Joey loves Caitlin but he’s getting it on with Tessa, Wheels is drinking way too much and Lucy’s future is so bright she’s gotta wear shades.
Ten years ago, the beloved characters of Degrassi made their final exit in School’s Out. Today, another generation enjoys a new Degrassi series as the first Degrassi generation, now twenty-something students, rekindles its fondness for the cult classic.
Among the best-remembered episodes are when Joey Jeremiah streaks the cafeteria with nothing but his hat covering his naughty bits, when Wheels’ adoptive parents are killed by a drunk driver, when Spike finds out she is pregnant and when the infamous bully Dwayne finds out he has been infected with HIV. All these scenarios dealt with serious issues such as sex, drugs and peer pressure: revolutionary topics for Canadian television at the time.
Mark Aaron Polger, Degrassi web ring manager and convener of the first Degrassi convention, believes that Degrassi broke new ground not only in Canadian television, but television in general.
“It was groundbreaking… it dove into sensitive issues like teen pregnancy, sexual abuse, alcohol abuse, anorexia and AIDS. Most American TV shows were centered in make-up, hair and superficial topics that were always fixed in one hour or 30 minutes. Degrassi’s issues were not always fixed in one episode,” said Polger.
One defining Degrassi trait was that the show did not always revolve around the same group of characters. The main characters like Joey Jeremiah, Spike and Caitlin received a lot of attention, but the storylines always included effective supporting characters such as Nancy, BLT, and Yick.
In contrast, American teen shows such as Beverly Hills 90210 and Dawson’s Creek never seem to have more than seven students. These shows have also sensationalized and glamourized the issues Degrassi dealt with. It’s hard to take many of the scenarios they present seriously. Degrassi took these same issues, however, and presented them to kids in a way that was educational while still being fun.
Peter Hodgins, a communications professor at the University of Ottawa, explains why Degrassi succeeded in doing this.
“Degrassi was firmly rooted in the CBC and BBC tradition of using culture as a teaching tool. There is always this moral panic surrounding youth. ‘How do we negate this degrading power of pop culture?’—by attempting to use the idioms of pop culture to counter pop culture.
That’s exactly what Degrassi did,” said Hodgins.
Degrassi was the brainchild of producers Linda Schuyler and Kit Hood, creators of the Playing with Time production company. In 1979, Playing with Time got CBC to partially fund a six-part miniseries, which turned into The Kids of Degrassi Street. Schuyler and her production company amassed a group of 52 young actors, all with little or no formal acting experience, in the east end of Toronto where the production was shooting.
In 1987, after 26 episodes, The Kids of Degrassi Street spawned Degrassi Junior High.
Schuyler hired a larger cast from a group of more experienced actors and kept seven of the cast members from The Kids of Degrassi Street. After three seasons of Degrassi Junior High, following the kids to high school seemed like the natural progression. Degrassi High aired on CBC until the spring of 1991. That fall, on CBC, the 90-minute movie School’s Out followed the Degrassi characters through the summer after their graduation, but left viewers with no clear conclusions.
Throughout its long run, Degrassi was recognized as quality television, winning 6 Geminis—awards for excellence in Canadian television—and getting picked up by PBS in the states.
“The Degrassi series was good television that was well written. The show dealt with pressing themes and issues,” said Hodgins.
Now, Degrassi has returned. This fall, CTV and Schuyler’s new production company, Epitome Pictures, have launched Degrassi: The Next Generation. Snake, Spike, Mr. Raditch and Yick are all regulars and Spike’s daughter Emma, now 12, is a focus of the show.
Long-time fans are well aware Spike’s pregnancy was a central plotline in Degrassi Junior High.
Although television teen dramas have generally preferred slick and sexy stories over Degrassi’s gritty realism, fans hope the new show will remain faithful to its roots, while sparking the imaginations of a new generation.
As for the old generation, they will continue to be delighted with reruns of the original series.
“It remains popular because it was so realistic and so down to earth. I think every kid can identify with the show and with the characters in some way,” said Polger.