'Degrassi' is our greatest television export

Published Wednesday May 14th, 2008

It’s a television show which, in all its incarnations, has kept Canadians and the rest of the world’s small screen viewers glued to the set for more than a quarter-century.

Degrassi and its many sequels over the years have chronicled the lives, loves, and heartaches of pre-teens and teens in the Metro Toronto region on a somewhat fictional street called, of course, Degrassi.

It remains our greatest television export, as the latest version — Degrassi, The Next Generation — is seen by more than 40 million viewers across the world every week and remains a huge seller on DVD.

Degrassi has given people around the globe a all-too-realistic account of what it's like growing up in the Great White North in its multicultural mosaic.

I first started watching Degrassi in its first wave — called The Kids of Degrassi Street (1982) — which was launched in an era before the Internet was king and the multi-channel universe we have now dominated the airwaves.

The Kids of Degrassi Street was one of CBC's first attempts of the post-punk era to bring the lives of regular kids to television viewers of all ages.

The majority of the young actors who appeared in the original limited run were not trained actors — they were real kids picked specifically to fill roles designed with them in mind.

Many of them later graduated to Degrassi Junior High — a show so popular it was on the CBC for years and also showed up on PBS in the United States and other international networks in first-run syndication and re-runs .

Back then, if a Canadian-lensed series made it big in non-Canadian markets it was big news.

Suffice it to say, Degrassi was always big news. It could have been a teen pregnancy, or a suicide, or someone facing abuse — we all cared what was happening to the kids of Degrassi, even though they weren't "real" people.

Granted, some of the original plots were dense and somewhat based on what was not going on in these teens' lives, but Degrassi Junior High quickly evolved into something to which all the Joeys, Spikes, Snakes, and Wheels out there could relate.

Joey, Spike and Wheels were the key draws for the show back then, and in a lot of ways still are.

The most memorable sequence of episodes for the trio was in the late 1980s when, with goals of being aspiring rock stars, they formed The Zit Remedy (also known as The Zits) and put to tape in 1988 one of the greatest non-released singles in Canadian pop history.

The song, Everybody Wants Something, became an instant classic.

If you are a Canadian between the ages of 30 and 40 and do not know the lyrics to this song, I would say you're lying.

How could you not love the fact these three dreamers wanted to be the Canadian version of The Police? Well, maybe a low-rent Strange Advance, but what the hey!

Degrassi's latest plot shocker — Snake, now a teacher at Degrassi, being falsely accused of sexually assaulting one of his students — has drawn older viewers of Degrassi back to the show in hopes he and Spike can finally be happy together after more than 20 years in each other's lives.

Granted, Degrassi is not for everyone, mainly because it's an honest account what it's like to be a teen in a society which values cliques and confrontation over truth and real growth.

Here's hoping the next few seasons of Degrassi will give closure to Joey's on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again, on-again, and off-again relationship with his soulmate, Caitlin.

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