July 1998
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Canadian Content - Part I: Degrassi Junior High

by John Hansen

In last year's Kevin Smith film, Chasing Amy, Jason Lee and Ben Afleck discuss their plans for the evening. Ben's plans include clubbing. Jason, on the other hand opts for a pizza and watching Degrassi Junior High. Afleck is curious.

"Have you got something for Canadian melodrama?" he asks.

"No," responds Lee. "I just like teenage Canadian girls who say 'oot.'"

In Canada, it is difficult to find anyone between the ages of 19 and 29 who has not watched their adolescence mirrored week to week on our nation's state broadcasting system, the CBC. Harder still, however, it is to find anyone who will admit to it. It was cheesy, badly acted, cheaply produced. Yet it remains one our country's most successful television programmes.

Perhaps the reason for this is that unlike the weekly travails of Brandon, Donna, and company, Degrassi was real. The kids had zits. They wore embarassing clothes. They were unathletic. They were played by actual teenagers instead of 30 year olds with plastic surgery.

The Degrassi saga originates in the mid 1980's as national rockers Loverboy slide into obscurity and pouty-faced heartthrob Corey Hart rose to replace them. As a kind of answer to the ABC Afterschool Special, the CBC began running an ernest little series called The Kids of Degrassi Street. The series followed the adventures of a multicultural cast of Toronto area children, each of whom would be taught an important life lesson that week. One boy would learn that people with disabilities were people just like him, for example. Another would learn that sometimes, Moms and Dads had to work a lot and couldn't always be there.

The show then evolved into the prime-time series Degrassi Junior High. The essential components of a modern, multiracial cast remained but the problems became more complex and more adult. Spike got pregnant. Shane dropped LSD. Joey and his band, the Zit Remedy, only had one song. Arthur had wet dreams. Wheels' parents were killed by drunk drivers.

The show wasn't without controversy. Many parents objected to the show's frank depiction of social issues. Many educators found its frankness refreshing. It was a show aimed at teens that didn't talk down to them.

But the children were getting older and would soon have to move on to high school. At the close of the series, Degrassi Junior High burned to the ground. From its ashes rose Degrassi High and their problems became worse. Caitlyn had homoerotic dreams. Snake's brother came out of the closet. The school bully contracted HIV. A student committed suicide.

Week after week, we watched faithfully to convene the next day to discuss the previous evening's events. Will Joey and Caitlyn resolve their differences? Will Wheels run away from home to meet his real father. We felt a connection to these kids because they experienced their problems with the same acne ridden faces and cracking voices we had.

But finally even these kids had to graduate and soon Degrassi High would give way to "School's Out," a Degrassi TV movie. This was the movie that gave us Joey's bum and Caitlyn's immortal line to Joey: "You were fucking Tessa Campanelli?" It also gave us former nerd Yik Yu becoming a pothead and Wheels drunk driving his car into Lucy, blinding her for life. Just like life, some of us made it into our adulthood unscathed while others weren't so lucky.

There was a distinctly Canadian vibe to the show. Pubically funded, like eveything else produced in this country, there was a desire to educate more than to entertain. Even in our teen melodrama, our duty to our community crept in.

I had forgotten about Degrassi for several years until one day while chatting with an Australian on the web, she mentioned to me that she never missed Degrassi. Apparently it was a big hit there when it was exported down under. Then I noticed it showing up on PBS late at night and finally, into Kevin Smith scripts. Our national little secret had turned into some other country's cult hit. Cool! Still, how can they understand when they said "oot"?

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