It’s the last dance of the year. The music is pulsing. Sequins are sparkling. Teenagers are laughing and kissing, having a great time. And then somebody yells, ”Cut.” The camera stops. The lights go down. And everybody bursts into tears on the crowded set of Degrassi High: School’s out forever.
The last episode may have been taped that October day last year, but for fans of Degrassi High, the school year is just starting. This month PBS launches the fourth and final season of the Canadian-made television series, which has earned top grades for the realistic way it portrays high school kids dealing with everything from abortion to political activism. In a television landscape where the high jinks of characters like the Fox network’s Parker Lewis often define high school life, Degrassi stands out as the thirtysomething of the book-bag set.
Its popularity is impressive. In the United States, PBS stations plug Degrassi High into varied slots on their schedules; even so, its ratings sometimes exceed those of prime-time PBS shows. Half of the show’s 5 million North American viewers are teenagers. Its appeal goes beyond high school students, however; people in their 20s and 30s are the second-biggest slice of the audience. Watching Degrassi High, as one newspaper columnist has put it, ”is a lot like walking through my old high school.”
In fact, when the doors swing into the corridors at the fictional Degrassi (the school is named after a street in Toronto), you can almost catch a whiff of chalk and gym socks. Not long into any episode, adults get a flashback squirm of adolescent insecurity. That’s because the kids on the show are squirming: In the second season, Spike (Amanda Stepto) got pregnant and decided to keep the baby; in the third season, Erica (Angela Deiseach) chose to have an abortion even though her twin (Maureen Deiseach) disapproved. Again and again, the teenagers fidget and fret — sometimes over how to raise cash for a car, sometimes about how to deal with a friend’s leukemia. Though the show was cocreated by a junior high teacher and reinforces its message in classrooms across the U.S. with an educational newsletter, it takes the Calvin and Hobbes approach: Adults, even teachers, are there only as bit players.
That means the actors playing the high schoolers must be convincing. And they are. Maybe because they’re just kids — not manicured, coiffed, and stage-managed models schooled in elocution. These kids have Mohawk haircuts and baby fat and bumpy skin, and what they know they learned on the street and from high school itself. When Degrassi‘s creators, Linda Schuyler (who taught junior high students in Toronto for eight years) and Kit Hood (who filmed commercials), held open auditions in Toronto in 1986 to cast Degrassi Junior High — the show that two seasons later evolved into the high school series — they wanted a repertory company of, as Schuyler says, ”thin kids, fat kids, kids with lovely complexions, kids with acne.”
Looking around the set last summer, it was obvious that they got what they wanted. The final season was filming in the long dusty halls and grassy courtyard of an empty teacher’s college off the Danforth, a largely Greek neighborhood in Toronto. On-camera, there were kids sneaking kisses and throwing Frisbees. Off-camera, there were kids holding hands under shade trees and smoking cigarettes. When the 60 kids (counting extras) of Degrassi High were not acting like kids, they were being kids. ”Degrassi isn’t a job. It’s more like doing a home movie,” joked Pat Mastroianni, who plays the show’s class clown, Joey Jeremiah.
For supervising writer Yan Moore and the producers, the kids have provided a wealth of living, breathing, teasing, crying, flirting material. One young actor took a dare and drove the show’s van without a license — and a joyride inspired by the incident later showed up on the series. An actress complained to Moore that after she made out with a guy, he treated her differently. Before long, her romance was in the script. The kids say they love finding themselves reflected in the shows. Sometimes they have even tried to turn a plot line to their advantage. One of the actors wanted an earring, but his traditional Chinese father kept saying no. ”He’d let me have an earring if I had to have it for the show,” the actor told Moore. (The earring was written into the script.)
But though the teenagers have applied their own makeup and slipped into clothes they might wear to the mall, they have often found themselves in situations far from their own experiences. As actors, they have confronted abortion and motherhood — and feelings associated with both. They have encountered drugs and parental divorce and death. Learning to act in scenes beyond their experience ”taught us terror at an early age,” says Anais Granofsky, who plays popular beanpole and budding feminist Lucy.
In 1989, Mastroianni won a best dramatic actor Gemini (the Canadian equivalent of an Emmy). Last June, at age 18, he demonstrated his talent for overcoming terror: The cameras were not rolling, and he was beating up a locker. Between blows, he stopped to see how much his hand was swelling. Then he pounded again. He needed the pain. It had been a long week on the set, and now he had the giggles. Worried that laughing would destroy his concentration, he was hurting himself so that he could step into character and confront a nemesis who had just tested positive for the AIDS virus. His sober performance stands out in Degrassi‘s season premiere.
For Mastroianni and the other actors, the final bell has already rung at Degrassi. They spent their teen years acting like teenagers and making union- scale salaries on a television series. For many, that meant helping their immigrant Italian, Greek, or Chinese parents make mortgage payments. For others, it meant cars and cowboy boots and closets full of clothes. So what next? College for some. Auditions for others. And between the tryouts, jobs — often as waiters and bartenders. As Mastroianni, who is now tending bar in Toronto and hoping for work in Hollywood, says: ”I’ve seen Cocktail. If Tom Cruise can do it, why can’t I?”
For viewers, though, there are the new shows. Indeed, the final 13 episodes look to be remarkably ambitious: AIDS will change a boy’s life. Memories of sexual abuse will haunt one girl. It will be a long and gripping season before Joey Jeremiah asks his dream date to the last dance. A