9/19/2005

Review: Degrassi At Twenty-Five

"I've got a thing for girls who say aboot": Jason Lee's character in Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy explaining his obsession with the T. V. show Degrassi Junior High
In 1980 two independent television producers in Toronto put out a one off show called Ida Makes A Movie. From such inauspicious beginnings are phenomena born. Linda Shcuyler and Kit Hood's "Playing With Time Inc." production company probably didn't know when they sold their first six episodes to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (C. B. C.) what they had on their hands. (For its first two years the C. B. C. actually called it Just Down The Street instead of Kids Of Degrassi as it was known until the kids left public school to go to Junior High) By as early as 1985 the show was an international hit. From Turkey to the United States children and adults were watching a group of children grow up. Set in a working class neighbourhood in the lower east end of Toronto, with a cast made up of local kids, Degrassi seemed to resonate with audiences everywhere. Maybe it was simply because the kids were real, not a budding starlet or star amongst them, or that even in the early episodes it dealt with issues no other kids show would touch, that earned it so much attention. Whatever the reason the Degrassi franchise became, and still is, one of the hottest Canadian television properties. Instead of sticking with the public school theme, the producers made the decision to follow the original cast through their entire school career. So Kids was followed by Junior High all the way through Degrassi High. As the series progressed so did its polish; the actors became more accomplished, the budgets a little higher, and the production values a bit cleaner. But it always maintained its early air of authenticity. In part this was helped by the location itself. At the time, the mid eighties to early nineties when the original series were being shot, the gentrification of Toronto's east end had not encroached upon the neighbourhood. It was a mix of old warehousing, light industry, and old working class housing. A stones throw away from the docklands, it was just beginning to be discovered by the burgeoning Toronto film industry as an ideal location for production facilities and storage space. On warm summer nights, especially when it rained the air and raindrops would be redolent of soap, thanks to the Colgate/Palmolive factory that dominated the neighbourhood. Sound and film editing studios shared floor space with industrial sewing machines and cheap novelty manufacturers. "Playing With Time's" office was a small bungalow on Queen St. E. nestled up against a used car lot on one side and a garage on the other. I have not been back to that neighbourhood since the late eighties, so who knows what changes have happened since then. During the Degrassi Junior High days I was managing a small theatre company down in that part of the world. We had led a fairly gypsy like existence for a while, but had never strayed out of the east end, so I had plenty of opportunities to familiarize myself with the neighbourhood. It was as far removed from any "artistic scene" as yoou could get. There were no fashionable bars to hang out in or "in" places to go. The only reasons you'd have for being in that neighbourhood were work, or the fact that you lived there. It wasn't an area that would ever let you forget the real world. Degrassi Street itself was just another short residential street among many that looked like afterthoughts in an industrial neighbourhood. Characterized by rod iron fences, houses crowding sidewalks, and a too narrow street, it was interchangeable with neighbourhoods anywhere in the industrial world. The neighbourhood was more than just a backdrop and a name for the series, it was a character that people could identify with far easier than Beverly Hills or even a suburb like Orange County. Like the actors, no attempt was made to enhance its appearance; it was presented pimples and all. Clothes were bought in thrift shops not malls, and makeup came from the corner drugstore or Avon, not a Clinique boutique. In keeping with the atmosphere the stories were as real as could be hoped. The writers and producers were wise enough to realize that realism does not mean going from one crisis to another, and that in the eyes of a teenager the definition of a crisis differs from the rest of the world. Of course they did tackle enough of the real issues to run into problems so some episodes were either severely edited or not run at all. Some markets were simply not prepared for teenagers to be talking about oral sex, birth control, or abortion. It's not just the topics that presented difficulties but the way they were dealt with that caused problems. There was no black and white in the Degrassi universe, or instant resolution. A character could spend two or three episodes dealing with an issue, and than the rest of the season experiencing it's repercussions. There were no neat and tidy endings complete with homilies for the kids of Degrassi Street, only vague uncertainties and the hope they had done the right thing. The original episodes actually finished shooting in 1992 when the gang graduated from high school. There was the occasional reunion through out the nineties, but those wishing for Degrassi fixes had to be content with re runs. But in 2001 original producer Linda Schuyler came back with Degrassi: The Next Generation. From what little I have seen (the two episodes where director Kevin Smith realized his dream and got to appear on the show) while it seems a little glitzier, it has managed to retain its attributes of grit and realism. Even with the star presence of Kevin Smith, Jason Mews, and Alanis Morrisette as distractions, the show maintained its focus on a character's ongoing mental health problem. They had obviously been an issue in the past, and judging by the ending of the episode that I saw they would continue on long past the disappearance of any distracting adults. The original show's durability, form Kids through to Degrassi High, derived from the show ability to deliver a view of adolescence that was never seen on television before. The combination of kids, neighbourhood, and scripts worked to create an atmosphere of authenticity that has yet to be recreated. To our sophisticated eye those early episodes may seem a little unpolished at first, but as you watch you realize that's what makes them so special. How many of us aren't a little rough around the edges? Compare any of the Degrassi shows to the so-called reality T. V. of today and you'll begin to wonder which one is scripted and which one has the hidden cameras.

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