There's nothing quite like being years out of high school and then revisiting the experience through television. We spend most of our time, while watching, measuring our own experiences up against what we see. Shlomo Schwartzberg delved into that phenomenon when he looked back over the years he spent watching the Canadian drama Degrassi which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this week.
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.
|Raymond Ablack and Melinda Shankar|
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).
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.
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.