It was inevitable, really, that Degrassi would finally “go Hollywood” as the title of tonight’s premiere TV movie (CTV at 8), Paradise City: Degrassi goes Hollywood would clearly seem to indicate.
After striking a chord with Canadian kids for its unvarnished depiction of pimpled 1980s teenhood, The Kids of Degrassi Street then Degrassi Junior High, Degrassi High and finally Degrassi: The Next Generation went on to become a huge cable cult hit in the States.
Typically, this level of cross-border success would be the on-ramp to the express lane on the road to Sell-Out Town. And indeed, as the “Next Generation” has grown up before our eyes into young hunks and hotties, Hollywood has begun to chip away, one by one, luring Shenae Grimes down to cut a swath through the CW’s remade 90210, and now Nina Dobrev as designated dish on the same network’s new Vampire Diaries.
Meanwhile, Degrassi grad Aubrey Graham has exploded onto the U.S. music scene under his nom de rap, Drake, with an upcoming debut album featuring such A-list collaborators as Eminem, Jay-Z and Kanye West, while fellow alum Jake Epstein tours in the roadshow cast of Broadway musical Spring Awakening.
The great irony here is that Degrassi Goes Hollywood actually spent almost no time in Hollywood at all.
“You’d be amazed at how much of it was actually shot here, in Yorkville and on the Bridal Path,” reveals Lauren Collins, whose returning Degrassi character, Paige, carries much of the transition, stretching her considerable comedic skills as a dog-sitting lackey to an oblivious celebutante who becomes an overnight showbiz Cinderella.
Similarly central to the Paradise plot is singing star Cassie Steele (Instant Star), whose aspiring actress Manny remains in Toronto in typical Degrassi fashion, struggling with esteem issues and unable to extricate herself from an ill-advised relationship.
In the end, of course, Manny too comes to Tinseltown to claim her due destiny another great irony, since the Toronto-born Steele, who is about to release her second album, has actually been living in L.A. for two years.
And the 23-year-old Collins, who left the show last season, is very likely the next to follow. “Degrassi has opened a lot of doors,” she says.
She still, nonetheless, seemed a bit overwhelmed by the scaled-down Hollywood-style red-carpet premiere of Paradise City last Wednesday at the Bloor Cinema.
“All the lights and the fans and the cameras … I mean, I used to live in this area. I’m used to running around here in my pyjamas, going into Kinko’s at midnight.
“This,” she looks over to the gathered throng of squealing, photo-snapping Degrassi fans, “this is just crazy.”
Crazy, maybe. But still Degrassi. Indeed, this special sidetrip to L.A. actually satirizes the vastly more stylized American fare, from 90210 to The Hills to High School Musical, that has followed in its teenaged wake.
“Yet again, some very insightful work from Canadian parodists,” enthuses longtime Degrassi booster Kevin Smith, who makes another in a series of cameo appearances in tonight’s TV movie, along with sidekick Jason Mewes.
“Depending on which urban legend you listen to, Degrassi actually inspired the original 90210,” Smith suggests. “There is talk that Aaron Spelling tried to buy it from (producer) Linda Schuyler. But it was like, `Let’s do it, but let’s make it completely unrealistic and use impossibly pretty 28-year-olds.’ ”
Nothing much has changed, Smith allows. “Not to condemn all of American television, but we’re about to start our new fall season here, so when you drive through Los Angeles it’s nothing but billboards, and they all look like they’re straight out of an Abercrombie & Fitch ad.
“I’ve lived my whole life as a fat man. Just to see one real-looking human being on that board, man, like Marilyn amongst the Munsters …
“That’s the thing about Degrassi,” he says, “that warm, comforting feeling that … we’re sexual beings, and we naturally tend to sexualize everything, whether we’re conscious of it or not. But the moment you settle back into an episode of Degrassi, you’re like, `Boy, if I was still in high school, I would have had a shot with these girls.’ ”
And, much as those girls (and guys) have grown up, gotten gorgeous and gone on to bigger if not better things, the show remains the same.
“It’s cyclical,” Smith allows, “and now there’s now a whole new group coming up. But it’s still Degrassi, still very much grounded in that world. It’s right up there with the John Hughes canon in terms of turning a mirror on a generation of young people and reflecting them accurately.
“And I for one am delighted.”