EXTREME: Degrassi: TNG packages date rape and on-campus suicide-murders in plots as unadorned as a teen diary.
It’s late on a weeknight, and I’m sitting alone on the couch, wringing my hands and shrieking at the television, when my roommate ambles into the living room. “She’s hot,” he says, pointing to the very pretty, very curvaceous girl on the screen who’s parading down a hallway in ass-hugging jeans that ride so low they’d have the old Britney snapping her gum in approval. “Who is she?” Mike asks. “Oh, that’s Manny Santos,” I say. During the commercials I give him the lowdown. A few months ago Manny was still collecting stuffed animals and wearing oversized sweatshirts. Now she’s slutting it up something fierce, hoping the sight of her bright blue thong will win over Craig, the object of her affection. Except Craig is in love with Ashley, the smart, songwriting emo girl he serenades, with high-school-hipster grandeur, in an empty gymnasium on his guitar. “Is that Ashley?”, Mike asks, pointing again, the break over. “I can’t explain this to you now,” I say, waving him away. “Just tell me which one is Ashley,” he demands. I shake my head. Nobody talks during a Degrassi: The Next Generation marathon. Craig and Manny are about to do it, and there’s so much twisted chemistry between them, it’s difficult for me to watch with both eyes open, let alone discuss the obvious.
I graduated from high school six years ago, and yet I can’t seem to stop reliving it. Not my own high-school experience but a fictional one, written about a cross-section of teens who attend the Degrassi Community School in Toronto. On Degrassi: TNG, which premiered its sixth season on September 29 (it airs every Friday at 8 on the N, Viacom’s digital cable channel), date rape and on-campus suicide-murders are packaged for audiences sans overwrought script pyrotechnics — none of the stilted thesaurus-speak of Dawson’s Creek, no neat story arcs, no overlayers of Significance. Hysterical teenagers don’t edit their journals to make them sound less like life. Neither does Degrassi.
By virtue of its design, the show has spawned a passionate following beyond its core demographic of tweens and teens. Portraying the crash-and-burn of puberty is one way to lure a Degrassi fanatic outside the 13-18 box. That’s not unique, of course. What makes Degrassi different is that, unlike other contemporary teen histrionic fests, it doesn’t bother to pressure-cook adolescence into an easily swallowed pill of fantasy lifestyles. Linda Schuyler, a former junior-high-school teacher and the show’s creator, would prefer it if you were reacting: sobbing, cringing, snickering, and gagging at what you see. At the same time, she wouldn’t mind a bit if you absorbed some of the coming-of-age tutorials she slides into the story lines, lacing the semi-trashy My So-Called Life–esque scandals with a dose of Full House. In spite of some overt after-school-special lessons, the writers of Degrassi: TNG craft plot lines so controversial that the N refused to air an episode titled “Accidents Will Happen” in which Manny terminates her pregnancy, inadvertently prompting Degrassi zealots to download the “lost” two-parter on-line or query message boards as to why the effusive Manny seemed so depressed in subsequent episodes. CTV, which broadcasts Degrassi in Canada, did air “Accidents.”