Degrassi

All In a Good Cause

degrassi-all-in-a-good-cause.jpgThere are some moments from Degrassi High that I have been able to picture even without having seen the show in a very long time. Toward the top of that list is Caitlyn Ryan getting caught on a chain link fence.

There’s a lot more happening in this episode, which is the major reason I picked it for a write-up, but I have to admit that it was a favorite of mine in junior high because this is the one where Caitlin dumped Claude (pronounced Clow-de) and I have to be honest, I always hated that guy. Then again, I don’t know if we were ever supposed to actually like Claude because he’s the person who came between OTP Joey and Caitlin. Plus, when I was 12, I had a pretty big crush on her, and my junior high school (and then my high school) was overrun by overwrought guys like Claude who spent every minute ensconsed in their angry young man attitude and Morrissey cosplay.

ANYWAY, the overarching topic of both the A plot and the B plot of this one is causes and community service. The B plot is about the freshmen challenging one another (although this is Canada, so I think it’s “niners”?) to see who can raise more money for UNICEF and it leads to Arthur Yick toilet-papering Mr. Raditch’s house. It’s a generally hearmless comical subplot that cuts through the seriousness of the Caitlin/Claude breakup and the C plot involving Kathleen that I’ll get into later. The Arthur-Yick friendship was one of the strongets when I started watching the show in the DJH years but had become strained. Seeing these two together and having fun was a reminder of that for both of us and them. Plus, the way Raditch busts them by asking them to stop by his house to “pick up some paper” is a great sitcom-y beat.

The Caitlin/Claude plot happens simultaneously with that one, as the same night that Arthur and Yick are going TP-ing, they set out to vandalize a munitions factory. This all gets set up a couple of days earlier at the office of People for Peace, the political movement they’re volunteering for. They’ve spent a lot of time making copies and stuffing envelopes–as teen volunteers tend to do–and Claude is frustrated by the lack of direct action. He wants them to take down a local factory that is supposedly helping to manufacture nuclear weapons. When their boss tells him that it’s not on their agenda and chuffs at the idea of throwing bricks through the factory windows, he decides he is going to spray paint the walls. Since Caitlin is so enamored by his dedication to all things causes (and since he’s not that idiot Joey), she goes along with him. But when they get caught by the night watchmen and she gets stuck on a fence while trying to escape, something that was telegraphed by her getting stuck on the same fence while trying to get in, but this time Claude runs off instead of helping her.

Needless to say, this act of cowardice–and Claude being afraid of what his parents would think if he’d gotten caught AND asking Caitlin not to tell anyone from People for People that he’s a huge chicken is the last straw and she dumps him. Not only that, since she was arrested she will have to go to court and this will come up a few episodes later in “Testing, 1-2-3.” That’s a particularly great scene because he tells her he can’t go to court to support her because the night watchman might recognize him and then his parents–who are much more conservative than Cailtin’s–would ground him. For that, she smacks him so hard that she makes his nose bleed (and gets detention where she runs into Joey and they wind up having it out with each other). So Claude’s dumped, he’s a total loser wuss, and there will come a point where we will never see him again.

But more on that in a future post.

Now, I mentioned the C plot, which is about Kathleen. It’s actually the most serious of the three and the only reason it’s not the A plot is because it’s a follow-up on an earlier episode, “Nobody’s Perfect”, which is all about how her boyfriend, Scott, was physically abusing her. For an Eighties show that could be Afterschool Special at times, itw as written slightly better than some of the other episodes of its kind because it relies on emotional manipulation over the course of nearly half the season as much as it relies on the moments where Scott is shown either verbally or physically abusing Kathleen. After literally getting beaten in “Nobody’s Perfect”, she broke up with him and now he’s decided to start stalking her. This all starts out with “I miss you” over and over until the point where Scott can’t take it anymore and physically attacks her. The end result is that she returns to school with her arm in a sling and a restraining order against Scott.

Kathleen Mead was set up to be one of the more unlikable chararacters in Degrassi. She is a high-strung wet blanket who is also competitive and a perfectionist. It is not without reason, as we have come to see that she is compensating for having a terrible home life (her father is pretty absent and her mom is an aloholic), and the fact that Scott is older than her ties right into her personality and her compensating for things.

Rebecca Haines, by the way, owns this entire storyline and does a fantastic job of carrying her scenes with Byrd Dickens who plays Scott because his line delivery is horrendous*. It’s a challenging storyline that could very well tip too far into melodrama and even when it does, she is very good.

Next up: Check out episode 105 of the podcast, which drops in a week or two, to see how I cover “Stressed Out” and then come back for pot smoking and poker playing in “The All-Nighter.”

*I don’t feel bad for being so mean about this person considering his arrest record.

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).

Everybody Wants Something

EWS21

Caitlin dumps Joey for Claude (pronounced “Clowde”).  Don’t worry, they’ll get back together … eventually. Image courtesy of Degrassi fandom Wiki.

First of all, hold up. Has it really been three and a half years since I did a review of a Degrassi High episode? Well, so much for keeping a commitment. Or maybe I’m keeping it because I am here and I am finally picking this up again.

 

At any rate, when I first realized this a few months ago, I did a rewatch of Degrassi High and decided to pick my ten favorite episodes that I watched when PBS first ran the show back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and I intend for this to lead up to a podcast episode covering the show’s TV-movie finale, School’s Out! And before I get to the episode I’m going to cover in this entry, I should say that most of the Degrassi High episodes I am covering will be from the first of the show’s two seasons–at some point, WNET moved its Degrassi airings to Sunday morning and since my mom was dragging my ass to church, I caught bits and pieces of episodes from the show’s final season.

Here, I’m starting a strong one, and with one that is one of the most memorable for me based on the number of times I saw it on television back in the day and how honestly I connected with those characters. “Everybody Wants Something” is the fifth episode of season 1 and has three landmark moments: the Zits’ first (and only) music video, Erica and Liz in an epic fight, and Caitlin dumping Joey for Claude.

As detailed in the last episode I wrote about, “A New Start,” Degrassi High started with Erica finding out she was pregnant and then choosing to terminate the pregnancy, despite her and her sister’s religious beliefs. And unlike a teen-centered show like Saved By the Bell, this serious matter was not left completely unresolved (yes, SBTB had its ongoing plots, but they were usually the romances between characters and the only time anything serious got mentioned again, it was during a clip show). The after effects of Erica’s abortion were C-plot sutff for a couple of episodes, as someone was writing nasty things about her on bathroom mirrors and leaving things on her locker.

Toward the end of this episode, Erica finds a picture of a fetus with “Abortion Kills Children” on it and after getting upset, turns around to see Liz (best friend of Spike, who is famous as having been pregnant on Degrassi Junior High) was the person who planted it. We knew from an earlier conversation between Liz and Spike that Liz is decidedly antiabortion because her father tried to beat her mother into getting one while she was pregnant. Liz doesn’t tel Erica this, but instead calls her a murderer and Erica goes right at her.

It’s a fight that is pretty quick and ends with the two of them on the floor pulling at one another’s hair, and while it was obviously staged, I saw enough girl fights in the halls of my junior high and high school to know that it looks like these two were actually fighting. The way Erica goes after her, a crowd gathers, and they dig in and won’t let go of one another, even on the ground, suggests that someone had been paying attention to an actual high school.

And while it is not the end of Erica’s abortion arc or even the main event of the episode, it fits nicely with everything else, which is what this show always did well. There were something on the order of 10-20 characters on Degrassi High, so having this happen while something totally unrelated was going on and having those not directly affect one another is exactly what happens in a high school.

The main story is actually a two-in-one that centers around Joey Jeremiah, who I guess we could say is one of the core characters of the series (especially considering how things play out toward the series’ end). Joey’s taking yet another shot at fame with his band, The Zits (formerly The Zit Remedy) and has badgered Lucy into finally letting her shoot his video, even if he blows most of the guys’ money on getting two girls to wear bikinis (and then has that fall through). All the while, his girlfriend, Caitlin, has started hooking up with Claude (pronounced “Clowde”) and right before the video shoot, she dumps Joey.

Pat Mastroianni won awards for playing Joey Jeremiah and you can see why in episodes like this where he has to switch between having been dumped and being a goofball on camera, putting on an act for his friends. The final still of him looking consternated, while not dramatic, encapsulates the performance and was actually the kickoff to a PBS pledge break that I sat through when I saw the episode one time on a random weekend afternoon. The emcee said that if we wanted to see more of Joey, we should give money, and also showed some behind the scenes stuff about the show. I don’t know if this is an honor or not, but perhaps somewhere Mr. Mastroianni is proud that he was used to advertise public television.

My connection to this episode has little to do with Joey and Caitlin’s relationship or Erica’s abortion; instead, it’s the video the band shoots that resonates with me. When this episode aired, YouTube didn’t exist and while people did have video cameras, the ability to edit a video and give it a soundtrack required equipment or time in a studio that was cost prohibitive. oh, I’m sure you could do that with two VCRs, but even then, things were crude. My friends and I used to make stupid, silly videos–skits, lip-syncing, and other things that will never see the light of day–and in our minds, what we were putting together was more epic than the low-rent camcorder footage shot in my basement.  In other words, my friends and I could have been The Zits.  I definitely think that we could have milked that one song, too.

Next Up: “Just Friends”

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:

Bye Bye Junior High

Bye Bye Junior High

The final image from “Bye Bye Junior High.”

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…)