degrassi High and Degrassi Junior High, were sacrosanct, they argued, poignant relics of their poofy-haired, shoulder-padded youth. Any attempt to revive them with different actors to make them smarter, hipper, more current would be met not just with indifference but intense hostility.

Everyone predicted failure, and when I interviewed the show’s tremulous creator, Linda Schuyler, before its 2001 debut, even she expressed reservations about unrealistically high expectations.

“It makes me very scared,” she noted then. “Because for some of the diehard fans, it doesn’t matter how good a job you do. If we could have come back in a time warp with Snake and Joey all still in high school, that’s what would have made them the happiest … (sigh) … but we can’t do that.”

It was a legitimate concern, as any aging pop star trying to debut new material can attest and, mindful of its past, the new Degrassi felt compelled to include several members of its original cast to provide a nostalgic link for viewers.

But nostalgia is a fickle creature, and as we saw how the idealistic young upstarts from the original had morphed into balding middle-aged drones bereft of spunk and attitude, we learned a hard lesson about trying to recreate the past, and about our own lives as well.

We also learned, as the new show found its voice, told cutting-edge stories and reached unprecedented heights of popularity, that if nostalgia was overrated, there was a lot to be said for embracing the present in a hard-hitting, unsentimental way.

My guess despite the network’s decision to keep copies of the two-hour pilot away from critics is that this is the model for the new 90210 as well.

Despite assertions to the contrary, it’s clear from the hype surrounding the return of series originals like Shannen Doherty (Brenda Walsh), Jennie Garth (Kelly Taylor) and the 72-year-old guy who ran the Peach Pit that the Degrassi blueprint has been scrutinized in detail.

More telling is the casting of Shenae Grimes Darcy on the current Degrassi as a Kansas teenager who moves to a posh Beverly Hills zip code and winds up mired in the usual spoiled brat shenanigans.

But what really gives away the new show’s unconventional aspirations is its undeniable “cool factor,” something the schlock-prone original never aspired to.

Creators Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah may profess adoration for the wholesome ’90s prototype, but their credentials on edgy cult shows like Freaks and Geeks and Life As We Know It place them as far from that show’s old school storytelling as it’s possible to get.

Which means, I’m guessing, that the current emphasis on returning cast members is nothing more than a classic bait-and-switch.

Pretend to give the rubes what they think they want Hey, it’s a special appearance by aging bookworm Andrea Zuckerman! and, once they’re committed, yank the rug out and carve your own niche.

It’s a tough TV world out there, and if you’re gonna sell a new show to the masses, you’ve gotta use every trick in the book. Fortunately for the creators of 90210, the playbook has already been written.

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