Canada

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”