Degrassi

A New Start

I may have neglected to mention the last time that I covered anything regarding Degrassi, which was about a year and a half ago, that I initially missed the finale of Degrassi Junior High.  For years, I knew that in the final episode of that season–“Bye Bye Junior High”–the school caught on fire during a dance, but I never actually saw the episode until someone sent me a video tape full of Degrassi episodes sometime in the early 2000s.  So back in 1990, I had no idea what happened and really no sense of the show’s continuity.  Sure, I knew who the characters were, but if a random DJH episode came on, I really couldn’t tell you what season it was from.

That changed when I tuned into watch Degrassi one day and saw a new title sequence, one for Degrassi High.  The characters were the same (for the most part) but they were older and at a new school.  The whole thing would end just like DJH had–with a dance after everyone learned the school was about to close–but that’s a few years off.  The episode that started DH was a two-parter, “A New Start.”

One of the things that can be the most heavy-handed part of old episodes of Degrassi is its educational aspects.  There was, to some degree, a mandate that the show had to teach and sometimes that issue was handled in an “issue of the day” sort of way.  That kind of happens in “A New Start,” even though the episode does its best to toe the line between a solid piece of teen drama and a very special episode.

While the cast is forced to adjust to its new surroundings and we get some great subplots, involving Joey, Wheels, and Snake getting hazed by older students, including Duane (who would become a key character later in the show’s run) as well as the introduction of new characters like Claude (more about him in future episodes), this one revolved around the twins:  Heather and Erica.  It seems that over the summer, they held the time-honored teen jobs of camp counselors and while working at the camp, Erica met and lost her virginity to one of the other counselors, a guy named Jason.  It wasn’t out of character completely–Erica was always more boy-crazy than Heather–but the complication that arose was that by the end of the first part of “A New Start,” Erica discovers that she’s pregnant.

So begins a story that even today would be considered controversial:  Erica gets an abortion.  Most of the second part is devoted to her contemplating the abortion, seeking counseling, and arguing with her sister, and it ends with the two of them walking either up to or into the abortion clinic, depending on what version you saw.  It’s a tough topic to approach and the writers do this deftly, as do the actresses.

One of the most important things to point out about Heather and Erica, which is highlighted in a pretty forced class discussion about abortion, is that the girls are a part of a very conservative Christian family, so when Erica brings up the topic as a way of working through her feelings (like I said, it comes off as a little forced) and gets a discussion going that  properly highlights multiple sides of the issue.  When Erica openly wonders if it could be the right choice for someone, Heather gets visibly upset and talks about how babies die every day in the “killing centers.”

Looking back at it, twenty-five years later with the perspective of someone who now has well-established views on the issue, this discussion and some of what Heather says comes off as almost satirical; however, when I was thirteen years old, I really didn’t know what an abortion was aside from it being an issue I heard about on the news.  “A New Start” made an attempt at presenting abortion in a way that was straightforward, and Heather’s inner conflict is well done, too.  Erica wants her support and Heather is so anti-abortion that she doesn’t know if she will give it, but eventually she puts her love for her sister above her political ideals and walks with her when she goes to the clinic.

The original ending freeze frame to “A New Start, Part Two.” This was only aired in Canada. The U.S. version, shown on PBS, ended a few moments earlier.

That last scene, by the way, caused a controversy, at least among those who were aware of it back in 1990.  The episode originally ends with Heather and Erica making their way through a crowd of anti-abortion protesters and freeze frames on a woman holding a figurine of a fetus as they walk in the door.  This was too much for PBS, who truncated the American version of the episodes by a few seconds and ended with a freeze-frame of their faces.  The episode still aired, though, which is more than I can say for a similar episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation which aired in Canada but was initially not shown in the U.S. by the cable network The N (incidentally, neither was “A New Start” or a later episode that referenced the abortion).

I don’t know if this opener was a way for Degrassi High to make a statement that they weren’t going to shy away from heavier topics now that characters were older, but it certainly gripped me and up until the show seemed to vanish from my television, I never missed an episode.

Both episodes can be found on YouTube …

Part One:

Part Two:

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Bye Bye Junior High

The final image from “Bye Bye Junior High” wherein Degrassi Junior High burns down in the middle of a graduation dance. Image courtesy of Degrassi.ca

So funny enough, I actually missed the last episode of Degrassi Junior High when PBS aired it.  There was a point where I was watching DJH on a fairly regular basis and then PBS started airing episodes of Degrassi High, a series that I’m definitely going to cover in full detail on the blog because whereas I only remember certain episodes of DJH, I remember every episode of Degrassi High and that’s the show that I grew attached to, at least for the couple of years that I was able to find it on television.  But really, one day I was watching an episode like “Pass Tense” or “Black and White” and the next I saw the Degrassi kids starting high school at a new show and heard hints of something really bad happening to the junior high school.

It wasn’t until years later–a few years ago, in fact–that I managed to get my hands on a copy of this, the very last episode of Degrassi Junior High.  I had placed a bid for VHS copies on eBay and had won an auction but then the auction was done away with because the person involved was selling copies of the show that he/she had taped and that was technically illegal.  When that happened, the person contacted me and offered to send me a tape anyway.  I offered to pay for shipping and the cost of a VHS tape–all in all it was about $10–and wound up with all of Degrassi High and several episodes of DJH, including “Bye Bye Junior High.”  This wound up being one of the first episodes I sat down and watched, thinking, “I never actually got to see this.”

The episode famously (at least if you’re a Degrassi fan) ends with the boiler room of the junior high school catching on fire on the night of the big graduation dance and everyone in the dance being evacuated and forced to watch the place burn to the ground.  But before that there’s a lot of resolution to various character plotlines and we get the feeling that this is indeed some sort of finale and that the main stories from the entire season are being wrapped up.  So, it’s not a “jumping on” point but then again when is a season/series finale a “jumping on” point?

If you’d been watching the entire season, you know that there have been three major storylines at this point:  Wheels’s parents dying at the beginning of the season and his struggle to come to terms with their deaths and getting on with his life, Joey’s learning disorder and having to repeat the eighth grade, and Spike’s struggles in school as a result of raising Emma.  All three of these are addressed over the course of the last couple of days of school wherein the gang finishes their final exams and then gets their report cards.  Most of them pick their report cards up at the main office but these three have teachers personally hand them their grades.  It’s a weird thing, but for story’s sake it works.  Oh, and lurking in the background is the foreshadowing of the fire with the constant presence of a malfunctioning fire alarm and maintenance workers who are there to fix the furnace of what is a very old building–okay, it’s not so much lurking in the background for foreshadowing’s shake as it is blatant telegraphing of what’s going to happen at the end of the episode but it works in a sense.

Anyway, the three characters each have their worries and their moments.  Wheels struggles to finish his last final exam and in the end barely makes it out of ninth grade.  Mr. Garcia–who talks in “teacher vocabulary”–tells him that yes, he passed, but barely and under normal circumstances he would be made to repeat some courses, maybe even the entire grade.  Wheels seems to ignore most of this hearing: “Blah blah blah PASSED blah blah blah” and leaves excitedly, which is true to his character, especially considering what will happen as he moves through high school and at the end of the series in the School’s Out movie.   (more…)

Black and White

Final still from “Black & White” courtesy of degrassi.ca

Degrassi Junior High (and later Degrassi High) was known for a few long-running storylines, and I’d venture to say that the fact that these long-running storylines were organic in a sense was the show’s hallmark. In other words, characters whose stories we had been following for what seemed like forever would come and go and the next time we saw them, there would have been some progress in their lives.

Spike is the best example. Her pregnancy, which is quite possibly the thing that people remember the most about Degrassi Junior High, progressed throughout the second season of the show, even though not every episode was about her being pregnant. Other stories included the death of Wheels’s parents and constant fighting with his grandparents, the relationship between Joey Jeremiah and Caitlyn Ryan, and the interracial couple, Michelle and BLT.

This couple is the center of “Black and White,” a later episode in the last season of junior high. It is an episode that, quite frankly, I don’t remember really paying much attention to when I was watching Degrassi as a kid. I’m pretty sure I remember seeing it, but for the most part the reason I decided to cover it in this scattered discussion of the series is because there are episodes about Michelle and BLT from Degrassi High that I remember pretty vividly, so I figured that if you’re following along with this particular feature (ah, who am I kidding, nobody is), it’s probably best to cover their “origin story.”

So the issue here, as I mentioned, is racism, and right off the bat we see BLT confronting it when he bumps into a student who calls him the n-word, which incites a fight. Michelle happens to witness this, and we find out that she likes him–not because he’s fighting with someone, just because she likes him. The feeling is mutual, as Joey, Wheels, and Snake note when they tease him about Michelle being the reason that he joined the yearbook staff. About halfway through the episode, he asks her to the graduation dance.

Unfortunately, there is a complication–Michelle’s parents, who claim that she’s too young to date anyone, even though they have the reaction of “You didn’t tell us the boy you liked was black” when they meet him. When she finally has a heart-to-heart with her mother, her mom gives her the undeniably horseshit excuse of, “We’re not racist but other people are and we don’t want you to get hurt,” before piling on futher with “People like to be with their own kind.” Michelle sees through this and tells BLT she’ll go to the dance with him anyway, which is where the story ends.

In the subplot, Spike is having problems with daycare because her current daycare provider is moving to Vancouver. So, she decides that to pay to put Emma in a daycare center, she’s going to try and get a part-time job. Unfortunately, when she goes to interview for a job at a diner, the manager spends the entire time making fun of her hair and dismisses her as a punk kid.

And there’s some C plot with Bartholomew Bond and Scooter taking yearbook photos. Or whatever. (more…)

Food for Thought

Final still from “Food for Thought” courtesy of Degrassi.ca

My relationship with Degrassi seems to have been more complicated than I originally through.  I mean, it was a television show, it was on when I was home from school, and I watched it.  But it’s not like it was Saved By the Bell, which everyone watched (mainly because it was on.  It always seemed to me that SBTB being on television when you were home from school was like a USA Today being placed at your hotel room doorstep–there was nothing else to do, really.)  In fact, aside from one fleeting moment where I felt cool at the bus stop because the cool older kids had watched it, with the possible exception of my sister, I was the only person I knew who watched Degrassi.

To that extent, I developed sort of a complex.  When other people walked int he room during my Degrassi time, I felt as if I had been caught doing something, even though all I was doing was watching Canadian teen melodrama.  Okay, Degrassi Junior High wasn’t always that melodramatic, but this episode, “Food For Thought,” which tackles the issue of eating disorders, lays it on pretty thick.  In fact, it does that right away, as we open with  Kathleen (one of the more uptight and bitchy Degrassi girls) sitting at the dinner table while her workaholic father and alcoholic mother argue back and forth.  She excuses herself without eating, then goes to the bathroom, looks in the mirror and says, “You’re! So! Fat!”

Did I say that they’re laying it on thick?  I meant that they’re spackling it on. (more…)

Taking Off

A screen shot of the end of "Taking Off," the two-parter surrounding Wheels' grief over his parents' deaths. Image courtesy of Degrassi Online.

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. (more…)

Can’t Live With ‘Em

Wheels finds out his parents have died in "Can't Live With 'Em, Part 1," the third season premier of Degrassi Junior High (pic courtesy Degrassi Online)

There were very few moments during my two years of junior high when I felt cool.  I spent most of both the seventh and eighth grade on the lower rung of the social ladder and I think that I did what I could to avoid the harassment and other crap that came with being in junior high school.  But like I said, there were times when I felt like I was kind of cool, in a way.

One of those moments was when I was standing at the bus stop one morning during the seventh grade.  I was one of five or six different kids at that bus stop, which was in the driveway of my neighbors’ house, and while I had grown up around most of them, by the time we were in junior high school together most of them were ninth graders who were bright, popular guys, the type that even though they were still the guys from across the street or next door were guys I looked up to.  I overheard one of them say, “Yeah, so Spike had the baby” and my ears went up as if I was a cat that had just heard a can opener.

Someone else watched Degrassi Junior High?  I thought I was the only person in the world who knew that the show existed (well, maybe me and Nancy), and not only that, but a couple of the cool kids liked it.  And not only that, they were talking about it in public!

What they were referring to was the two-part season 3 premier that I had just watched that week, which was called  “Can’t Live With ‘Em.”  It was the first of a few seasons worth of ground-shaking premiers, all of which involved something monumental happening to a major character.  In later seasons, these premiers would deal with abortion and AIDS, but this first one’s issue was drunk driving and would be the one with the biggest repercussions down the road, as Derek “Wheels” Wheeler’s parents were killed by a drunk driver.

Of course, the two-parter does not start off that way, and even the title itself is misleading.  When we open, the members of the Zit Remedy are practicing in Joey’s basement and when he comes home a little later than he said he’d be home, Wheels winds up being forbidden to see Joey and Snake.

After the credits roll, we get the first day of school at Degrassi Junior High, where the returning characters catch one another up as to what happened over the summer.  The two most significant changes are that Arthur’s mom won the lottery and Spike had Emma and is now a single mom.  Both of these storylines would become central to most of season three, as Arthur’s having money would cause a fair amount of tension between him and Yick, and Spike would have to deal with raising her daughter and with Shane trying to make an effort to be a father.

But the immediate concern of the episode is how Wheels is ticked off at his parents and is lobbying them to allow him to hang out with Joey … well, until he decides to simply sulk around and waits until they go to the movies one night and sneaks out of the house to go there.  The band records a “demo” (I guess it’s kind of an inside joke that this band only ever had one song … in what amounted to five years of Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High, the guys played a gig, recorded a demo, and even shot a music video of ONE SONG.) and Wheels comes home to see a cop car parked in front of the house.  At first, he thinks his parents called the police on him, but then he sees his grandmother and she tells him the awful truth.

Joey and Wheels reconcile at the end of part 2. (pic courtesy Degrassi Online)

The credits roll and it’s not until the next episode that we get the aftermath, which deals with Wheels’ grief.  He seems to be in shock for a few days and won’t talk to Joey at all (meanwhile, Snake doesn’t know what to say), then loses it in the hallway and punches the crap out of him.  But after talking to his grandmother about how much he blames himself, Wheels is able to deal a little more with this tragedy and reconciles with his friend.

It’s an episode that has a few cheesy moments, even in a story that’s very honest and realistic.  I’ve never been unfortunate to lose either of my parents, but it does seem that the grief is portrayed in a pretty accurate way.  Neil Hope overdoes it a little in the fight scene (the way he punches Joey is a little silly, like he wasn’t very good at it), but you do feel like he’s a step closer to healing when he and Joey hug at the end of part two.  However, in the middle of all of this, Wheels has a dream wherein he sees his parents coming home from a movie and when he tells them he thought they were dead, they say, “We are” in a bad horror movie sort of way.

But like I said, the shock of the deaths (not even hinted at until the cop car is outside his house) and his anger as well as how his friends handle it (Snake, the awkward guy, especially) is done almost quietly and even with subtlety at some moments, which is something that many other television shows featuring teenagers often fail to accomplish.

And then there are the subplots and other storylines that are getting off the ground.  We have Spike, who was the focus of the end of season two and whose baby everyone obviously wanted to know about, but instead of showing the baby (we do see some pics of Emma in the NICU) and having a full baby-oriented episode, we have some moments where Shane tries to talk to her and seems to start making an effort as a father.  Lucy meets a guy and it becomes evident that there will be tensions between the two of them over a guy.

Speaking of friendships, Arthur and Yick are telegraphed as having a break in their friendship this season, even though they seem pretty close. They misdirect Bartholomew Bond, a seventh grader, into an eighth grade classroom in a moment that is supposed to be funny but just shows how kind of dumb they are; and Arthur reads the business pages while in the cafeteria line so he can check out his stocks, which is a little silly.  Granted, this is actually pretty true to Arthur’s character but off the bat it is pretty irritating especially since we find out that Stephanie’s mom shipped her off to boarding school and that Arthur is going to give his little cousin Dorothy the same treatment Stephanie used to give him.  Finally, Kathleen begins a run for class president, which calls back to that first season premier where Stephanie does her “All the way …” campaign and is eventually ousted by the kids in the grade below her (Kathleen among them).  You can really see that her perfectionism is going to get in the way this season.

What is great about introducing all of these storylines in the first couple of episodes of the season is that it’s done more organically than so many other television shows.  Yes, there are moments where every character gets a little screen time, but most of the conversations that start off these various tensions take place in hallways or in classrooms before the bell rings, which is where most of the important conversations in a school take place.  It’s a great way to get you interested in more of the show while keeping you focused on the plot at hand.

I, of course, am realizing this now but didn’t have this in-depth analysis of the show when I was twelve years old.  I simply knew that I didn’t have cable to TV to watch at the end of the day; I simply could turn on PBS around 5:00 or 5:30 and watch a pretty cool show about teenagers.  Oh, and as I was finding out at the bus stop that day, I wasn’t alone.  As those ninth grade guys continued talking about Degrassi, I considered jumping into the conversation, but I didn’t want to be accused of eavesdropping and the bus was about to pull up, so I never did get to say anything, so my moment was lost.

But oh well, I could still watch.

Both parts of the episode are on Hulu …

Part 1
http://www.hulu.com/embed/_8gDY7F6jz0ksiK2zYzsbQ

Part 2
http://www.hulu.com/embed/EX4_cWOWkGEWmEcrskqElg

Pass Tense

Joey Jeremiah, resident Degrassi clown and keyboardist for The Zit Remedy. Photo courtesy of Degrassi Online.

I have to admit, in my half-assed effort to recap old Degrassi episodes, I was going to cherry pick stuff I remembered from Degrassi Jr. High and then go on to cover probably all of Degrassi High because I have all of that series on DVD and have watched it enough times in the last few years that I can probably pick off an episode at random.  Besides, YouTube only had the first 26 or so episodes of DJH available and that was it.  However, Hulu has the rest of them, and as I browsed through the titles I was reminded of how much of the show’s final season (before high school) I actually did watch.

Arguably the most famous storyline on Degrassi Junior High‘s second season is Spike’s pregnancy, which wound up providing the impetus for Degrassi: The Next Generation nearly fifteen years later (but enough about that for now).  The thing is, while I knew that Spike was the pregnant teenager on Degrassi Junior High whenever I managed to catch an episode, I never actually saw the episode where she got pregnant, nor did I see the ones where her pregnancy became a huge scandal and she had to fight to stay in school.  During those first two seasons, I saw a smattering of episodes and all I knew was that the show was about Arthur, Yick, Stephanie Kaye, the twins (whom I couldn’t tell apart), and the guys in the band The Zit Remedy.

Which is why I am probably sure that while I saw some of those second season episodes, I didn’t really remember any until the next season rolled around.  There were few exceptions, and one of them was the second season finale, “Pass Tense.”

When the episode opens, it’s finals and Wheels is freaking out about his upcoming tests.  He’s been having a pretty tough year academically and doesn’t want to risk being left behind.  Meanwhile, everyone else is getting ready for the big eighth grade dance, as it’s their time to graduate to the local high school.  Except, well, they won’t.  City-wide overcrowding has resulted in the administration making the decision to keep the ninth grade at Degrassi Junior High next year, which puts a huge damper on the eighth graders’ celebration, especially when the seventh graders (led for the most part by Caitlin Ryan) decide that they are not going to be decoration monkeys anymore.  But the show must go on (and the seventh graders get to attend as “payment” for doing the decorations) , especially when that show includes the first-ever performance by The Zit Remedy.

I think that anyone with a passing knowledge of Degrassi knows The Zit Remedy, which was the band comprised of Joey Jeremiah on keyboards, Derek “Wheels” Wheeler on bass, and Archie “Snake” Simpson on guitar.  They had one song and only one song, the immortal, “Everybody Wants Something” (which in itself would be the title of an episode of Degrassi High, so when I get around to that one, I’ll talk more about it).  This dance, according to Joey, was going to be their big break and throughout the episode he seemed to have a “Today Degrassi, tomorrow the world!” attitude.  Until, that is, Mr. Raditch pulls him aside and tells him that he has failed eighth grade and will repeat.

It was a very pivotal episode for Joey for two reasons:  first, you could tell that he was being hit pretty hard with reality here, and the fact that he was … well, slower than everyone else would define his character for most of the rest of the series.  He also starts to take an interest in Caitlin, and that would … well, that’s “the relationship.”  It’s a very quick moment at the dance at the end, but enough to suggest that something would go on between the two at some point in the coming year.  And I have to admit that this was around the time that I started noticing Caitlin.  I’m pretty sure that Stacie Mistysyn, the actress who played her, was my first real actress crush, which probably explains A LOT. (more…)