Tuesday, January 19, 2016

On Degrassi

About six years ago, I binge-watched the entirety of the original "Degrassi Junior High" and "Degrassi High" from the 1980s and early 90s.  The show was a neorealist epic.  It starred actual high school students, some of whom were fat and ugly.  The prettiest were only as pretty as anyone could be in the high-school twerp phase.  The actors wore little make-up.  The show was shot on location at a poorly lit but by no means run-down high school.  The actors' awkward delivery was charmingly unprofessional and sounded just like smart teenagers who were trying and failing to realize their smartness.  The cool kid was cool because he found a cool hat and dressed as well as a middle-class white kid could realistically dress in the 1980s.  Class discussions in the show were wayward.  The nerds may have been nerdy, but they didn't match the ugly, borderline anti-Semitic stereotypes that consumed "Saved by the Bell".

When I watched it at age 29, I found myself identifying with the teachers, who came in with prepared lesson plans, who liked the company of their students, but knew how to keep them at professional distances, and who were often unsure of how exactly they were supposed to handle their authority.  In one episode, the PTA bans a pregnant student from attending the school because it feels she would be a bad influence on the other students.  The students are furious and are prepared to protesr.  The young hippie teacher, who clearly disagrees with the decision but doesn't explicitly state her beliefs, lowers the temperature.  She asks them to consider what they can do for their classmate at that given moment, steering them away from such a dramatic confrontation.  Is she right?  Is she wrong?  The show depicted the years when adolescents learn that their parents have a lot of things wrong and a lot of things right, and that the rest of their lives will be spent trying to figure out who is wrong and who is right.

The best plots were the mundane ones, the one where the kids organize a porn viewing party, the one about the kid who steals $20 from his friend's parent, the fight between two girlfriends on one of the "important" issues of the day, animal testing.  A girl can't handle living with her miserable, hapless divorced father and moves out only to discover the difficulty of making rent.  She moves back home with her father, who she loves, under the condition that she pay rent and they set up a series of rules that she and her father can abide by.  On Saturday nights, kids just hung out in their parents' basements bored out of their minds.  Their parties were lame.  The suicide episode understood the affect of suicide on friends and even casual acquaintances.

The worst plots were the stuff of melodrama.  The show was not above the anti-drug hysteria of the late '80s, and in one episode a bright student takes some acid and jumps off a bridge, suffering permanent brain damage. Still, in many ways, its missteps were a perfect portrait of its time.  There were no gay characters in its cast, just as there were very few out gay people in high school during that era.  The only gay character who showed up was the older brother of one of the leads.

The biggest failure was the lack of shits and fucks and general dirty jokes in the dialogue.

Most of the episodes ended on an ambiguous note.  Life is a series of compromises and middle and high school are no different.  Still, I don't know if I personally recognize myself in any of the characters.  Those were miserable years for me.  My ennui was worse than the ennui of this high school.  I also had some terrible teachers, the like of which do not appear in this show.  I don't remember much physical bullying as much as emotional, mean-girl bullying (which was actually enacted by both boys and girls), and this show depicted the opposite.  I also knew a lot of eccentrics, giant personalities in high school and middle school, but  "Degrassi" just depicted the average-ness of average students.

The show was rebooted in the '00s and I found it painful to watch.  In the pilot episode a girl who has just evaded an Internet predator screams at her mother - the pregnant teenager from the first series -- that "she doesn't know what it means to be 12".  That line would have been killed by the original series' writers, though I don't know if they would have avoided such a sensational topic.  The bigger failings of the show lay in the pretty costume choices, the hyper-performances of the actors, actors who were just short of starring in a Disney Channel show, Drake.

Netflix has just revived the series again, and I watched a couple of episodes last night.  The new show is obsessed with the corrosive effects of social media, but it doesn't quite get the way kids will just stare and stare and stare and stare at a screen.  In the third episode, a student who wants to avoid an intramural sports convinces his friend to break his finger with a hammer.  Maybe such a thing would happen, but I didn't buy it.  The show did not earn that detail.

I also didn't buy the depiction of a rich kid, with his enormous house and pool, throwing a party to get everyone to vote for him in the high school election.  I didn't buy anyone caring about the high school election.  (My favorite part of the original Degrassi Junior High: An announcement in which the principal pleads with the students to attend a pep rally.  The announcement is so faint you can barely hear it.)  I didn't buy a a white girl convincing her drop-dead gorgeous black friend that she needed a bigger booty to attract the object of her affections.

Here's what I did buy: The rich kid's sexuality.  He's young, good-looking as hell and a sorta-out, not-quite-fully-out, not-that-it-really-matters bisexual. He's neither proud nor ashamed.  No one even thinks to ask him the details of his sexual desires or questions that such sexual fluidity can be possible.  (Granted I'm only three episodes in, I don't know where this is going, and I'm not sure I really need to.)  It's a portrait of its own time in a way.  I realized recently that 2015 is just as distant from 1990 as 1975 was from 1950.  We've lived through major sexual and technological revolutions in youth culture.  Degrassi did get a couple of things right.

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