|"Wake up in the morning, feeling shy and lonely,
Gee, I gotta go to this school.
I don't think I can make it, don't think I can take it,
I wonder what I'm gonna do.
But when I look around and see,
That someone is smiling right at me,
Wait, someone talkin' to me,
Hey, I got a new friend..."
If you think Americans instituted “kids with issues” television, think again. Pre-Beverly Hills, 90210, and much more realistic than the After School Specials oeuvre, the Degrassi kids hit Canadian airwaves in the mid-80's, seeming more true-to-life and natural than any other kids on TV. Canadian youths grew up watching the Degrassi gang, and the series’ actors grew up onscreen-from the age of nine or ten, all the way through high school graduation.
Down south, American kids would come to gobble up the import on PBS. If the kid equivalent of an office water cooler is the school water fountain, then certainly, this show inspired many a water fountain discussion.
Degrassi Junior High grew from the seed of The Kids of Degrassi Street, produced by former junior high school teacher Linda Schuyler and erstwhile video editor and child actor Kit Hood. Their production company, “Playing With Time,” pitched episodes to the Canadian Broadcasting Company, receiving funding from a production entity called “Magic Lantern” and from the occasional private investor. Twenty-six episodes were made between 1979 and 1985, covering the kids' elementary career.
For Junior High, which began filming the year after Kids wrapped, the producers kept some of same young actors, but all the characters’ names were changed. This second Degrassi incarnation premiered in 1987. Its first time slot was Sunday afternoons at 4:30pm, but as it gained popularity, it was promoted to CBC's prime time schedule. Within two years, it was televised in forty countries. Stateside, the show appeared on PBS in 1988. The upside to PBS was that the show ran without commercials. On the downside, it was subject to censorship-type cuts, which infuriated its Canadian producers.
In terms of dilemmas, of course there were the usual adolescent suspects-crushes, first loves, gossip, sports, cliques, elections, parents. But the show was known for its heavier “issues,” always boldly and realistically presented, such as depression, eating disorders, interracial romance, teen sex and teen pregnancy, drunk driving, divorce. And this was junior high, remember, not high school - the character “Spike” got pregnant in her eighth grade year.
Episodes were seen through an adolescent perspective, not an adult-pretending-to-be-an-adolescent perspective. Adults on the show occasionally offered information, but didn’t suggest choices…the kids made their own. Viewers went through decision-making processes as the characters did. Though the issues were topical and risky, parents condoned the show, education groups endorsed it, and teachers frequently taped it for use in the classroom.
But it wasn’t all “issues.” Degrassi Junior High embraced a powerful sense of hokey, campy fun too. For American kids, the show was a novelty, partly because of the Canadianisms (those wacky pronunciations of “about” and “drama,” insults such as “narbo” and “broomhead”) and partly for the sheer realism. These actors weren’t the beautiful, plastic-perfect archetypes of most U.S. programs; these guys had zits (and a band called “Zit Remedy,” incidentally) and bad hair. Joey wore a fedora of questionable fashion integrity, the girls did endless and disarming accessorizing with scarves…they talked-and they looked-just like real kids.
In 1989, the kids graduated to Degrassi High, and the show was retitled accordingly. This was the venue for one of TV’s first AIDS-afflicted characters - school tough guy Dwayne. The show officially ended in the spring of 1991, and in the fall, the 90-minute TV film School’s Out was produced, giving closure to the series. After that film, a six-part documentary series called Degrassi Talks was shot. Hosted by some of the Degrassi actors, who traveled across Canada interviewing kids, the show dealt with a different adolescent issue each week.
The Degrassi kids, now grown up, remain some of the most talked-about stars for a generation of Canadians that grew up with them. True television groundbreakers, the gang from Degrassi and their creators brought topical themes to adolescents in way that has rarely been seen, before or since.
"Everybody can succeed,
All you gotta do is believe,
Let's be honest with yourself,
Forget your fears and doubts,
Come on give us a try at Degrassi Junior High."