Sixteen

Degrassi SixteenI’ve always admired the way that Degrassi High was able to handle the long-term stories of its characters. Spike’s pregnancy and then being a single mom to Emma is probably the most famous (especially since it’s the foundation for the Next Generation series in the early 2000s), but when I rewatched the series, I noticed that the show as really good at following up on episodes and not just through the lens of ongoing relationships like Joey and Caitlin’s. Erica’s abortion, for example, comes back via the fight in “Everybody Wants Something” and then would come up again in “Natural Attraction”, where she starts dating again and Heather is plagued with nightmares about accompanying her sister to the clinic. And LD, who was one of Lucy’s best friends, was diagnosed with leukemia in “Just Friends,” the episode prior to the two-parter I’m looking at here.

“Sixteen” focuses mostly on Michelle, who had already begun dealing with her parents’ divorce in “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” (she comes home to her mom walking out on her father). At this point, it’s been a couple of months and she is finding that her father wants her to be his wife, as Michelle is expected to cook and clean in a way that takes her mom’s place in the house. It leads to her moving out of his house and renting a room* but also having to find a job to support himself. It gets rough pretty quickly, as while she does manage to afford her rent while working at a donut shop, she barely has any time for her friends. Meanwhile, Joey and Snake struggle with their driving test (something Snake will continue to struggle with all the way to the finale of the first season of Degrassi High).

I should also note that this is LD’s last appearance on the show, and in a later episode she’s said to be out “sailing the islands” with her dad after the cancer goes into remission. Otherwise, we never see her again or ever find out what happened to her. Now, my guess is that Amanda Cook, the actress playing LD, was leaving the show and acting altogether (her IMDb page shows only the Degrassi series), so I can see why she never appears again. But the lack of a mention or a true resolution by the show’s end or even in Next Generation makes her one of Degrassi’s only offloaded “And we never saw them again …” people. I mean, I never wanted to see her die or anything like that, but there’s a lot of concern and pathos surrounding the cancer and there are several times in the series where Lucy is lugging around a video camera to “make videos for LD”, so a follow-up would ahve been cool.

Michelle, on the other hand, will go through several stages of maturity between “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” and “Home Sweet Home,” which is an episode toward the end of the final season. The divorce, the job, and the strain on and eventual end of her relationship with BLT create a female teen character who is complicated and more fully realized than a number of others, at least enough so that she seems relatable. Unlike the more soapy shows of this genre, Degrassi, while it can definitely be melodramatic and even cheesy at times, grounds itself in reality and eschews the fairy tale. Yes, it kills off parents and has students sustain traumatic brain injuries due to drug use, but the writers at least tried to take the least convoluted path to those circumstances. Michelle’s stress will be followed up in a future episode (which I’ll be covering on a future podcast episode) and the resolution in “Sixteen” is less of a conclusion and more of a stopgap. It establishes a “new normal” that takes a long time to adjust to.

In my rewatch of the entire Degrassi High series, Michelle became one of my favorite characters because her storyline was more true-to-life about stress and what it can do to an honors student. I never had life pile on me like she did, but at least a couple of my friends were doing the best that they could to keep it together; furthermore, so many of us could (and even as adults still can) see ourselves in those scenes where work is clearly taking over her life, but she has to let it because she otherwise can’t support herself. Years later, 90210 would have Brenda sort of do this but it was more for cheap silliness and a one-and-done story. Here, someone is choosing adulthood and dealing with the consequences in the long-term. This two-parter was one that I remember for years without having seen it, probably because of this.

Now, while I will get into how stress is affecting Michelle in the next episode of the podcast, the conclusion of Michelle’s storyline, “Home Sweet Home”, was not an episode that I chose for this series of blog posts because I didn’t see it on Channel 13 back in the early Nineties.  In that episode, there is a resolution between Michelle and her father because after she’s kept up for the umpteenth night by her partying roommates, she decides to move out of the apartment and back home, but will pay rent and she and her dad work out a contract for the rules of the house.  While it seems kind of dumb compared to the episode’s A plot (Wheels gets kicked out of Joey’s house after stealing from Joey’s mom, continuing the storyline of his troubles and leading to his eventual downfall of sorts in School’s Out), that’s because it’s terribly ordinary and almost Eighties sitcom.

Next Up:  Caitlin finally sees through Claude’s b.s.

*A side note that I wanted to mention but could not fit in here.  During the montage of scenes where Michelle visits rooms/apartments for rent, there is at least more than one person who turns her away when they see BLT with her because he’s black.  It’s not subtle by any means, but they do a good job of reminding us that this still happened in the Eighties (and let’s face it, still does).

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