Nov 15, 2009
Degrassi: An Introduction
Welcome to the beginning of what I hope will be a long and fruitful excursion into recapping episodes of Degrassi Junior High. These recaps will probably get their own series page under Extras, much the same as The Worst of Trek or the page devoted to Mr. T’s cartoon show. But for now, I’ll be posting these recaps here in the Agonizer.
And unlike those other shows, where I’ve been picking and choosing the worst of the bunch to write about, this time around I plan to recap every single Degrassi episode, starting with the first episode, “Kiss Me, Steph”, which originally aired almost exactly twenty years ago. Twenty freaking years. And here I am, watching this show again. Just kill me.
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Allow me to unload for a moment. When I was in junior high, and on into high school, there was a strange, awkward, melodramatic, slightly retarded teen drama on PBS Saturday afternoons called Degrassi Junior High (and later, Degrassi High). At the time, I knew almost nothing about the production of this series, who made it, where it originated, or even if there was one other person on the planet besides me watching it. But it was all at once the most horrifically stupid and magnificently brilliant show on the air at the time.
Sure, it was terrible, and a goldmine of unintentional humor. Even at thirteen I could heartily mock the show’s heavy-handed attempts at “drama”, and the loads of bad acting on display. But secretly, there was something I loved about it.
Occasionally, the show was almost a verbatim replay of the worst and most painful events of my junior high school life, in all their adolescent glory. But mostly, Degrassi Junior High was the teenage experience I wish I could have had. The one where you get into trouble, stay up too late, get in fistfights, flunk out and end up in summer school, get grounded, have shouting matches with your best friend, and then cap the whole thing off by getting drunk for the very first time on odd liqueurs and puking your guts out.
Unfortunately, I never got to do much of those things in junior high. So Degrassi was my vicarious life for a couple of years. And yes, I do know how pathetic that sounds.
So it was something of a shock to find out last year that, not only had other people actually seen Degrassi Junior High, but it was now out on DVD. Degrassi was a part of my adolescence that I had always assumed was lost forever, like lazy Sunday afternoons riding bikes to nowhere. This was such a personal thing for me, that the existence of Degrassi on DVD was tantamount to having my brain patterns stored on magnetic disk and replayed twenty years later. It was like someone gave me a chance to drink New Coke again. In fact, it was like someone gave me a limitless supply of 2-liter bottles of the stuff.
So, if it’s not clear by now, I have an unhealthy love for Degrassi, and its special brand of low-budget, maudlin teen drama. And once the DVDs came out, I decided to dig deeper into this mythos. I soon found out the truth about the Degrassi phenomenon, and it’s bigger than the both of us.
First of all, it’s really a Canadian show. It originally aired on the CBC, Canada’s national public TV network, and was later rebroadcast on PBS. This wasn’t a big shock to me. I was fully aware of the show’s Canadian origins at the time, what with the abundance of “aboats” and “sore-ys” heard in the dialogue. And this was apparent despite the best attempts of the producers to hide the show’s Canuck-itude. (There are a few episodes where characters are plainly using American currency, which apparently caused something of a stir at the time.)
Second of all, while it never caught on in the US, Degrassi Junior High was a smash hit in Canada, winning three Gemini awards (the Canadian equivalent of an Emmy) for Best Dramatic Series. The show became a cultural icon, complete with its own tie-in books and toys and clothing. And ten long years after it went off the air, it begat its own revival spinoff: Degrassi: The Next Generation. Yes, it was that big.
The whole franchise started out, like this is any surprise, as an afterschool special. Linda Schuyler, a former school teacher, and Kit Hood, a former child actor, hooked up in more ways than one, and founded the production company Playing With Time. One of their earliest projects was an adaptation of the children’s book Ida Makes a Movie, about a 9 year old girl in the inner city making a film about cleaning up her neighborhood. The film was made on a shoestring budget and originally aired on the CBC all the way back in 1979.
It was a success, prompting the CBC to give Playing With Time the go-ahead to produce more films in the same vein. And so was born the recurring series The Kids of Degrassi Street, focusing on a group of pre-teens who all lived in the same neighborhood. (Side note: Why am I being gripped with the insane compulsion to spell “neighborhood” with a “u” right now?) The series was pure low budget, and the cast was full of non-actors (though one cast member, Rachel Blanchard, did go on to some success in Hollywood films and TV. She was even in Snakes on a Plane, and you simply can’t get any more successful than that).
After 26 episodes of The Kids of Degrassi Street, the “kids” were noticeably starting to reach puberty. And thus came the idea to do a follow-up called Degrassi Junior High.
DJH wasn’t a direct sequel to Kids, but it did feature some of the same actors playing new roles. It premiered on January 18, 1987, a Sunday afternoon. But it quickly became popular enough to score a primetime slot (at least in Canada) for its second season.
It soon became obvious that the show had a pretty big limitation: Junior high only lasts two years. Once the show became a hit, the writers had to come up with all kinds of harebrained scenarios to keep the whole cast together, and the show going for a full five years. Kind of like what Lost is doing now, except DJH had more heroin addicts.
First, the Degrassi writers threw in the plot twist that “overcrowding” meant the Grade 9 students had to keep going to the junior high. And then, at the end of the third season, the school burned down in (as I recall) a freak paint thinner accident. This forced all of the kids to go to the newly christened Degrassi High.
Yeah, that’s right. They burned down Degrassi Junior High. I gotta say, it takes some massive balls to burn down the titular setting of a show. I mean, did they burn down Cheers? Did they burn down General Hospital? Did they burn down The Practice? Did they burn down Becker? I think there’s a bad example somewhere in there, but you get my point.
After two seasons of Degrassi High, the show finally wore out its welcome. Everybody was getting too old, and the ratings were steadily declining, and so the show was put to pasture. Degrassi finished its run with the TV movie School’s Out!, which never aired in the US, thanks to some risqué content that apparently is perfectly okay with the Canadian censors. Most notably, the showing of bare asses and at least a couple droppings of the F bomb. Yes, I’m told it’s okay to show that kind of stuff on Canadian television after a certain time of night. Fifteen years ago. I’ve long since given up hope that the censorship policies of the FCC will ever become anything other than draconian.
But that was pretty much it for Degrassi. Playing With Time tried to keep the formula going with Liberty Street, a drama about twentysomethings that featured some of the same actors, but that experiment didn’t last long.
And then, roughly ten years after School’s Out!, and fourteen years after the premiere of Degrassi Junior High, the franchise came back in a big way.
On the original DJH, one of the major attention-grabbing plot threads was the story of Christine “Spike” Nelson, a cute punker chick who got pregnant and had a baby at the age of fourteen. And in 2001, a new series called Degrassi: The Next Generation debuted, initially focusing on Emma Nelson, Spike’s daughter, now herself a junior high student. I hesitate to toss around the phrase “divinely inspired”, especially to describe the concept of a show with “Degrassi” in the title, but this comes close to fitting the bill.
Sadly, I can’t comment on the actual content of Degrassi: TNG. Because I have yet to see a single episode. Yes, I know it’s out on DVD. But I refuse to watch it until the two seasons of Degrassi High make it to DVD.
That’s right: Despite the junior high years coming to DVD, and the TNG years coming to DVD, they have yet to put out Degrassi High on DVD. To me, watching Degrassi: TNG without seeing Degrassi High would be like watching Star Trek: TNG without having the faintest clue who Kirk and Spock are. When it comes to TV, you have to follow things in a logical progression. You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’re coming from. Mr. T taught me that, in fact.
Despite the Degrassi franchise trying to reel me in with a title that invokes Star Trek, I’ll have to pass for now. And yes, I do know full well that TNG features some of the Degrassi Junior High characters all grown up, and occasionally throws the “old school” fans a bone by bringing on a random DJH cast member for an episode or two.
But from what I hear, Degrassi: TNG is a far more slickly-produced drama, much more in the vein of The O.C. than the original Degrassi shows. And unlike its predecessors, it’s actually achieved some success in the US. The show was picked up by The N, a cable channel that occupies the nighttime schedule of Noggin, a network aimed at preschoolers. Think the Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite symbiosis here. Degrassi: TNG has done so well for The N, that recently they’ve started branching out into airing other teen soap operas. (Also, it’s probably the main reason Degrassi Junior High saw a DVD release in the first place.)
So I’m sure I’ll eventually check out Degrassi: The Next Generation. But something tells me I’m going to be sorely disappointed.
Like I said, Degrassi Junior High is on the whole pretty bad, but it did manage to do a few things well, and in a way not many other shows have done. So very quickly, here’s a rundown of the good and bad to be found in Degrassi Junior High:
- Unlike Saved by the Bell, or Beverly Hills 90210, Degrassi at least attempted to be realistic. All the actors did their own makeup and hair, and wore their own clothes. There were certainly some attractive kids in the cast, but nothing like the magazine cover material you see on typical TV dramas.
- The show at least tried to be upfront about kids—some as young as 14—getting drunk and doing drugs and having sex. Of course, there’s plenty of heavy moralizing to go along with these issues, but you have to give them some credit for attempting to honestly explore touchy subjects.
- Caitlin Ryan. Dear, sweet, lovely Caitlin, played by Stacie Mistysyn. I’m not really much into fantasizing about TV characters, or wishing a TV character was my girlfriend. But I got my very first squeeeee moment watching one of the documentaries on the Degrassi box set, wherein Stacie tries to carry on a conversation in broken French. Squeeeeeeeee!
You know who else loved Degrassi Junior High, and also had a thing for Caitlin? Kevin Smith. Not only did he name a character in Clerks after Caitlin, and not only did he admit to spending $8,000 to get the entire Degrassi catalog on tape long before DVD, but he also recently guest starred several times on Degrassi: The Next Generation.
These episodes were later released under the title Jay and Silent Bob Do Degrassi, and featured Kevin and Jason Mewes playing themselves, filming a fictional movie at the school titled Jay and Silent Bob Go Canadian, Eh! And on one of his episodes, Kevin actually got to make out with Stacie Mistysyn. That fat bastard. That fat lucky bastard.
I think me and Kevin should start a club, primarily for overweight guys in their 30s with beards and an unhealthy love for Degrassi Junior High. Do you think he’ll go for it?
Oh, yeah, almost forgot:
For a show like this, I could simply say “everything else” and be pretty much on the money. But here are the major deficits of DJH:
- The acting. Out of the entire cast, I’ll be generous and say there are three people who could get an acting gig outside of Degrassi. The rest of the cast runs the gamut from “can reasonably speak and behave like a human being on camera” to “maybe English is not his/her first language. Or second or third or fourth.”
- The writing. It vacillates between the most obvious, ham-fisted, on-the-nose “message” episodes, to plotlines that are so bizarre and laughable that they could not, under any circumstances, have been written by someone not stoned.
- The locales are… bleh. Most of the show was shot in some random Toronto neighborhood that’s not even ugly enough to be interesting. We are trapped in lower-middle class suburban hell, people.
- And of course, the Big Morale to every show. With Degrassi, every single episode is a Very Special Episode. It’s a Very Special Series, in fact. On this show, every bad thing someone does automatically has major consequences: If you have sex, you get pregnant. If you do LSD, you throw yourself off a bridge. Don’t even get me started on the girl who desperately wanted to experience her first kiss, and then ended up with mono.
And last but not least: If you hitchhike, you will get picked up a gay pedophile.
This video is from an episode in DJH‘s third season. I know regular members to the forum are probably sick of seeing this, but watch this one all the way to the end. Trust me, it’s worth it.
I don’t know what’s more disturbing: That the guy was mostly interested in Wheels’ “strong legs”, or that he bears a disturbing resemblance to Law & Order star Sam Waterston.
But that, as I said, doesn’t happen until the third season. This golden moment is still a long, long ways away. So, I had better get to it. Stay tuned to this space, and get ready for my first Degrassi Junior High recap, of the very first episode, “Kiss Me, Steph”, coming soon.