Degrassi is one of those very few Canadian TV programmes that had success beyond their fair shores, and so they tend to hold onto it with such tender loving care that you would question whether it was actually any good.
Well, wonder not, as the series more than holds up after twenty years. The first thing that hits you like a legwarmered kicking is how absolutely 80s this programme is. I don’t mean that in a half-hearted, bad-night-in-Reflex 80s way – I mean that this programme looks like Boy George threw up over it and didn’t wipe it down afterwards. The waistcoats, tiny shorts, baggy shirts, and Jackie Brambles hairstyles are the usual suspects; but there’s also something rather warming about how un-self-consciously all the kids dress and act that is reminiscent of kid life back in the day. No texting and Bratz – heck, this is before Cabbage Patch Kids and Global Hypacolor – and it is all rather warm and appealing as a result.
It takes a while to get past that, but it isn’t to say that the programme skimped on tackling real subjects. In Canada’s inimitable way of taking something American and finding a new spin, big subjects are covered in an accessible way for kids TV. This can be downright surprising at times, such as watching 12-year-old kids telling each other how sexy they look or seeing a 14-year-old get knocked up in what is still a relatively staid production compared to modern telly.
A brief word of warning to people planning on a full-on nostalgia fest – you may want to be careful which series you pick, as the line-up changed significantly early on. Joey Jeremiah and Wheels are here, as are Spike and Caitlin. This first series is led by characters who vanished pretty sharpish.
Lead girl Steph – who only features in the first two series – is supposed to be the hot girl who everyone wants to be (although she is no Topanga or Kelly). But, having reinvented herself at the start of the series to appear mature to win the school president election, she loses friends and spends the rest of the series having to find ways to cope with it.
And that’s the real strength of Degrassi – it is massively unfair, and the moral lessons aren’t hammered into each episode with a patronising mallet. From the out, the pretty girl wins the election for letting lots of boys kiss her while the mousey one ends up shut out from her friends. And there are real issues for kids too, like Melanie buying her first bra; low-level shoplifting; adoption; even teenage pregnancy, for those 12-year-olds that were growing up a bit faster than the rest of us.
Elsewhere, the main casting draw is Joey Jeremiah, the Ferris Bueller-cool kid who’s friends with everyone. Its testament to how well he is played on the right side of ‘cocky git’ – something easily done when kids try to play charismatic – that he still trundles away in Degrassi TNG. The adventures of Steph’s little brother Arthur and his best mate Yick are like the younger end of Freaks and Geeks. The rest of the cast that are more familiar from later on are still floating around, but this series really belongs to characters that are now rather distant to the franchise.
These days, the programme has gone far beyond its rather Grange Hill roots and is glossier than back in the days of real-looking (ie, rather ugly) kids. It still tries to do the harder-hitting stuff, but knowing the lengths the production crew had to go to get this made first time around, you know that this is much more of a labour of love. Whether you come here for the nostalgia or for the rather touching kids’ drama, this is still decent telly.