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everybody wants something
even if it's recycled television shows from the 1980s
by michelle von euw
1.7.04
television


Imagine a dozen years from now, surfing late-night television and stopping at the once-familiar features of Sarah Michelle Gellar wise-cracking across the small screen. You quickly realize that you’re watching Slayer: The Next Generation, where Buffy is a secondary character, providing wisdom and guidance to an adolescent Vampire Slayer, whose angst and battles eerily echo her own. About five minutes of each episode is devoted to Buffy and her thirty-something angst, and one more thing – she’s married to her former sidekick, Xander.

Impossible for Buffy fans to contemplate? Talk to those of us who spent our pre-teen years watching "Degrassi Junior High," the Canadian show that picked up a U.S. following (on PBS of all places) in the late 1980s. There were no shows revolving around teenagers on network TV at the time; family and workplace sitcoms and dramas dominated the airwaves, like they do now. Only then, there wasn’t cable, there wasn’t "The OC" or "Dawson’s Creek" or "Smallville." "Beverly Hills 90210" was just a gleam in Aaron Spelling’s eye. And besides, Degrassi was different. For one, it was populated entirely by Canadian teens and pre-teens, who didn’t seem to be cast for their stunningly unordinary good looks or their precocious manners, like American actors of the same age seem to. In fact, it’s arguable that acting talent was even a requirement for casting.

The Degrassi kids looked real. They had bad hair, they had normal features, they said “about” in that weird Canadian way, and they wore the same fashion disasters that every junior high student did, showcasing the uniquely impossible combination of insecurity and hipness that we all emulated at age 13.

But Degrassi was always about more than just looks – these kids had problems. And the problems didn’t play out like after-school specials or daytime soap operas – the problems felt real, because they were handled in a messy, unresolved way. The series had a cult following in the U.S. at best, garnering the most attention when a character decided to have an abortion, working up a frenzy of media coverage and protests, as this was unheard of for television at the time.

It was easy to make fun of Degrassi – the actors weren’t on the cover of Teen Beat, and they certainly never became household names. Sometimes the issues (teen pregnancy, drunk driving, abuse, cheating, animal testing) became overwhelmingly ridiculous, though the message of the show seemed to be that everyone has problems, and no one in the large cast was ever left unscathed. And the show was on public television, a channel no cool kid ever admitted to watching post-Sesame Street.

Despite all of its faults, Degrassi stayed within the subconscious of many Americans, trotted out for ‘80s trivia games and “remember” conversations, sparking a glimmer of recognition in those of us who were teenagers at a certain time.

In Canada, it must have been something more than that, because the producers of Degrassi actually brought the show back, renaming it "Degrassi, the Next Generation," and hiring a new cast of young Canadians who mirror the original crowd in an almost irritatingly familiar way. The teen pregnancy plotline from the 1988 version of the show provided a transition to the 21st century Degrassi – that baby is now a junior high school student herself.

On the new Degrassi, many of the once-familiar dramas are reworked – the boy that Emma’s been “dating” online is really a pedophile, for instance – but the same problems and insecurities that plagued the original cast occupy this generation of Degrassi students.

Not only are the dramas and characters (the good girl turned slut, the nerdy unacknowledged stepbrother, the alcoholic) revisited, but the original actors are, too. The show counts no fewer than four Degrassi Junior High alumni among its regular cast, and many more have been brought in for guest appearances. (Which prompts one to note that Canadian men don’t age very well. It’s almost impossible to recognize the suave Joey Jeremiah in the bald, rotund adult version of the character.)

The new Degrassi is broadcast in the US on the N, a cable channel intended for 10-14 year olds, though the show courts us original viewers by devoting screen time to its older generation (there’s no way that a preteen is going to care that Joey finally kissed Caitlin in the B plot, when his stepson Craig is cheating on Ashley with Manny). An interview with the producers revealed that the show is edited for this younger American audience, and the elements that made the original series controversial probably will be seen only in Canada.

For a television viewer who has become accustomed to the sophistication of many network dramas, "Degrassi the New Generation" is not very satisfying: the epsiodes play like disaster of the week, with little time for development of either plot or character, involving such a large cast that it's easy to lose track.

But perhaps the reason that the show does work today is because the original was such a cult experience, a weird, unpretty little gem of a television show that stuck in viewer's craw and presented a world that wasn't neon pastels, that in some ways, maybe Canada is closer to America than Beverly Hills. Today, it helps to have a reminder that all teenagers don't look like Mischa Barton or talk like great orators. It certainly can't hurt preteens to have a show populated with kids who could be the girl who sits behind them in Science class or the boy who plays practical jokes in the lunchroom.

And for those of us who watched the show 15 years ago, it's kind of fun to flip through the cable channels at late night to find Joey Jeremiah singing his junior high band's hit song ("Everybody Wants Something") to his embarassed stepson, and realize that we still remember the words.


ABOUT MICHELLE VON EUW

Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw

more about michelle von euw

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COMMENTS

sandra thompson
1.7.04 @ 7:52a

I really loved that show. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who did/does/whatever.

erik myers
1.7.04 @ 8:08a

Everybody wants something, they'll never give up.

Everybody wants something, they'll take your money and never give up.

Everybody face up to the facts as they are,

Dedication is hard but, you'll be somebody and you will go far.

Everybody wants something, they'll never give up.

Everybody wants something, they'll take your money and never give up.


I'll shut up, now.

tracey kelley
1.7.04 @ 11:16a

Wow. This musta been an East Coast thing, 'cause I don't remember that filtering down into Michigan at all in the '80s.

'Course, I wasn't always, uh, watching TV back then.

mike julianelle
1.7.04 @ 11:32a

I saw it, was repulsed, flipped away, flipped back, laughed my ass off, and flipped away. I had the same reaction when I saw the new version for a few minutes.

erik myers
1.7.04 @ 1:23p

Well, I didn't watch it on PBS. I watched it on CBC. But I'm an exception to this rule.

Degrassi was awesome back in the day, but I'm not sure I'd be up to watching a new version. I think it would ruin the nostalgia I feel for it.

heather millen
1.7.04 @ 7:17p

I've heard of references to it, but never saw the show. Guess it can't be TOO much of and east coast thing!

juli mccarthy
1.7.04 @ 11:23p

My daughter is a fan of this show, and another on the N, something called Radio Free Roscoe. I've seen snippets of both, and even though I only saw the original Degrassi two or three times, I recognized a few characters.



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