I know that I wasn’t the only person surprised by the news that Neil Hope, who played Wheels on Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High not only died, but died back in 2007 and this was just discovered now. In fact, I probably would have never heard about it at all had I not “liked” his onetime co-star, Stacie Mistysyn, on Facebook and read a post of hers.
In light of this, I went over to Hulu and watch the Degrassi Junior High third-season two-parter, “Taking Off,” which while not the next episode I wanted to watch for the purpose of this blog (that would be “Food for Thought,” which I think I’m going to get to anyway even if it is out of order), is one of the more important points of that season because it continues two crucial stories–Wheels’ parents’ deaths, and Shane and Spike. It also puts the spotlight clearly on Hope and his acting, as Wheels continues to struggle with his grief and does so not just by acting out but running away altogether.
We begin by finding out that Wheels has been skipping school and hanging out all day at the arcade; furthermore, he’s sold his bass guitar to get money to play video games like Konami’s Main Event, much to the chagrin of the rest of the Zit Remedy (especially Joey, who’s still in his Zack Morris “scheme to get us some airtime” phase … yunno, when he’s not flirting with Caitlin). His grandmother is concerned and he is not just stand-offish to her, but downright hostile and wishes that he could be anywhere but home and school. Then, the possibility presents itself when his birth father, Mike, sends him a postcard from a town called Port Hope, which is where his band has a standing gig for the next couple of weeks.
Meanwhile, most of the DJH crew is going to the Gourmet Scum concert that Saturday night (love the band’s name, btw), including Luke and Shane, who buy acid and then drop it before going inside. What’ll happen is that Shane will disappear and the police will spend the better part of the two-parter looking for him, even asking Luke if the boy was under the influence (and paranoid Luke will lie his ass off). He is eventually found underneath a bridge, having fallen off, and at the end of the second part is comatose, leaving Emma completely without a father (something that is explored in both Degrassi High and Degrassi: The Next Generation).
But that’s really a subplot and it’s Wheels who takes center stage as he hitchhikes through Ontario and at one point winds up getting picked up by a guy who seems okay at first–in fact, he kind of looks like Sam Waterson–and that guy tries to molest him. But he makes it to Port Hope to see Mike, and his hopes for a happy reunion are dashed when Mike more or less wants very little to do with him (in fact, he’s got a pregnant fiancee) and his grandmother ultimately tracks him down.
This is, as far as Degrassi two-parters go, one of the more heavy-handed ones and at times does veer into after school special territory, especially when the characters get into danger. Degrassi had an educational mandate, which is why it made its way to PBS in the late 1980s instead of being syndicated on channels like WPIX-11 or alongside Charles in Charge and Saved by the Bell, and sometimes to follow that mandate, it took the “when you do bad things there are terrible consequences” route. When Luke and Shane are about to drop acid, there’s a moment of “I don’t do that stuff” courtesy of Tim, who is way more on the straight and narrow, followed by a moment of hesitation by Shane, who only drops the acid after Luke calls him a chicken. Wheels’ trip down a side road with pervy Sam Waterson is also a caution to the viewer because hitchhiking is very dangerous and bad things can happen if you get picked up by the wrong person.
To its credit, while Degrassi did this often, it did it so that the consequences actually felt real. Spike’s pregnancy was the first thing I can think of that had long-lasting repercussions throughout all versions of the series (it’s also what most people remember about the show, even the casual viewer), and both plots from this particular episode would not be forgotten. Shane is not Scott from 90210 who is only mentioned a few times after the episode where he accidentally blows his brains out (seriously, how stupid was that episode?). And Wheels’ reunion with his father, then subsequent reunion with his grandmother didn’t end in everyone being happy and living together; if anything, it hinted that the character’s problems weren’t over.
Hope played Wheels with a sense of immaturity that actually is way more three-dimensional than a number of characters that age usually are. His parents’ death does become the character’s defining moment, as he doesn’t just struggle with it here but throughout the rest of the series, a struggle that we will see lead to some very bad decisions that have even worse consequences. Furthermore, the dynamic among the Zit Remedy friendships is further cemented in “Taking Off,” as Joey continues to be the smart-ass, Snake is the straight arrow, and Wheels is the “problem child” (for lack of a better word). The writers even allowed the return to the status quo after this story (his moving back in with his grandparents) seem normal, as his birth father is a nice enough guy but barely ready to be a father to a baby, let alone a teenager (in fact, the reason he gave up Wheels for adoption was that he and the girl he knocked up knew they were too young to raise him). They obviously respected the character and that definitely translated to the actor’s performance.
But I’m rambling on, so I’ll digress. Whatever the circumstances surrounding his death in 2007 that left it unrevealed until today, it was nice to see Neil Hope (and Derek “Wheels” Wheeler) as I remember him.
You can watch these two episodes, as you can watch all of Degrassi Junior High, for free on Hulu.
Part One can be found here:
Part Two can be found here: