Friday, July 15, 2011

Real Teens, Real Issues: TV's Degrassi

It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure, I suppose, but I’ve just recently re-acquainted myself with Degrassi, the long-running TV series about teens in a Toronto community high school. (I am decades out of high school myself so I feel a bit sheepish admitting I like the series, an unnecessary reaction since Degrassi, ultimately, is all about fine television.) I watched it quite regularly in the '80s but somehow forgot about it after its ten-year hiatus and didn’t check back in with when it returned as Degrassi: The Next Generation, something I now regret. I was flipping the dial on a Friday a few months back when I came across a late Season 10 episode on MuchMusic and was instantly hooked all over again, eventually catching up with the entire season due to MuchMusic’s repeats. Season 11 begins on Monday July 18 on MuchMusic – Canada ’s version of the American music channel MTV – and the U.S. channel TeenNick. Judging by the exciting goings-on last season, it promises to be another gripping and fascinating installment in the ongoing saga of the kids of Degrassi.

It’s hard to believe but the show, in one form or another, has been around since 1979, beginning with its first incarnation as The Kids of Degrassi Street (1979-86) on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the country's public TV network. (Linda Schuyler and Kit Hood were its creators, but only the former is still involved with the show.) That was followed by Degrassi Junior High (1987-89), Degrassi High (1989-91), both on CBC and, finally, Degrassi: The Next Generation, which premiered in 2001, moving to CTV, Canada's leading private television network, which also owns MuchMusic. It changed its name to just plain Degrassi last season. (This being Canada, the first few episodes of The Kids of Degrassi Street were one offs, and the early seasons were abbreviated ones, as in the British television mode, ranging anywhere from 4-11 episodes. Growing exponentially, last season Degrassi hit a high of 45 episodes, 22 two part episodes, each a half hour in length, and one half hour documentary whereby some of the cast went to India to help build, appropriately enough, a schoolhouse. Overall there are close to 20 actual season’s worth of shows revolving around Degrassi.) As in real life, every few years, the Degrassi kids graduate high school and are replaced by a new crop of high schoolers. In fact, this year’s season will be split in two, with 29 episodes, running for seven weeks wrapping up the 2010/2011 school year, and another 16 shows, starting in the fall, chronicling the next school year, which means a batch of current Degrassi Grade 12ers will graduate. As such shows about teens go, it’s always been a uniquely intelligent and honest series about young people. It is perhaps the most impressive example of this particular genre.

Right from the outset, with its depiction of pertinent issues facing many young kids, from bullying to divorce to troubled youngsters acting out in self-destructive ways, the series came across as less sensational and more genuine than most of its American counterparts, such as The Facts of Life and Family Ties. Those shows usually descended to facile formula and had countless story lines they wouldn't touch, such as gay issues. Degrassi didn’t shy away from that topic, as depicted in two episodes of Degrassi Junior High.Or that of teen pregnancy, when Christine 'Spike' Nelson (Amanda Stepto) got pregnant. (FYI, Christine's husband on Degrassi: The Next Generation, Archibald 'Snake' Simpson, was played by Stefan Brogren, who was also a classmate's of hers at Degrassi and has moved up the ranks at the school to become its principal. Christine's daughter, Emma (Miriam McDonald), who is also Snake's stepdaughter, later joined the series as a high school student. Brogren, who is one of the current series' producers and directs episodes of the show, is also the only cast member to have been in every incarnation of Degrassi. He was also the first Canadian actor to use the word 'fuck' in primetime Canadian TV on the Degrassi High TV movie School’s Out (1992).

Stefan Brogren
Not surprisingly, the show, though sold all over the world, has also faced censorship, with the BBC refusing to run one of the ‘gay’ episodes, called “Rumour Has It,” from Degrassi Junior High (1987), because of its homosexual references. (Yes, that BBC, which seems to have no taboos in shows such as Being Human and Life on Mars, from their network that runs in Canada .) That Degrassi episode was actually quite innocuous, with a young girl, Caitlin, wondering if her teacher Ms. Avery was gay and questioning her own sexual orientation when she had a dream about said teacher. Later, in 1989, the two-part premiere of Degrassi High, which wasn’t so tame, incurred the wrath of American censors. PBS refused to air the final scene of “A New Start” (1989) wherein pregnant Erica opted for an abortion, snipping the final image of her pushing through anti-abortion protesters to get into the clinic for the procedure, thus rendering it unclear what Erica actually did about her pregnancy. If you kept watching the show though and didn’t see her give birth, you’d be able to figure it out. And just to show that abortion remains an American TV taboo, outside of HBO, at least, in 2005, the channel N, which is now called TeenNick and still runs the show, refused to show that two-parter or the following episode which referenced the abortion. Incidentally, Nickelodeon Australia, after the abortion two-parter had run uncut in the country all through the 90s, tampered with “A New Start” to make it appear Erica was never pregnant in the first place. They also banned another two-parter, “Showtime,” which dealt with teen suicide. Eventually, Aussie TV ran all the Degrassi episodes uncut. (Isn't censorship grand?)

Raymond Ablack and Melinda Shankar
Going back and forth with censorial powers is evidence that Degrassi is not a bland series which provokes indifference on the part of the viewer – or the censor. (It also keeps pop culture references to a minimum so it doesn't become too dated or fixed in a specific era. Understandably though, it did invite one of its biggest fans, American filmmaker Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy) to appear in several episodes in the fifth season of Degrassi: The Next Generation, playing himself and directing one of his Jay and Silent Bob films in the halls and classrooms of his beloved Degrassi.) But now that I’m back onboard, and also catching up with the somewhat florid Season Six on a local Toronto channel, I think the current crop of actors on the series, portraying teens in Grade 10, 11 or 12, may be the best one yet; they certainly mesh better than in some of the other seasons where cast members seemed to inhabit different universes. And Season Ten’s storylines, written and directed by a rotating crop of creators, are perfectly modulated and unfolded.

What most impresses me about Degrassi is its honesty and its non-stereotypical views and depictions of teenagers. The kids are neither goody two-shows nor out and out villains, but they’re also not like the teens from an overrated show like Glee, which has always struck me as outrageous for the sake of it and, despite its handling of ‘teen’ issues, not all that realistic. (Yes, I know there’s a fantasy element to the show, as reflected in the polished musical numbers aired each week, but the kids in Glee seem mannered and overly declarative as characters.) Take Degrassi’s Goth-inclined Eli Goldsworthy (Munro Chambers), who drives a hearse with a skull and crossbones on the front; he’s intense, more than a little mysterious and, incidentally Jewish, or half-Jewish as I’m not sure about his mother’s background. His dad is a hippieish radio jock on a hard rock station which is not a typical profession for a Jewish character on TV. The Bhandari kids, Sav (Raymond Ablack) and Alli (Melinda Shankar) may be East Indian Muslims but their fights with their strict parents have noting to do with religious observance, though they’re expected to date within their nationality, and everything to do with putting school first and not 'embarrassing' the family. (One caveat, Alli gets away with more makeup and shorter skirts than is believable at home.) The portrait of religious Catholic girl Clare Edwards (Aislinn Paul), who is involved with Eli, is also nuanced and respectful, particularly as she is questioning her faith in the light of her parents’ impending divorce. And Adam Torres (Jordan Todosey), a transsexual transitioning to female, doesn’t make it easy for himself, in terms of blending in at high school, by making an obvious and pushy play for sexy Bianca DeSousa (Alicia Josipovio).

Aislinn Paul
Bianca, or rather the way she is treated in the series, is also an example of the much more liberal sensibility prevalent in Canada when it comes to language and adult situations. We’re the only country that ran The Sopranos uncut on basic TV – that would never happen in the States as can be seen in the embarrassingly bowdlerized episodes of the show on A&E – and when a politician swears, the’ offensive’ word runs unbleeped on the evening newscast. Degrassi does adhere to some network censorship – characters will say 'crap' instead of 'shit' – but it certainly deviates from the sexual norm. That can be seen in the case of Bianca, who is known to give head in the school‘s boiler room and does so to Adam’s cocky brother Drew (Luke Bilyk), causing his girlfriend Alli to dump him. In another series, or in almost any other one, Bianca, who is looked down upon by most of her classmates, because of her actions, would be punished for her ‘sins’ or left on screen as ‘promiscuous’ non-role model. Bianca actually ends up as Drew’s girlfriend and is revealed to be a nice but tough girl and, so far, at least, her sexual past is not an issue for Drew. Past American shows like Veronica Mars and My So-Called Life may have been honest about the realities of sexual behaviour, but no network show, particularly one aimed at teens, has ever been this open-minded.

Charlotte Arnold and Raymond Ablack
This accepting attitude applies to all the characters on the series, gay and straight. Some, like Clare, are virgins; others like Holly J. Sinclair (Charlotte Arnold) are sexually active, with two successive boyfriends on the show. Of all the cast, I find Arnold to be the most talented. Her Holly J., who has gone from a mean, bullying girl to a nice, supportive friend and who battled serious health issues last season, goes through so many gradations of character, that it's almost dizzying, but always compelling, bearing comparison to the likes of Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) and Claire Danes (My So-Called Life). (Apparently and regrettably, this is Arnold ’s’ last year on the show and she won’t, it appears, be continuing on as an actress as she’s currently studying broadcast journalism at Toronto’s Ryerson University, my alma mater.)

There are a few bones I could pick with the show. It panders somewhat to teens’ self images of themselves, being very careful to make sure no one at Degrassi is overweight, which is, obviously unrealistic. Some of them do worry that they’re fat, which remedies the omission a bit. (Obesity was used in the negative portrayal of a lonely older woman, who developed a predatory sexual interest in one of the kids, Connor Deslaurier (AJ Saudin) – Mr. Simpson’s godson who has Asperger’s Syndrome – when they became friends online. It’s a valid portrait of an adult behaving inappropriately but she could have been showcased with a little more understanding.) And, in an industry that feels the need to stress that it doesn’t endorse those movie characters who smoke, it’s no revelation that nary a cigarette touches a Degrassi Kid’s lips, though they might puff on a joint. (Does anyone still smoke on network TV, I wonder?) There’s also a bit of intrusive product placement on the series, something I usually don’t mind or notice but do when I have to view the same damn newspaper box advertising Toronto’s shallow, myopic alternative newspaper NOW in every second episode. I do like the fact that Degrassi is proudly Toronto identified, whether it is on the side of a police car or in an offhand reference to a (fictional) city university.

Annie Clark
The ads for the new season of Degrassi (a 12th season has been confirmed), promise more emotional turmoil for its cast, who welcome several new characters to the show, including a love interest for newly come-out lesbian Fiona Coyne (Annie Clark). There will also be ups and downs in the gay relationship between football players Riley Stavros (Argiris Karras) and Zane Park (Shannon Kook-Chun), as well as in the partnership of teen parents K.C. Guthrie (Sam Earle) and Jenna Middleton (Jessica Tyler). Admittedly, some of the current plotlines – the teenagers dealing with the ramifications of an unplanned pregnancy; the gay male, Riley, reluctant to come out to his conservative parents have been done before on Degrassi, but those situations would, in real life, pop up regularly. (Unfortunately, Karras’s one-note performance is one of the few weaknesses among the cast.) Besides, there are also new, fresh storylines, such as Eli’s odd way of coping with his previous girlfriend’s accidental death, or Adam’s unique plight, which won Degrassi a prestigious Peabody Award for the Season 10 two part episode "My Body is a Cage", which the writers routinely conjure up on the show.

On one level, it’s funny that I find Degrassi so involving since its teen world is miles removed from the sheltered and naïve private Jewish high school I attended 35 years ago in Montreal. Yet, its protagonists can and do remind me of people I knew from my high school, while the added issues dealt with in the show, most of which I didn’t know anything about at that age, intrigue me. It all adds up to that clichéd Must-See TV moniker. If you’ve fallen away from the show, or have never seen it before, take a look. I’m quite sure you, too, will be hooked on the Degrassi world, a reassuring quality constant in an often mediocre TV universe.

These are the opening credits for Season 11.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute and in September will be teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also in the fall, he'll be teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto.

1 comment:

  1. In what way do you think degrassi made an impact in young people in Canada?
    Do you think children learn from degrassi?
    Do you think the way characters act influence in young people's behaviour?
    Do you think young people can relate to the struggles the characters face?
    In what way do you think the episode "as time stands still" made an impact?