Why Degrassi is realer than reality TV.
When the N first broadcast the Canadian teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation in 2001, its earliest commercial spots for the show sported the tagline, "If your life was a TV show, this would be it." While this sort of statement may have made some degree of sense 20 years ago, around the time when D:TNG's forebears, The Kids of Degrassi Street, Degrassi Junior High, and Degrassi High, were airing, today's reality television has made such a proclamation sound a little ridiculous. After all, if what people really wanted to watch was their life in the form of a television show, they could -- given the sort of things the networks already air -- just tape their lives, make a pilot, and probably some desperate station (say, VH1) would run it. This is not to even mention YouTube.
Since Degrassi: The Next Generation (which started its new season in late September on the N channel) documents the lives of fictional teenagers living in suburban Toronto, its claim to be the hypothetical television version of your life comes off as being more than a little audacious. Most of D:TNG's viewers in America were never, and will never be, Canadian, nor do they endure emotional trauma with the frequency or magnitude of that which D:TNG's characters do in every episode. But still, to many of the show's fans, the Degrassi Community School is very real. The passion with which Degrassi groupies follow the show, its characters, and even locations, speaks to the fact that the show's tagline bears more truth than it may initially seem.
With the gradual oversexualization of The Real World and the how-can-this-not-be-scripted gloss of Laguna Beach, reality TV looks less and less real by the day, and many viewers have been drawn back to more classically fictional programs, such as 24 and Lost, with their time-tested cliffhanger hooks. Many of TV's recently successful traditional shows, though, have, consciously or not, internalized ideas pioneered by reality shows. Whereas 24 parallels the passage of real time with the ticking of its hour-a-week internal clock, the freedom of HBO has allowed such shows as The Sopranos and Six Feet Under to portray life in more direct and graphic ways. And when R. Kelly claims that Trapped in the Closet is "real", you know there has to be something going on with the meaning of the word. D:TNG, as much as any of these, brings out in stark relief the blurred lines between fantasy and reality.
The most striking way the Degrassi series flouts its classification as standard teen drama is its use and re-use of actors and characters over the course of long periods of time. From the start, the creators of the Degrassi franchise, Linda Schuyler and Kit Hood, made use of an unorthodox format in which characters and actors carry over from series to series, allowing viewers to watch characters grow along with the actors portraying them. Not only could fans of the original Degrassi shows follow the lives of these characters and actors almost without interruption through their adolescence, but with D:TNG, those who came of age with them can now see how the characters have aged too. Though Degrassi High went off the air in 1991, when its characters graduated from high school, four characters from the show -- Christine "Spike" Nelson, Archie "Snake" Simpson, Joey Jeremiah and Caitlin Ryan -- were revived for D:TNG and are played today by the same actors who portrayed them as teenagers in the 1980s. And, for the most part, as far as the aging process goes, D:TNG gets it right, portraying the always attractive Caitlin as a successful television journalist, and the sort of lame, now bald Joey as the proprietor of a used car lot.
While the returning cast members from Degrassi's original run provide an obvious point of identification for those privileged enough to have grown up on the show in the 1980s, it is the 11-year-old Emma, Spike's child from Degrassi High's first season, and her contemporaries who carry the brunt of D:TNG's plotlines and to whose lives and problems the show's audience are meant to relate. Degrassi's characteristically blunt way of addressing these problems -- which often revolve around sex, drugs or violence -- is supposed to support the show's claim of reproducing its audience's lives in television form. And, indeed, D:TNG deals with problems more serious than adults would probably like to imagine today's junior high school students facing, as evidenced by a series of episodes involving the aborted pregnancy of a 14-year-old character, which were excised from the American run of Degrassi's fifth season.
Though an overemphasis on the show's health-class subject matter could easily turn the show toward the clichéd and preachy, the show's actors manage to bring these plot lines to life. While actors on shows such as The OC or Veronica Mars are sometimes as much as 10 years older than their teenage characters, most of the actors on D:TNG are approximately the same age as the characters they portray and have few acting credits to boast of outside the show. This makes their characters seem more believable and prevents a shift in meaning away from an adolescent context. The transparent, amateurish quality of many the young actors' performances, though, reminds us that the actors are still not identical to the roles they play, which speaks to a layer of reality beneath the show's plotlines. D:TNG's actors don't only portray the trials of teenage life on television; they are normal teenagers themselves. Viewers can sense that the actors experience in their own lives the same sort of adolescent drama portrayed in the show.
The N has made effective use of this actor-character relationship, creating numerous segments to run before and after commercials, during re-runs, on the show's website or as individual specials, in which actors comment on behind-the-scenes events. These pieces make the actors' personal lives and the characters they play flow together seamlessly, and depict camaraderie among the show's actors even out of character and off of the set, intensifying the relationships they dramatize on the show.
The extra-episodic segments work to show just how hideously normal the actor-characters are. If the instant-messenger style interviews with the cast on the N's website don't get the point across that these heartbreakingly average adolescent actors and characters are themselves just as heartbreakingly average as their teenage viewers are, then perhaps nothing will. D:TNG can pass as the television version of your life not necessarily because of the similarities between the events of your life and those of the characters', but because almost anyone could seemingly pass as a character -- or actor -- on D:TNG.
This allows Degrassi to offer the best form of vicarious entertainment, allowing viewers to project themselves into the space of the Degrassi Community School and take part in the eventful, dramatic, but ultimately safe lives of those who populate it. And because the show blows up everyday events to mythical proportions, it thereby not only alleviates boredom for the duration of an episode, but makes trivial events in one's own life seem rife with possibility.
While the blurring of the lines between actor and character leaves the audience's voyeuristic desires whetted, they remain unsated. By subtly suggesting that the personal lives of its actors are part of the show, D:TNG drives its viewers to seek more information than its fictional storylines can provide. The ability of the show to satisfy its viewers' desires is limited, finally, by the fact that it is a staged performance of fictional events. No matter how close to home the show's depiction of events such as teen pregnancy or child abuse hit, the viewer is left wanting something more, something beyond the resolutions that can, and must, be supplied through the show's narrative.
Still, Degrassi breaks the molds of both the traditional adolescent high school melodrama and the dramatic reality TV show. Rather than presenting strict stereotyped characters and ironclad, simple solutions to complicated problems the way a show like Saved by the Bell would, Degrassi presents a tapestry of realistically complex characters that viewers need not necessarily make one-to-one connections with. The world of Saved by the Bell is the universal teenage experience boiled down to its most basic and broadly applicable components: It could exist anywhere, at any time, within the essence of the teenage heart. The Degrassi Community School, on the other hand, does not attempt to be the representative "anyschool" -- it is simply Degrassi Community School.
Of course, Saved by the Bell existed in a time before reality television and never aspired to be realistic. The same cannot be said to of MTV's Laguna Beach, which, on the surface, is a reality show, with actual people doing real things in real-life locations. But both in its images and content, Laguna Beach, with its carefully composed, multiple-camera depictions of young, unusually beautiful people, sucks the reality directly out of ostensibly real situations, which, seemingly posed for the cameras, end up static and stilted. The result feels less like gaining a privileged glimpse into the lives of those on the show, than watching a group of models play dead for the benefit of a team of photographers. This is disconcerting until you realize that Laguna Beach is not about the lives of the people who appear in it or even Laguna Beach itself. Rather, it is about creating distance between the reality of Laguna Beach and that of its audience. If D:TNG allows viewers to imagine themselves as students of Degrassi Community School, Laguna Beach hammers home the idea that reality is ultimately and completely subjective, and that the reality of ultrarich, ultrawhite southern California is something most people will never be able to experience or understand. Viewers can watch and judge without ever having to reconcile what they are seeing with anything they actually have experienced.
As conceptions of reality become more compartmentalized, the idea that any Real World could actually come to look anything like the real world is becoming harder and harder to fathom. By adhering to the limits of fiction, however, D:TNG also accepts the limitations of reality, and thereby becomes more faithful to it, in a general sense, than any reality show could ever be. Despite the claims of the show's advertisements, the producers behind Degrassi know that a teenager's life could never really be confined to a TV show. What they have been able to produce in Degrassi, however, proves that a fictional television show can still present an image of teenage life to viewers which conveys reality better than any reality show ever could.
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Doug Schrashun, holder of a BA in Asian Studies from Amherst College, keeps a blog at gluedon.blogspot.com. He is currently living with his girlfriend's parents in Greenwich Village, New York.