My adolescent experience was inextricably linked to the television. None of my friends were nearly as cool as Rayanne on My So Called Life, or at least they had significantly less access to drugs and cute guys in bands. I prayed for the day when I could relish the real life schadenfreude of a peer’s potentially tragic tangle with caffeine pills á la Jessie Spano on Saved by the Bell. I could only dare to dream that a nerdy classmate would die after playing with guns, thereby teaching us all a valuable lesson about proper firearm storage. It did poor Scott on Beverly Hills, 90210. But just my luck, nothing that interesting really happened at my high school.
One of the benefits of no longer being a teenager is that I don’t care if the high school dramas I watch are realistic because I no longer expect to be validated by television. I love The O.C., but I try to think of Newport Beach with the same suspension of reality that I give Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Buffyverse and consider it an allegorical tribute to familial love, geekdom, and John Hughes.
I mean, seriously; surfer-lawyer dad and professional hot mom adopting an ‘at-risk’ teenager from Chino, of all places, and raising him like a son? C’mon! Beyond the unfeasibility that any high schooler wearing dippy bowed hats like Marissa wouldn’t get stuffed in a locker, I don’t even believe that Mischa Barton is human. Such horrible delivery could only be attributed to a Vulcan.
Canada, being the levelheaded Jan to the United State’s glittery Marsha, has given the high school genre it’s most unnervingly accurate series ever. It started in 1979 with The Kids of Degrassi Street and has been spun off three times into Degrassi Junior High, Degrassi High,, and most recently Degrassi: The Next Generation, which entered into it’s fourth season this year. While the newest addition is significantly glossier than the forbearers, it still has a hokey, stripped down feel that quickly forces me into reliving the banal pains of growth all over again.
The biggest revelation of the Degrassi shows is that, while there is a huge cast, only select members appear in each episode. There are 20 regulars on Degrassi: The Next Generation and about ten others with recurring roles, compared with 90210, which had twelve regulars in the beginning, and the nine on My So Called Life.
The larger ensemble allows there to be multiple cliques rather than the standard in/out dyad, and nixes the annoying predilection of high school dramas to make it appear that their characters run the school. Additionally, the continuous reconfigurations of characters in an episode allow fresh chemistry and greater variety in the coupling and re-coupling.
The most recent seasons of Degrassi have been following the relationship of Craig and Ashley, a pair of music nerds engaged in an epic on-again-off-again relationship. Craig is full-on, hotel room trashing, projectile launching, fist fighting at weddings bipolar, but Ashley visited him in the tidy mental hospital provided by Canada’s superb health care system, and vowed to stick with him. Aside from the enhanced facilities, it was an actual scene from my actual teenage life and just like me, Ashley thinks they’re going to pull through it together. I screamed and threw a beer bottle at the TV. Reality is harsh. Their health care can’t be that good.
Then there is the two-episode arc revolving around Manny, aged 14, and her abortion. The episodes don’t air on American cable because of our greater sensitivity to the aborting arts south of the border, but thankfully can be viewed on the Internet. The whole thing is gut retching and stands out among the myriad American cop-outs. Remember 1996 when Party of Five‘s big sis miscarried before she could piss off the pro-lifers? Oh, and remember when Kelly miscarried on 90210 the following year?
Manny got knocked up by the aforementioned Craig while he was cheating on Ashley, and considered taking Craig up on his offer to get married and have a family, but being that she was 14 and Craig is a loon, she and her momma went to the clinic. Manny was traumatized and lightly stigmatized, but she moved on and never even had to wear a scarlet letter. The absence of moralizing allows the show to focus on the human aspects of Manny’s choice, which is the very quality that makes the episode too hot for the US.
Degrassi tackles too many issues — usually in a particularly fabulous fashion — to list each one here, but among them school violence, penis insecurity, coming out (complete with gay-bashing and the decoy girlfriend), and self-mutilation by Hot Topic Goth icon, Ellie. Astonishingly, many of the issues are things that I actually encountered as a high schooler. In lieu of 90210‘s nightclub coke binges, is the comparatively minor pilfering of alcohol more often encountered by middle class suburban teens.
Degrassi does sometimes go over the top in the moral waxing and as a result has completely bungled a couple of issues. Relationship violence is visited in a multi-episode narrative that peaks with a minor coma-inducing blow that writes the victim out of the show. Male eating disorders are explored via a computer dork trying to slim down to get into a lower weight class for wrestling. The ultimate affect of the episode is not tragedy, but pure comedy, as sad-sack Toby chomps away at chocolate flavored laxatives.
It doesn’t detract from the genre as a whole to have a realist on the block. Sometimes I like my nostalgia served up like a ’50s diner, and sometimes I want to explore the dilapidated drive-in theatre with a spelunking cap. The O.C. will never remind me of anything in my life, namely because I was never held at gunpoint by a wealthy lunatic from group therapy only to be rescued from a bad-boy-made-good who’s Chino-bred fighting skills come in handy.
I do, however, remember being awkward, alienated, and angry like Ellie; naively devoted like Ashley; and narrowly self-righteous like Emma. The thing is, I don’t necessarily want to relive that every day because it seriously sucked the first time around. However, I am envious of current kids growing up on Degrassi: The Next Generation who have a cultural reference point for penis pumps.