DEGRASSI (The Kids of Degrassi Street; Degrassi Junior High; Degrassi High; Degrassi Talks)

Canadian Drama Series

Over the decade of the 1980s, three Degrassi drama series appeared on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Canada's public television network. The programs, all in half-hour format, began with The Kids of Degrassi Street, which was followed by Degrassi Junior High, then Degrassi High. Central Degrassi actors then reappeared in the CBC's 1991-92 season as roving interviewers and hosts of Degrassi Talks, a youth magazine program. This program focused on pertinent topics such as sex, work, and abuse, all examined from the perspectives of Canada's youth. This point of view was in keeping with the pre-credit program statement, "Real kids talking to real kids from the heart." The federal government's Health and Welfare Canada was a core sponsor of Degrassi Talks, suggesting official recognition and support of a distinct youth culture and an agenda of intentional socialization, using CBC television and the well-known Degrassi cast as teaching agents.

A two-hour television movie special, School's Out! (1992), completed the Degrassi coming-of-age cycle that had structured the three dramatic series and the magazine show. Programmed into a CBC Sunday evening slot, in early fall, School's Out! was scheduled to coincide with the school year calendar of returning students. In the movie various Degrassi characters are confronted with the transitions that follow high school graduation--the anticipation of university, the dissolution of a high school romance, a tragic highway accident, rootlessness, work prospects and, ultimately, a fall reunion at the wedding of a long-standing couple.

An outgrowth of the entire Degrassi project is Liberty Street, which features only one of the former actors, Pat Mastroianni, who plays a different character than previously but with a similar cocky persona. Liberty Street continues the Degrassi coming-of-age chronology, focusing on "twenty-something" characters struggling for independence in a downtown Toronto warehouse-apartment building that requires chronic up-keep and so affords dramatic situations that demand personal negotiations. Launched on the CBC as a series in the 1994-95 season, the characters were introduced in an earlier television movie special, X-Rated, a title that recalls writer Douglas Coupland's coinage for disenfranchised youth, popularised by his 1991 book Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture. Linda Schuyler is credited as the creator and executive producer of Liberty Street, in association with the CBC.

The first three Degrassi series had also been created and produced by Schuyler and Kit Hood and their Playing With Time (PWT) Repertory Company, in association with CBC drama departments and the support of Telefilm Canada. Eventually, the series also drew support from associate producing entities such as WGBH-Boston, the U.S. Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Public Broadcasting Service.

The Degrassi series achieved international success and sales, and was programmed at various times on cable systems such as HBO, Showtime, Disney Channel, and the Public Broadcasting Service. But these international opportunities also confronted broadcasting and censorship standards which revealed cultural differences between Canada and the United States. A two-part Degrassi High episode concerning abortion, for example, was truncated by PBS for American audiences. This was not the case, however, with the CBC, which ran the complete version. PBS edited out a strong fetal icon from an open-ended narrative designed to confront television audiences with the moral and physical complexities facing teens who seek abortion. The editing decision raised public discussion in the arts and entertainment sections of major Canadian newspapers. In the short term, the Canadian media's coverage of PBS's action shored up the cultural attitude of the CBC. The Corporation was willing to trust youth audiences, and their parents, to make their own judgments on alternatives, positive and negative, presented in the complete version of the episode.

Yan Moore, head writer of the Degrassi series, tailored the scripts with the vital participation of the repertory cast, young people drawn from schools in the Toronto area. The situations, topics and dialogue were vetted in regular workshops involving the young actors. In the interest of constructing valid actions and responses for the characters, this type of earnest consultation ensured that the Degrassi series would remain youth- centered, and that the dramas' durable realist manner would avoid the plasticity common to television's generic sitcom families. Even as the actors grew within their roles over the first three series, and as new characters were added, a naturalistic acting style prevailed. If the acting at times appears untutored to some viewers, it remains closer to the look and speech of everyday youths than those of precocious kids and teens common to Hollywood film and television sitcoms.

From The Kids of Degrassi Street through Degrassi High, various schools serve as the essential narrative settings, though the dramatic situations mostly pivot on action that occurs outside the classroom: in the corridors, around lockers and yards, to and from school, at dances and other activities, in and around latch-key homes with parents usually absent or at the edges of the situations to be addressed by the youths themselves. These unofficial spaces outside the jurisdiction of authority figures serve as settings for the youth culture themes.

Even the backdrop for Degrassi Talks is a school bearing a "Degrassi High School" sign. From that location specific Degrassi actors introduce a week's topic. This sense of a familiar locale hearkens back to The Kids of Degrassi Street, filmed on Toronto's Degrassi Street in an innercity neighbourhood. In Degrassi Talks the physical references to the school and to the actors who portray Degrassi characters carry forward the series history. The actors appear to have graduated into role models of youth, with interspersed dramatic clips from past series serving as proof of their apprenticeship.

The evolutionary Degrassi series established high standards for representing youth on television, and influenced the development of other mature-youth series for public and private Canadian television--CBC-West's Northwood and CanWest--Global's Madison, for example. By integrating sensitive issues into the characters' narrative worlds, and by foregrounding and backgrounding various continuing characters as opposed to the convention of "principle" and "secondary" figures, the Degrassi series developed depth and avoided topic-of-the week formulas. Abortion, single parenthood, sex, death, racism, AIDS, feminism, gay issues: these became conditions the characters had to work through, largely on their own individual or shared terms, within the serialized narrative structures.

A generation of Canadian kids could be said to have grown up with the Degrassi series. The narrative themes held out implicit lessons for the targeted youth audiences--and for parental viewers. This teaching-learning ideology befitted the educational basis of the entire project as well as the cultural mandate of the CBC. With ethical lessons coded into the narratives, the characters were motivated to make mistakes, not merely choices, appropriate to them.

What makes the Degrassi project more than a mere projection of ethical lessons in episodic-series form, however, is the media-consciousness that invites viewers to ponder the dramatic futures of characters even when presented in genre-based television. The frequent use of freeze-frames at the ends of episodes suspends closure on dramatic topics and themes, in keeping with open-ended serialization. Over time, the maturity of the writing and the character development in the Degrassi series brought a rich dove-tailing of plots and sub-plots, often threaded with non-dramatic cultural asides--youth gags, humour and media allusions--that draw attention to the aesthetics of television construction and the need for informed viewership.

A useful example is "Black and White" (1988), a Degrassi Junior High episode focusing on the topic of inter-racial dating between a white female and a black male. Subtlely, the female teen's parents reveal their main fear, miscegenation. The two teens come to make their own choices in a climate of parental over-reaction (for their daughter's "own good") and arrive at a solution for their prom-night date. In subsequent episodes, the couple faces an ethical dilemma of their own making. The young man avoids revealing to his white girlfriend that he is attracted to another young woman, and has in fact been dating this black teen during the summer holiday. Jealousy follows deceit. The emotive complexity pushes viewers to recall the series' narrative past in order to contextualize the dilemma among the teens. And the story has thus become quite distinct from and far more complex than the original parental objections to interracial dating suggested.

The "Black and White" episode is structurally connected by a recurring photographic session conducted by two of the youngest boys in the school. One boy is blond and white, the other curly-haired and black. Both are "brains," who cajole older students into posing before their camera for the yearbook in postures reminiscent of "school daze" activities (holding a basket ball, and the like). As photographers, the two boys constantly draw attention to looking, performing and image-making, and bind us as television viewers to their collaborative function and humour. Following one commercial cluster, the narrative returns with an extreme close-up of the blonde boy as he dusts his camera's lens with a brush. His face, distorted in close up, indicates that he is cleaning the lens of the television camera, yet the effect of his direct gaze, as if penetrating the screen, engages us in the visual processes of his activity. His knowing grin adds a pleasurable dimension to his knowledge of creating a media-conscious effect. This very act of a youth constructing television imagery is at the heart of the Degrassi mandate to create television of narrative and cultural purpose--always from the perspectives of youth.

-Joan Nicks

Degrassi Junior Hiigh
Photo courtesy of Janet Webb/ Playing With Time, Inc.

CAST

Stephanie Kaye................................ Nicole Stoffman Arthur............................................... Duncan Waugh Vula..................................................... Niki Kemeny Joey Jeremiah.................................. Pat Mastrioanni Wheels..................................................... Neil Hope Yik ..............................................Siluck Saysansay Spike................................................ Amanda Spike Shane ......................................................Bill Parrot Caitlin............................................. Stacie Mistysyn

PRODUCERS
Kit Hood, Linda Schuyler

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

CBC

THE KIDS OF DEGRASSI STREET
26 Episodes

CAST

Griff......................................................... Neil Hope Lisa ................................................Stacie Mistysyn Billy..................................................... Tyson Talbot Karen ..............................................Anais Granofski Rachel..................................................... Arlene Lot Pete.................................................... John Ioannon Benjy................................. Christopher Charlesworth

DEGRASSI JUNIOR HIGH

January 1987-March 1987              Sundays 5:00-5:30                                                        (13 episodes) January 1988-March 1988              Mondays 8:30-9:00                                                        (13 episodes) November 1988-March 1989           Mondays 8:30-9:30                                                        (16 episodes)

DEGRASSI HIGH

November 1989-March 1990           Mondays 8:30-9:00                                                       (15 episodes) November 1990-March 1991           Mondays 8:30-9:00                                                        (13 episodes)

FURTHER READING

Devins, Susan. "New Kids on the Block." Cinema Canada (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), April 1986.

Magder, Ted. "Making Canada in the 1990s: Film, Culture, and Industry." In, McRoberts, Kenneth, editor. Beyond Quebec: Taking Stock of Canada. Montreal: McGill Queen's University Press, 1995.

Miller, Mary Jane. "Will English Language Television Remain Distinctive? Probably." In, McRoberts, Kenneth, editor. Beyond Quebec: Taking Stock of Canada. Montreal: McGill Queen's University Press, 1995.