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.