Degrassi Junior High “The Great Race” (part 1 of 4)
Joey Jeremiah wanted to wear a jean jacket for the occasion, and thus introduce us to the Classic Case of the Four Js. He even went to insane lengths to do so: Namely, by going to the home of a psycho guy with a big poofy afro who could snap at a moment’s notice.
Voula continued her bitchy, girl-crush streak against Stephanie, Melanie obsessed over a zit, and in the end, Corey Hart’s doppelganger swooped in on his motorbike and rescued Rick, taking him to go live with his cool older brother. Everyone lived happily ever after, at least until the following week, when this show was sure to visit some new catastrophe upon the whole lot of them.
Ah, Degrassi. How I missed your special brand of dopey Canadian teen melodrama so.
It’s been a long time since I’ve done a Degrassi recap. And every time I come back to writing about Degrassi, I have to reacclimatize myself to Degrassi World. I’m like a Southerner who comes back from a long stay up north, and has to get used to saying “y’all” again. So too is it with reentering Degrassi-stan, where I have to remind myself of just what a “broomhead” is.
I’m supposed to have a lengthy digression about Degrassi: The Next Generation in this intro, aren’t I? Yes, I believe I am. Well, it’s certainly no small feat to briefly sum up a show that’s been running for eight seasons (and counting), but I’ll do my best. I owe nothing less to the series that brought the Degrassi name to a whole new audience too young to remember Degrassi Junior High.
Funny thing. You might recall in a prior article, I talked about how Degrassi: TNG was way too slick for my tastes, compared to its 1980s predecessor. Then I stumbled upon this article, published at the time Degrassi Junior High premiered, where the reviewer complained that the show was far too slick (or as he puts it, not as “naturalistic”) compared to the earlier Kids of Degrassi Street.
That was when I realized two things. First, no matter how crappy a TV show was, people will always recall it fondly, and wax poetic over how the stuff on TV “these days” just doesn’t compare. Hey, I’m only human. I fell into that trap, too.
The second revelation I had at that moment was that Degrassi: The Next Generation is not slick at all. Yes, it has higher production values. And yes, it has a better pool of acting talent. But the writing, directing, and editing are all just as awkward and haphazard as ever, particularly in the early seasons. A lot of episodes don’t feel deliberately cut together—instead, they come off like scenes were dragged and dropped at random into Final Cut.
But unlike Degrassi Junior High, the Degrassi: TNG cast has no real likeability to counteract the awkwardness. For nearly a year, I’ve been getting caught up with the TNG DVDs, and trying desperately to like somebody, anybody in this cast. But it’s just not sticking. Yes, I’m sure the generational gap plays a big role, but I really can’t bring myself to sympathize with anybody on this show. They’re all young, pretty people, living comfortable lives. Why are they always whining and complaining?
In my last recap, I pointed out some of the creepy synchronicities between the Degrassi franchise and the Star Trek franchise. Well, here’s another: much like Star Trek: The Next Generation began life as a copy of the original Star Trek—more or less—so too were the first few seasons of Degrassi: TNG basically an attempt by the Junior High crew to recreate the original show on a higher budget. For the first few years, all the recycled DJH storylines are pretty apparent, and it’s pretty easy to see how the characters were nothing more than mixed-and-matched personality traits from the Junior High cast. The first episode proper even features a Grade 8 girl running for school president. Sound familiar?
But around the fourth season is when things changed. The Canadian-produced show was being rebroadcast on The N to a much larger audience south of the border, and season 4 is about the time they decided to get trendy. That was when Degrassi: The Next Generation turned into a less glitzy version of The OC. It stopped being about ordinary kids dealing with everyday problems, and more about who was hooking up with who this week.
I just got through season 6, where the show has about 12 regular characters, and believe me, all 12 of them have paired off in every conceivable combination. And once they ran out of possible heterosexual combinations, they started making characters gay, just so they could have new ways to hook them up.
In all sincerity, I applaud the makers of Degrassi: TNG for depicting gay relationships pretty much the same as hetero relationships in soap-style dramas. But at the same time… they’re presenting gay relationships like every other relationship on soap-style dramas: as in, clichéd, shallow, overwrought, melodramatic. Sure, Degrassi Junior High had plenty of soap opera-like elements, but at its core it was about a group of kids just trying to survive adolescence. Degrassi: TNG, at its core, is about being a low budget version of Beverly Hills, 90210.
Case in point: Shenae Grimes, one of the cast members of the later seasons of TNG, is now the star of the CW’s 90210. (I was really holding out hope the show would be called 90210: The Next Generation, but I guess even the CW has standards.) That about says it all right there, I think, because back in the ’80s or ’90s there was zero chance that a Degrassi Junior High cast member could ever cross over to a primetime American soap.
(Well, to be fair, one DJH cast member did cross over to an American sitcom, which definitely was not airing in primetime, but more on that at the end of the recap.)
I have to admit, however, that TNG does have one thing working in its favor: Some of the “old school” Degrassi characters show up from time to time, and in a few rare instances, they’re even allowed to tie up loose plot threads from 15 years ago.
Alas, the Old School characters are not immune to TNG’s clichéd soap opera dramatics. The most obvious example was when one of the Junior High characters gets cancer. Honestly, when that plot point unfolded, it felt like a swift kick in the nads. I realize cancer is pervasive, and a fact of life and all that, but does every single TV drama have to dip into the Cancer Well? After all the crap they endured in their teenage years, couldn’t TNG just let the Junior High cast live out happy, healthy, chemo-free adult lives?
But I’m getting way ahead of things, as usual. There’s not much point in talking about how TNG deals with the Old School characters like Snake, Spike, Joey, and Caitlin, when I haven’t really gotten around to introducing those characters for you to know who they are. But as I get farther into these Degrassi Junior High recaps, you can expect a few asides about what happens to these characters a couple decades down the road.
And that brings us to “The Great Race”, the fifth episode of Degrassi Junior High. And contrary to what the title indicates, this episode is not a hateful screed in support of white supremacy. That certainly would have been somewhat uncomfortable for me to write about, and not at all in keeping with the tone of the series. (Actually, my hunch is that the title was inspired by this movie.)
As it turns out, this episode is actually about, well, a race. But is it a great one? I’ll let you be the judge of that.
Things kick off in the girls locker room. This should be extremely interesting. Of course, I only say that because I assume, as all men do, that girls spend a lot of time in here making out with each other.
Several girls wander past the camera in blue one-piece swimsuits, and it seems the Degrassi girls swim team is getting ready for a meet. But in case it’s not obvious enough, the Unseen Principal Charlie gets on the intercom, talking about Degrassi’s “distinguished record” in “city competitions”. The more I think about it, the more I realize Principal Charlie is the closest thing this show has to a narrator. In fact, he’s not unlike the Attention Narrator of Space Mutiny, when you get right down to it.
Melanie enters in a swimsuit. Melanie, as you might recall, is a Grade 7 girl who shares certain physical characteristics with beanpoles. She’s also the one who thought junior high would be chock full of music, boys, potato chips, and drugs. Yes, in that order.
Sadly, Melanie is not cutting a very impressive figure in her swimsuit. That’s because she hasn’t quite started developing yet. And I’m pointing this out because it’s part of the plot of this episode, not because I’m a pervert, though both are true.
Melanie is checking out her body in a mirror. Enter L.D., Degrassi’s stock lesbian “tomboy” character, who wore her Castrol t-shirt for Photo Day, and who’s also on the swim team. L.D. gives Melanie a sideways look, so Melanie explains that she’s “checking”.
Melanie further explains that her mom won’t buy her a bra. She shoves out her chest and declares, “I need one. Don’t you think?” No offense, but I can think of plenty of men (coughJoe Don Bakercough) who have bigger breasts than Melanie.
L.D. replies, “Ummm… well…” Smooth, L.D.
Melanie demands that L.D. look more closely. Look at my breasts, damn you, look at them! L.D. stares at her chest and lisps, “I guessthh.” Melanie lisps back that it’s “obviousthh” she needs a bra, and her mom might need “glassthhesthh” or something. I don’t know about the swim meet, but these two are sure to win the upcoming speech impediment competition.
A woman enters the locker room, and it’s that random, unnamed woman seen a couple of episodes back, who’s allegedly the school coach. I still have my doubts.
This so-called “coach” tells the girls to get ready, and promptly exits. L.D. tells Melanie, “Come on, let’s win!” She’s aware of the power of positive thinking, I see.
The whole swim team goes running out, and it appears the team roster also includes VP Susie Rivera, dear sweet Caitlin Ryan, and one of the Adorable Twins. I wish I could say seeing all the Degrassi girls in swimsuits was exciting, but there’s only the briefest glimpse of them as they all file out.
Melanie lags behind, still preoccupied with staring at her chest in the mirror. The ol’ drum machine kicks in, and it’s time for the opening credits.
I won’t waste my time or yours making you guess the Very Special Theme behind this week’s Very Special Episode. It’s beyond obvious: Welcome to the Very Special “I’m a Late Bloomer” Episode, wherein Melanie becomes concerned that her boobs are not growing as fast as all the other girls. And that, my friends, is the “A” plot.
That’s fine, though. I mean, it’s okay as an idea for an episode. It’s real life, and it’s something girls go through in junior high. Well, I’m assuming. When I was that age, they put the boys in a separate classroom when they talked about that kind of stuff.
But in light of the craziness that’ll be unfolding over the next two episodes, “Melanie needs a bra” is pretty far from a compelling storyline. So frankly, I may just blow through this recap as quickly as possible, just so I can get to next week’s Very Special Lesbian Episode.