I first discovered the earliest show, THE KIDS OF DEGRASSI STREET (produced 1979-86) during my high school years, but really became hooked once PBS began airing DEGRASSI JUNIOR HIGH on Sunday mornings in 1987. During its three seasons, this "kids" show tackled topics such as child abuse, rumored lesbianism, drug addiction, unprotected sex, interracial relationships, alcoholism, teen pregnancy, wet dreams, depression, molestation, gay relatives, animal rights and eating disorders. How could you not love that?
Though I was now college age, DEGRASSI seemed smarter than any kids show I had ever seen and more adult than anything the US networks were showing at that time. The fact that the show didn't talk down to its audience or get all preachy was a refreshing change from what we were used to.Popular characters included the adorable star-crossed lovers Joey Jeremiah (Pat Mastroianni) and Caitlin Ryan (Stacie Mistysyn), unwed teen mom/punk Christine 'Spike' Nelson (Amanda Steptoe), gawky goofball Archie 'Snake' Simpson (Stefan Brogren), mega-nerdy Derek 'Wheels' Wheeler (Neil Hope), future filmmaker Lucy Fernandez (Anais Granofsky) and the Farrell twins (Angela and Maureen Deiseach). There were also some annoying and cheesy characters too, but we tended to ignore those.
DEGRASSI HIGH came along in 1989, and unlike its US counterparts like BEVERLY HILLS 90210 and SAVED BY THE BELL the actors were actually high school age and were hardly teen models. These kids were realistic looking and acting teens. Further topics covered in the two seasons: abortion, sexism, abusive relationships, prejudice, HIV, sexual abuse and suicide.Another aspect of DEGRASSI HIGH was its tendency to show its male characters in various states of undress. Blonde himbo Simon Dexter (Michael Carry) got to reinact the PSYCHO shower scene in an episode called "It Creeps". And popular bad boy Joey Jeremiah took a stroll through the Degrassi corridors sans clothes to raise money to buy a car.After DEGRASSI HIGH ran its course, a controversial 90-minute TV-movue entitled SCHOOL'S OUT was aired and a documentary series titled DEGRASSI TALKS followed (in Canada only).
Almost a decade later, DEGRASSI: THE NEXT GENERATION arrived via the MTV-owned cable network The N. Spike's baby girl Emma Nelson (Miriam McDonald) was now a teenager and soon became the lead character of the show. Spike was now in a relationship with Snake, and the two later married. Joey and Caitlin were also back, and dated for a while. Other characters from the old show made appearances early on, but were phased out as the series continued. The show also inspired a series of manga-style comic books.This version of DEGRASSI has thus far dealt with some heavy topics including online predators, sexual identity, date rape, school violence, cutting, STD's, murder and other heavy topics. In fact a two-part episode about abortion was not aired in the US, and all references to the procedure were edited out of subsequent episodes.
At first I resisted getting into this new version of my old favorite, but the charming and talented cast eventually won me over. Standout characters from the first season included pregnant teen Manuela 'Manny' Santos (Cassie Steele), school mascot and eventual martyr James Tiberius 'J.T.' Yorke (Ryan Cooley), overachiever Liberty Van Zandt (Sarah Barrable-Tishauer), otter-in-training Tobias 'Toby' Isaacs (Jake Goldsbie), troubled Sean Cameron (Daniel Clark), cute goth wannabe Ashley Kerwin (Melissa McIntyre), eventually bisexual bad girl Paige Michalchuk (Lauren Collins), basketball star James 'Jimmy" Brooks (Aubrey Graham) and lovable bad boy Gavin 'Spinner' Mason (Shane Kippel). Joining the expanded cast for Season 2 were bipolar musician Craig Manning (Jake Epstein), self-abuser faghag Ellie Nash (Stacey Farber) and fabulous gay role model Marco Del Rossi (Adamo Ruggiero). Each new season welcomed a new batch of attractive young actors to the show, as older characters began to move on. Troublemaker lesbian Alex Nunez (Deanna Casaluce) and sleazy Jay Hogart (Mike Lobel) began as supporting players and took on more prominent roles in later seasons. The show "jumped the shark" when writer/director Kevin Smith guest starred for a story arc involving his tiresome Jay and Silent Bob characters and a movie shoot at his school with aspiring actress Manny cast in a role. The series still airs, but most of the best of the cast are now gone, as their characters graduated high school and left for college, and a largely generic group of younger characters has taken over.
A new TV-movie called DEGRASSI GOES HOLLYWOOD reuniting the main characters of THE NEXT GENERATION earlier seasons will aired on August 14, 2009 - proving that something jump the shark TWICE!
For more info on DEGRASSI go here.