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TV Review: Degrassi, The Next Generation – “Uptown Girl”

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Degrassi: The Next Generation is back, and apparently the writers and producers mean to bring it back fresh. The Canadian-based teen drama set largely in the fictional Degrassi Community School has been largely chasing its own shadow in the last couple of seasons with cast members getting old and characters getting stale. “Uptown Girl”, the one-hour eighth season opener, shows that the series can revitalize itself while still keeping the traditional issue-of-the-week format.

We open with Danny Van Zandt (Dalmar Abuzeid) and Derek Haig (Marc Donato) both doing football practice and seemingly impressing the hell out of “The Shep” (Kevin Jubinville), who serves as the new football coach and principal of Degrassi. Resident mother/student Mia Jones (Nina Dobrev) meanwhile ends up coming late for the new Power Squad cheerleading team which no doubt gives her arch-enemy Holly J. Sinclair (Charlotte Arnold) a reason to complain about Mia’s inability to get it together. As the opening theme cues up, we are left with Mia pondering how right Holly J could be.

After the “tour guide” opening theme we are re-introduced to former Degrassi students Liberty (Sarah Barrable-Tishauer), Manny (Cassie Steele), and Emma (Miriam MacDonald), who arrive at Smithsdale University under the pretense that they will be roommates. But in typical Degrassi fashion, there’s always a snag. While they all have rooms, they won’t have rooms together.

Emma, while rather depressed about this, is seemingly unaware of the fact that Liberty and Manny aren’t unhappy about getting away from her. To make things better for her (and worse for them) she changes the rooms and places Manny and Liberty in a new room so that they can all be close. The problem is the room comes with a male roommate named Kelly Ashoona (Evan Williams) who is coincidentally hot enough that a complicated love triangle could be on the horizon this season.

New blood enters the Degrassi universe at this point on Registration Day in the form of three ninth-graders named Connor (AJ Saudin), Alli (Melinda Shankar), and Clarie (Aislinn Paul). Clarie is the sister of Darcy (Shenae Grimes) who, much like her sister when she came to Degrassi, is something of a moralist. Alli is the sister of Sav (Raymond Ablack) and is the opposite of Clarie in that she is not only willing to break all the rules, but puts in danger while doing so. Connor is the obsessive, intense one who in the premiere fixates on having the same seat everywhere he goes; even though he is supposed to be part of the group, he’s background filler for this episode.

A fashion show takes place at Degrassi as well during Registration Day to show off the school’s hottest girls next to the school’s hottest football team members. Danny and Mia, who surprisingly are attracted to each other, get their pose on and become the main attractions of the show. Afterwards Mia is approached by a modeling agency and is asked to go out and audition for jobs.

Thanks to her newfound occupation as a model, Holly J. suddenly likes her and begins to invite her into her clique for lunches and gossipy get-togethers. While this impresses Danny and lights his heart afire, he continuously feels more and more ignored thanks to her sudden rise in popularity. Eventually Mia lands a modeling job as part of a campaign to advertise an athletic clothing line created by Tom Blake (Jon Cor), but not without a bit of anxiety as she messes up during the audition. Seeing her future as a model in danger, she takes the step of stealing Tom’s number and arranging a “meeting” with Tom in order to improve her chances at landing the job.

Back at Smithsdale, Emma whines to her mother about how crappy life has been so far at the college during Freshman week and nearly decides to pack it in to head home until Kelly gets her out of her shell with a water gun fight. They manage to corner Liberty and Manny who seem relieved that Emma isn’t hanging by their shirts everywhere they go.

Later Claire is introduced to another grade niner in the form of the hot and “gifted” K.C. (Sam Earle). Her attraction to him leaves Clarie a bit unbalanced. Although she is drawn to him, she feels a bit out of his league and also feels that K.C. doesn’t actually fit the general definition of “gifted”. During a lunch period K.C. attempts to break Claire out of her shell by making her uncaring of what people think of her by performing for the whole cafeteria. Tragedy ensues with laughter and embarrassment leaving Claire to hate K.C. even more. K.C. apologizes and the world keeps turning as a result.

Mia begins to enjoy the job she landed as the model for Tom Blake’s clothing line, T-Bombz. Hungering for more connections and jobs, she agrees to attend a party with her best friend Leia (Judy Jiao) who also attends Degrassi and is in 11th grade. After Leia discovers how far Mia will go for her success, the newfound friendship they established earlier in the premiere ends and subsequently she leaves the party.

Leia, pissed off that Mia doesn’t feel guilty about her recent choices, decides to screw up her chances with Danny by telling him that Mia slept with Tom for the job. Danny then turns around and basically gives Mia send off while she subsequently gets accepted into Holly J’s Power Squad.

So ends the premiere.

Apparently there are other new characters to be introduced. Riley Stavros is a football star on Degrassi's team who is in grade 12 and is seemingly angry a lot. Blue Chessex is an artist who could be the ladies man of Degrassi, except for the fact he more interested in art than girls. He's in grade 11.

Cast members from past seasons of DTNG will possibly make their return in this season. To say who will return and for how long is more of a "wait and see" thing. You can bet Jake Epstein (who played Craig Manning from season two to season five) will probably make an appearance this season. I seriously hope not.

Degrassi: The Next Generation has held on to its own past for long enough. Let us hope they continue this trend with even more new characters. After all the story is the school and the kids in the school, not the kids who left the school and went to college.

The "tour guide" opening sequence makes a return this year. For the last two seasons the credit sequence was not only without vocals, but the individual actors were made to give goofy expressions. One could argue that this was the transitional period as many of the cast would, in the show's timeline, graduate from Degrassi. 

Holly J. Sinclair's suggestion that Mia change herself in order to get the things she wants in life should have gotten a response from Mia. Although the character is a single mother struggling with responsibility, she has more realism than Holly J. who very much seems like a rip-off of an earlier Degrassi character, Paige, who was a bit like Holly in the earlier years of the program. I don't think a girl as vile as Holly J. could possibly be allowed to stay in any school for a minute without catching some absolute hell.

I hope the character of Connor doesn't get the Toby treatment later on. Jake Goldsbie, who played the character of Toby in the earlier seasons of DTNG, was originally written in as the best friend of J.T. Yorke (Ryan Cooley). As the years went on even though he was in the credit sequences each season, he was given less and less to do. Eventually when J.T. was killed off in season six, he essentially had no purpose on the show.

You know the writers were desperate when they decided to make Liberty kiss Toby. There's no way a guy like that would land a girl like Liberty, and she's considered a dork.

That's one hot dork if you ask me.

The writers have made an interesting choice with Mia Jones and her evolution. Actually, you could call it a de-evolution. Having tried to escape the stigma of being a sexually irresponsible teenager due to her being a single mom, Mia has always tried to be the responsible one while attempting to have a normal teenage life. Now that she's part of the modeling fashion world, being responsible will be a harder challenge than she realizes as she heads out to parties and tries to mingle with industry people.

It helps that Nina Dorbev is likable in her role. I would rather the stories this season center completely around her character, Danny, and Derek as they have improved the most since they were first introduced. I like seeing Danny as the confident ladies' man who no longer engages in lame antics to get girls. Even though I didn't see where Mia and Danny had any chemistry, the "upgrade" to his character is definitely welcome. 

I sense some tension with Snake and "The Shep" brewing later on this season. If you notice earlier in the episode when the principal commented on one of the girls during the fashion show, Snake gave a rather concerned look. I didn't pick up on that when I first viewed the episode, but I paid attention to that further when he smiled a slimy one towards Mia when she needed a pass for to help her catch up with her homework due to her modeling jobs.

This conflict I believe will give Stefan Brogren more for his character than he has had lately. If you don't count the horrific arc he had to endure when Darcy claimed that she was molested by Snake, there really wasn't much else for him to do. Since Snake is the goody-goody as opposed to the fake-wanna be Fonz known as "The Shep", there's a lot of room for good plots if the writers play their cards right.

Despite some reservations I have, "Uptown Girl" is a sign that Degrassi is trying new things without fearing a fan walkout from those who prefer the old crew to the new crew. 

You can catch the new season of Degrassi: The Next Generation with the one-hour premiere of "Uptown Girl" at The-N Cable network at 7PM CT/8PM ET.  

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