Whatever It Takes
Although it only aired a few months of new episodes, this was a breakout season for Degrassi: The Next Generation. Imported from Canada, Degrassi airs in the U.S. on relatively obscure cable channel The N. As if to underline the addictive effects of this teen soap, The N doles out episodes in drug-like fixes, “mini-seasons” that last about a month (four or five episodes), followed by several months of reruns.
After four years, Degrassi‘s U.S. ratings have risen to record levels, and media coverage has increased dramatically, with features published in Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times magazine. Tween-and-teen-targeted “hits” that childless adults first hear about in the New York Times are nothing new, at least since the advent of cable; Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel traffic heavily in demo-specific smashes. But those channels have major-league marketing backing them; Nickelodeon has developed a sort of child star boot camp with its SNL junior show, All That, and the Disney Channel is fond of nudging its sitcom stars toward record contracts. Meanwhile, The N airs Moesha and Daria reruns, and busses its hits from Canada.
The N doesn’t have Disney’s marketing budget, and none of Degrassi‘s principals have yet starred in a major movie or released an album, but the show has won adult fans, including myself. I am 24, and I anticipate and analyze new Degrassi episodes with the fervor my co-workers dedicate to American Idol, Desperate Housewives, or even Lost.
Degrassi‘s appeal is its mix of teen “issues” (school shootings, date rape, drugs, self-mutilation) and soap-opera: the dozen-plus regulars can hook and un-hook with the best of them, producing more exciting permutations than shows like Dawson’s Creek or The O.C., which inevitably disintegrate into the oscillations of a few destined couples. Degrassi offers a sort of earnest trashiness, delivered in Canadian accents.
It’s that slight campiness that initially drew me in. I hadn’t seen the series’ earlier incarnations, which ran under different names (Kids of Degrassi Street, Degrassi Junior High, Degrassi High) in the ‘80s and early ‘90s (PBS showed it in the U.S.). But the new crowd, shepherded by creator Yan Moore, who wrote for the previous series, was easy enough to pick up. Emma (Miriam McDonald) is the daughter of Spike (Amanda Stepto), a character on the old series who got pregnant as a teenager. Now Emma navigates the high school cliques, drama, and occasional student activism of Degrassi Community School. Several of Spike’s old Degrassi classmates pop up on the current series as teachers and parents, but typically their storylines are trumped by the new kids’.
Watching early episodes of Degrassi, you can track the young actors improvements as the show goes along—and marvel at how quickly they eclipse the adults, especially those with more than a decade of experience with their characters. In “Back in Black,” one from The N’s seemingly limitless supply of “season finales,” Daniel Clark delivered a personal-best performance as troubled ex-thug Sean. Having helped stop school shooter Rick (Ephraim Ellis), Sean wrestled with his feelings of guilt and mortality, straining his relationship with adorable goth chick Ellie (Stacey Farber) in the process. And as I watched Clark, something dawned on me. Not only was the episode compelling and entertaining, but it was also dramatic, effective, well-acted… good. Clark finally broke free from the “brooding yet sensitive loner” role and cried. The scene played like a final exam for his years in the unofficial Degrassi acting class.
Clark really was graduating. “Back in Black” (which reunited Sean with his long-estranged parents) was the actor’s last episode. Admirably, the show has held its ensemble together for several years, but little by little pieces are breaking off. Burnout is also a concern: Degrassi‘s writers race through so many issues, afflictions, obstacles, and disasters that slowing down may be the only way to keep pace with actual teen culture.
Meanwhile, U.S. viewers can count on The N to slow progress considerably, as with “Accidents Will Happen,” which disappeared somewhere around the U.S.-Canada border. No feature about Degrassi this year was complete without mention of that two-part episode following 14-year-old Manny’s (Cassie Steele) accidental pregnancy and subsequent abortion. While The N has hedged about whether the episode will ever air, continuity has already passed it by: Degrassi fans uninformed by internet gossip were left wondering what had made Manny so sullen and weary.
It’s a shame The N waffled about the episode, because, unlike many youth-centric shows, Degrassi avoids trivializing and morally simplifying the “issues” for its younger audience. It’s more lesson-oriented than My So-Called Life (which The N broadcasts in endless reruns) and Freaks and Geeks, but Degrassi‘s topicality lends it a juicy, gossipy quality—a mutation of that campiness I detected when I first saw the show—that primes it for survival. Indeed, it has already lasted far longer than one-season wonders MSCL and Geeks.
Degrassi‘s acting and writing never rival those two cult classics, however. The young actors are not teen-idol pretty, but in adapting to the heightened material, they have to play big more than small. In one episode, troubled rocker Craig (Jake Epstein) discovered he suffered from bipolar disorder just after he’d wrecked a hotel room in a histrionic fit. On paper, it was a mental health cliché; but the actor went all the way. The fit was genuinely scary, perhaps because Epstein is so likable.
By focusing on intense storyline’s like Craig’s, Degrassi is consolidating its power as a water-cooler show (or maybe a lunch-line show, or a drinking-fountain show). While the beautiful and hilarious heartbreak of MSCL and Geeks can be enjoyed in blissful solitude, Degrassi is enhanced by group viewings; it’s a soap opera so expansive and generous that it need not languish as a private addiction.