“And, who knows? Maybe one day, you too will find yourself being frenched by a Degrassi girl.”
—Kevin Smith, Introduction: Degrassi Generations
Well, since I began my own “Degrassi at twenty-five” piece with a quote from one of Kevin Smith’s movies it seemed only right to draw upon the series’ most famous fan to begin the review of Degrassi Generations, a history of the show written by insider Kathryn Ellis.
As I said in a previous post, I had a variety of reasons for being a fan of the Degrassi shows, none of them involving fantasies with cast members and tongues, like Mr. Smith, but primarily its lack of the usual glamour associated with television teenagers. The ability of the show’s directors to draw forth convincing performances from young untrained actors lent the show an authenticity sorely lacking on television to this day.
Filming was done on location, in the lower East End of Toronto, on the streets that the kids shooting the scenes called home. It allowed for a comfort level among cast and crew that would normally have been lacking. Like the difference in energy between a band recording in a studio and performing in concert, there was a charge that ran through this series that was missing from those shot on a sound stage.
In the reborn Degrassi: The Next Generation, the show is shot predominately on a sound stage, with actors who, although age-specific for their characters, all have professional credentials. And though it still presents a grittier view of life than its more mainstream counterparts, it seems to owe more to the teen soap-operas of the last ten years, than its predecessor.
Degrassi Generations reflects that slicker, more polished reality. Full of glossy pages and pictures, mini “People Magazine” profiles of the actors, and even a chapter on how to throw a “Degrassi Theme Party,” it owes more to the future of Degrassi than its illustrious past.
In fact, the sense I get from this whole book is that it is serving as a promo for the new series. Certainly there is a nice history, including details of some of its controversial topics and the resulting difficulties in getting episodes aired, blurbs on past actors and crew—but the main focus is on the newer, slicker version.
Cast members are given full-page bios, unlike their predecessor’s thumbnails; much is made of The N! Channel (an American cable station for teenagers)’s participation in production, but nothing is said about how their involvement has influenced script decisions. Unlike when the CBC was producing, The N! seems to have slightly colder feet. This has resulted in scenes being shot in such a manner that they can be easily edited for the more-sensitive American advertisers, and for “consultation” on show topics.
Obviously Degrassi: The Next Gerneration is the show of today, but if you’re preparing a book that is supposedly dealing with the history of the whole show, especially one whose initial popularity was built on the original episodes, why have only the current cast on the front cover? It almost feels like they’re using the credibility garnered from the earlier series to establish the newer version’s reputation.
Even though the book gives details of things as interesting as the formation of the repertory company of children actors, the technical details involved with script-writing, and other topics not covered in your standard fan-oriented presentation, the language used by the author diminishes her attempts to be taken seriously.
“What a pleasure to reconnect with so many of the old gang, both cast and crew. I’m only sorry I couldn’t touch base with everyone. What fun it has been to meet all the fabulous new cast members!” Kathryn Ellis, Preface Degrassi Generations
That type of saccharine excitement permeates the book. Even when she is talking about the some of the more serious episodes it feels like her smile never stops. Ms. Ellis is like the person who organises your twentieth high-school reunion, and thinks even the time someone shot up the school was all just part of the wild and wacky fun.
It almost seems a disservice to a show that worked so hard to be the very opposite of that attitude. There was nothing sentimental about the kids or their situations. That’s what made the show so appealing. No clichéd answers, no easy solutions were ever offered by the directors, scriptwriters and producers. The focus was on how the kids, like kids everywhere, muddled through and hoped for the best.
If you are a fan of the show and are interested in a “Tiger Beat” type history, with trivia tidbits about your favourite actors and inside scoops on autograph signings, than I’m sure you’d love this book. If you know nothing about that “Canadian” show your children are watching, then it will be a good introduction to the series as a whole, and probably reassure you of its intent.
But if like me, you have been following the show since its beginnings as Kids of Degrassi Street you’ll probably be a little disappointed. Unlike the show, Degrassi Generations is all about gloss and shine. The streets around Queen St. East and Degrassi never looked this clean and polished.