Behind the scenes at ''Degrassi: The Next Generation'': What makes the teen drama a cult hit? Sex, drugs, rock & roll -- and real-life lessons
Shane Kippel is crouched just outside the principal’s office, his Flock of Seagulls haircut flopping over his face, his eyes scrunched in concentration. Despite the hubbub around him — crew members with wiring and lighting equipment, conversations about dinner plans — the 18-year-old is completely still. He’s about to shoot a scene that marks a devastating low point for his bullying, wiseass character Spinner, a punk he’s played for three angsty years on the Canadian drama Degrassi: The Next Generation. He’s confessing to a prank gone tragically wrong, and turning in his accomplice. (To tell you how tragically wrong would spoil a huge upcoming plotline, so we won’t.)
But before filming, Degrassi‘s 56-year-old cocreator Linda Schuyler squats down next to him to deliver a pep talk, quoting statistics about bullying and high school social dynamics: ”We actually did this research that said telling is not tattling,” she explains. ”It’s the right thing to do, because it breaks the cycle of violence.” Then she heads back to the editing room and leaves him to ponder her advice. ”It was not too serious a role at the beginning,” Kippel says later. ”Now I finally get to show my range.”
For 25 years, Schuyler has been schooling young people about life’s toughest lessons with a researched, no-easy-answers approach. In 1979, the former teacher and her partner, Kit Hood, created The Kids of Degrassi Street with a then-revolutionary idea: telling stories entirely from children’s perspectives. It became a cult hit, as did the spin-offs Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High. Airing on PBS in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the shows followed the same group of kids, and their legacy has influenced everything from My So-Called Life to Beverly Hills, 90210 to The O.C.
Like its predecessors, Next Generation, which airs on Nickelodeon’s teen sister net, The N, chronicles a sprawling cast of kids (17 at the moment) dealing with issues like Internet stalking, abusive relationships, date rape, and gay bashing. What makes Degrassi notable is that it eschews Afterschool Special resolutions: Last season, the series’ nuanced, two-episode arc in which then-14-year-old Manny (played by 14-year-old Cassie Steele) got an abortion grabbed Stateside headlines — especially since The N refused to air it. Undeterred, Schuyler promises a provocative season 4 (premiering Oct. 1 at 8 p.m.) that includes plots about penis pumps, oral sex, and school shootings. ”When I heard some of the story lines they’re doing, my head exploded,” says Clerks director and Degrassi fan Kevin Smith, who’ll star as himself in three episodes this season. ”I’m known for frank subject matter, and I wouldn’t touch that stuff.”
The latest Degrassi incarnation, which has slicker production values, wittier banter, and more seasoned teen actors than the original, has generated some buzz for its tiny digital-cable and satellite network, averaging 250,000 viewers an episode. (That’s large considering we’re talking digital cable.) One reason the spin-off has thrived is its clever hook: Schuyler and Next Generation cocreator Yan Moore decided to revive the series in 2001 when they realized that Emma, a child born to the 14-year-old character Spike in the original Degrassi, would be entering junior high. ”It was like, duh,” Schuyler says. ”Let’s just call it Degrassi, a whole new generation.”