Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The End of an Affair, or How I Became Disillusioned with My Favorite TV Show

What do Charlie Bartlett, the Lifetime Movie Network, Juno, Jay and Silent Bob, the national tour of Spring Awakening and the musical stylings of Aubrey “Drake” Graham and Cassie Steele have in common?

If you said Degrassi: the Next Generation, then you are correct. If you somehow made some other unrelated connection, then I mean, congratulations.

I am a bit too young to have been a fan of the show the first time around in the 80s, but I have followed the reincarnation with increasing emotional investment since 2000. I own almost every single season since 2000, and I have seen most of those episodes a countless number of times. I know the actors' names and histories, and am suddenly much more interested in whatever media I happen to catch one. I gained a good friend and roommate through Degrassi: upon his first visit to look at our spare room, he casually noticed my six seasons proudly displayed on the mantle and said, "You guys watch Degrassi, too?" and that's all it took. He was in. Because I am, in a word, obsessed.

So it is with relative authority that I feel I can speak on the subject of its demise.

The thing that I love(d) about Degrassi is that, given its cheesiness, its overt drama, its often (but not always) terrible acting, there is always a real, pressing issue rooted in each episode. Degrassi addresses subject matter most television shows with a pre-teen target audience would not touch with a ten-foot pole: drugs, violence, sexuality, abuse, illness, religion, hormones. There are very few clear-cut answers and not every storyline ends happily, though some do (and others are just hilarious.) Regardless, there is always some forbidden door opened, some pandora's box unleashed, allowing viewers to confront, at least in a third party way, some of the most pressing, least talked-about issues that face teenagers today.

Or I suppose I should say there was.

Because the past several seasons of Degrassi, or what one may call the Weird Half Generation Now That Everyone Interesting Has Left the Show, have been crap. Complete and utter crap. One may as well be watching Hannah Montana or The Hills for all the social mores they have tackled. I am not the only die-hard who has noticed this, and it shows in the numbers: from 2002-2004 it was the top-rated Canadian drama for teens and adults in several age ranges covering 13 to 54. In 2006 it was the highest rated digital cable series in the US. Then in 2008, season 7, also known as the last season that meant anything to me, started losing its fanbase. Viewer numbers dropped and kept dropping throughout that season and the following two. (Note: most of my information I get from Wikipedia but you can double check it if you really feel the need.)

The first two episodes of season 7 dealt with date rape, the use of roofies in particular, and they held much potential to spark conversation on a subject so taboo the American television station refused to air it at first. (This is not the first time that station refused to air controversial material; the third season contains several episodes not seen by American audiences until the season was released on DVD, about a fourteen year old who chooses to have an abortion after consensual unprotected sex.)

However, instead of accurately portraying the effects of rufilin to educate and open up the subject to an extremely young, ill-informed demographic, the show's producers (or whoever) chose to go The Hangover route and used the drug as a throw-away plot point. The actress, Shenae Grimes, was lauded for her portrayal of a physically and emotionally wrought young woman trying to keep her terrible secret to herself, which is redeemable, certainly, and does in some way address this awful subject, but it was not at all accurate or educational on the matter of the extremely dangerous (especially so since no one seems to know what its real effects are) drug referenced. Season 7 was also nominated for a GLAAD Media Award for Best Drama Series, which is always good. But just not good enough.

Because even by the end of season 7 the plot had become like an absurd mix of Saved by the Bell and Passions. Record label contracts, stem cell research and modeling replaced the plain old everyday unresolved teen drama that made me love this show so much.

Season 7 also saw the end of silly throwaway references to an unseen character I had grown to know and love with the introduction of Holly J, sister of oft-referenced-but-never-actually-seen Heather Sinclair. Heather Sinclair was like the bigfoot of Degrassi, sometimes allowing us a glimpse of her elbow or her nose at the edge of the screen. Once we saw her whole back. More often she was simply mentioned in passing, and never with a positive note. She was just That Girl Everyone Passively Hates; you know the one. And the sly introduction of her inherently evil sister made her a specific character, immediately and permanently ruining all the fun.

The other greatest-thing-about-Degrassi-that-no-one-else-had, besides its accuracy at pinpointing teenage social issues, was its accuracy at portraying the look of real teenagers. The actors were cast within a year or two of their characters' ages, pimples be damned (and largely unmakeuped), and each actor was given a wardrobe that varied and changed with his or her respective character's socioeconomic status and homelife. One of the characters literally wore the same dirty hoodie for three seasons in a row, because that's what kids do. They have acne and don't always know how to deal with their hair and they find one clothing article that they love and they never leave it.

But here we are again in the awful present, and the past two seasons have been full-to-bursting with professional makeup and perfect coifs and designer clothes. It's like suddenly the producers realized it was a popular show, gave it a budget with a capital B, and, oh, fired everyone that ever made it awesome. Or hypnotized them. Or full-on body snatched them, I don't know.

I don't watch The Hills because I don't care about spoiled teenagers with designer nails who are treated like CEOs. Degrassi was great because it was interesting, and ground-breaking, and, despite the sometimes cheesy script, it rang true. I knew these kids because I went to junior high and high school with these kids. They were confused, and rash, and hormonal, and they did stupid things to their hair. They were funny without meaning to be, and, every once in awhile, funny on purpose. They thought they were adults but they very definitely weren't.

Without those true things, those reflective "I get that" moments, Degrassi: the Next Generation is just one more trash program about two-dimensional adolescents clogging up the airways. Degrassi needs to, in the immortal words of GOB Bluth: shape up or ship up. My advice is for the show to take off the polish, go back to its ridiculous-enough roots, STOP GIVING ITS CHARACTERS MODELING CONTRACTS, or just get off the air. For a disgruntled fan I know I've given a lot of time and energy to this show post-heyday, but now I've finally said my piece.

Maybe now I can rest.


David Pratt said...

As an avid comic book fan, I can relate to this kind of frustration. It's always a huge bummer when you see a story you love and characters you really enjoy go from mind-blowing and amazing to bland and mediocre (Booster Gold) or even flat-out terrible (Justice League of America). In comics, and I'm sure in television as well, it's often due to a combination of switch-ups on the writing team, proclamations sent down from on high, and people who make such decisions realizing they've got something on their hands but not comprehending what brought them to the game in the first place.

Then again, there's always the other extreme; when writers know exactly how a show became popular, so they lock their characters in typical patterns and caricaturize them (Scrubs).

Max Nova said...

You can pretty much set you watch by Scrubs.

"Oh it's 12 past the hour, the janitor will now assault JD."

I think one of the issues and it's something that baffles me a bit, is that there's almost never been a great series about college. Any show that enters "The College Years" is pretty much doomed to failure (Buffy survived because they largely gave up the college trope after a few years). "Degrassi Goes to College" in theory would be awesome, but in practice would probably suck.

Ozkirbas said...

This post evoked similar thoughts about Scrubs for me, as well. Especially, the current "Med School" season now playing on ABC. You could practically switch out "Degrassi" for "Scrubs" in B's post, while also fitting it into Max's "College Years" assertion. My honest approach is to completely dissociate the current season of Scrubs from what Scrubs used to be because - truth be told - they are entirely different shows (even after having counted Season 6's caricatureishness'). It sounds like B would be happier following suit.

I'll end this comment with a Degrassi quote because, as much as I wasn't a fan, it's achieved everything Britt's acclaim suggests And that quote is:

"He's got ladies!"
- Sean Cameron (portrayed by Daniel Clark)

Out of context? Yes. Irrelevant? Maybe. But, it's a quote from my favorite Degrassi episode - because who doesn't love drunk Canadians? And, sentimentality wins.

Cody G said...

So true, all of it. If I could add one thing it's that the producers realized the show was a hit right when they ran out of ideas, so they began recycling the same old tripe of the first season minus all of the important social issues with an all-new fresh new cast of pre-pubescent plastics. But hey, in all fairness, to today's bland youth, perhaps the fact that the cutest boy in school is dating the nerdy girl is truthfully more interesting than the fact that the islamic girl is having "terrorist" graffiti scribbled all over her history project.

Carrie said...

I remember watching a smattering of episodes throughout high school and was also IMMEDIATELY sucked into the cheesiness. Putting that aside, the characters are what kept it interesting; their relationships, decisions, goofball moments and growth over the years. Remember how hot Mandy got? I liked watching them throughout college with you all as well because we could revel in it's uniqueness. Recently, I watched less than 5 minutes of one new episode and was disgusted by many of the "new" aspects described in Britt's post. Unfortunately, I guess that's TV for us nowadays; ruining originality and authenticity for sex and fashion...