The Non-Darkness of Degrassi

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I know I’ve talked about it a few times on here already, but I am an admitted Degrassi fan. I watched the original series after school in the 90s (during its first set of reruns) on CBC, and was eager for the reboot at the turn of the Millennium. I lost touch with the show around season 6, but after a chance viewing of ‘Degrassi Goes Hollywood’ last summer I scooped up all of the original and new series, and caught up with TNG just in time for Season 9.

Some people have complained the show isn’t as fresh as it used to be, but I’ve enjoyed the majority of the new characters and felt like they have broached some new topics, while taking different approaches on others they may have tackled in the past. This summer’s daily dose of Degrassi has been a welcome treat as I sit down for a bite-sized portion of Canadian teenage drama, and I like the gradual introduction of the new characters, who so far have only played second fiddle to our (also relatively new) main stars.

In the last week in particular we’ve been introduced to a new villain in town, Drew Torres, a transfer student that came to Degrassi with hopes of snagging the QB1 spot on their supposedly awesome team (the fact they are the Degrassi Panthers cast an ironic light on the lack of football or its importance on the show in comparison to the Dillon Panthers on Friday Night Lights).

In his first week, Drew blackmailed his fellow teammate with a secret about his sexuality in order to (more or less) take over as QB1. He also established himself as the school’s new resident eye candy as various extras fawned over him, and supremely shallow sophomore Alli threw herself at him with a game of strip ‘Would You Rather?’, and was rewarded with a post-school booty call.

I kind of hope Degrassi will keep Drew a villain. Because here’s the thing. Every character EVER on the show that has been introduced as a villain, or even a slightly offbeat dark house, eventually evolves to become a downright likable, interesting, ‘lite’ version of their badass former selves. In fact the show is more successful when it lets its straight edge kiddies dip into the dark side (Sean, Ashley, Spinner, Craig) versus having someone come onto the scene, guns-a-blazin (not literally) and stay that way.

My one quasi-exception to this phenomenon is Ellie Nash, introduced early on as the punky alternative playmate for outcast former prepster Ashley Kerwin. Although Ashley’s edginess lost its teeth, Ellie always remained slightly offbeat (albeit with better hair and less Hot Topic accessories) and dark in the social schema that was Degrassi. Although...much like Jane of the second next generation, she got a bit of a glamover / personality upgrade by the end of her time on the show. As for everyone else? Let’s review.

Jay Hogart was sort of the proto-Degrassi villain. He led a band of misfits that appropriately looked too old to be in high school (they always do!), got into fights, bullied people, stole things, and coerced our cleaner, greener students to behave badly. He also spread an STD throughout the school, in a truly inspired villainous move. The show let Jay have his moments of redemption – the odd one-liner, his acceptance of Alex’s sexuality – while also continually using him as the fallback bad boy totem whenever they wanted a character to do something ‘wrong’ with an enabler by their side.

Then came Manny in Season 7. By this point Manny was one of the alpha females, which automatically meant her relationship would get a lot of airtime. To my surprise and delight, they paired Jay and Manny together in an unlikely sham of a relationship that blossomed into something genuinely sweet. In fact by the time I got to ‘Degrassi Goes Hollywood’ when Jay and Manny finally got their sh*t together, I was desperate to find out what had made Jay become the ultimate ragamuffin with a heart of gold, and their storyline over seasons 7 and 8 was one of my favourites. After that, Jay’s appearances were mainly to facilitate the Jay and Manny show, and to give Spinner someone to talk to.

And thus, Jay Hogart the villain was more or less destroyed. To the show’s credit, they’ve never let Jay do a complete turnaround (as per Spinner’s brief stint as a Christian born again virgin), as per one of the main reasons for his split with his major split with Manny had to do with theft, but his persona certainly softened from ‘ravine guy that gives out STDs’ to ‘Manny’s true love’.

While we’re talking about Jay, one of his top cronies, the female Jay and his early-on h-core girlfriend, Alex, also got the soft and sweet treatment. This was developed through her seemingly random but partially honest lady friend relationship with alpha girl Paige, but also in the episode where former bully Alex was bullied by younger kids when she came back to Degrassi to upgrade her marks for college. Suddenly we had the bully getting pelted with carrot sticks, and we were meant to felt bad for her. Again, to the show’s credit, Alex always maintained her tough girl streak, but she was also a big melodramatic softie when it came to Paige.

So those are the original ‘bad kids’, and how they evolved. Their second ‘next’ generation counterparts were kids from the merger between Degrassi and some other randomly named high school that possibly involved the words east, side, woods, or river. When Johnny DiMarco and his buddy Bruce were introduced, they were sort of Jay and co 2.0, in fact there is a great, misleading promo of Johnny doing a voiceover about taking over Degrassi. Well, that didn’t happen. Johnny wasn’t ever quite the enabler that Jay was (perhaps too easy for the show), and his conflicts with others were mostly reserved to menacing glares and snide comments. His most compelling, realistic storyline was his relationship with Alli and what it meant for his hard-edged persona. Unlike Jay, he never quite opened up and showed his inner muffin to the world (or did, and broke up with his girlfriend when it happened), but the fact his biggest storylines were about dating should tell you how much of a non-badass he was. Bruce in comparison was there for comic muscle relief.

Technically speaking, Jane was originally introduced to fill the gaping void Ellie and h-core Alex had left (although she was never mean). If you watch Season 7 when she is first introduced, it’s stunning how transformed she became as the seasons went on. Gone are the ugly dreads, boy-ish clothing (now reserved for transgender characters like Adam), and off-putting makeup. In its place we gifted with the alternative to the popular alpha girl, a bright, strong female character – although one whose controversy often stemmed from her facing her weaknesses over having some sort of badass reputation. Jane was one of my fave newer characters though, so I won’t complain too much.

Now, in comparison to the above, the prototype for Drew is pretty different. We’re talking preppy jock a-hole. The closest comparison we’ve got can be found in the charmingly awkward Peter, who appeared around season 6 in a memorable episode where he convinced Manny to strip for a video that was then broadcast on the internet. During that season Peter was persona non grata, causing him and Emma to have a clandestine relationship. Peter to me is one of the most interesting characters on the show because he has filled so many random roles. It’s like the writers never really knew what to do with him, and thus Peter had many an identity (and girlfriend) crisis. He was more of an example of a socially awkward menace that burned a few bridges over an actual villain. Drew in comparison to Peter has given us someone who is much more confident in following through with his arrogance, although he hasn’t exactly made any friends yet that will help him overcome the awkward social situations to come once his initial antagonism phase is over.

There are other people I could mention here. For the girls, think about Ashley Kerwin, the original mean girl, was taken down many a peg by the end of Season 1 and was given a slightly whiny but mostly sympathetic character during the rest of her tenure. Ditto to Paige, whose early rape storyline made it hard to ever see her as much as a villain as the show sometimes liked to paint her as. Even Holly J, who started out as a brownnosing snot but has become one of the show’s most dynamic characters has revealed a heart of gold under that ambitious shell.

For the guys, obviously there is Rick, he of the school shooting. Rick wasn’t introduced as a villain however, and it was mostly (aside from his accidental abuse of Terri) through his final act that he has been remembered as one, but even then, moreso as a troubled, bullied student. Declan was somewhat of a cocky villain (in the same vein as Drew) when he was first introduced last season, however these days he sits around pining for Holly J and avoiding twincest. Derek, the curly-headed pal of Danny’s in the middle years of the series, was sort of a jerk through and through, but not exactly a villain.

I get that Degrassi is trying to show multiple sides to each character, and I appreciate that they don’t let the kids who have a badass introduction completely transform to become one of the ‘good’ kids (although Jane is a notable exception here, based on how she was portrayed at first). Holly J and Paige still have their mean streaks, Jay was still an enabler to his last days as a regular on the series, and Peter was still ruining friendships last year…but ultimately every person that is introduced on the show as a villain softens once their initial antagonistic plot point is resolved. I wouldn’t mind seeing Drew go on a testosterone-fuelled rampage of antics on the football team and with the ladies, although I suspect his relationship with ‘Adam Torres’ (the transgender character I can only presume is Drew’s sibling) will give him his entry into the softer, sweeter side of Degrassi.

Finally for the record, Degrassi is by far not the only show where this phenomenon occurs. As one of TV's longest running youth-oriented programs, it just happens to be the most obvious one. Think of Luke, the hyper-aggressive Drew-esque villain of Season 1 on the OC, and how he became almost comically sad by the end of that season when his dad turned out to be gay and he sat around trying to strum a guitar backstage at a Rooney concert. Or for that matter, one of TV's most realistic shows, Friday Night Lights, where Tim Riggins has been continually toed the line between saintly and sad, a far cry from his Season 1 womanizing and extreme boozing antics. It's natural for a show to want to make their characters sympathetic, and taking them out of their villainous comfort zones seems to be the only way they can think to do it. I guess there are two sides to every archetype.

Ah well,

Britt’s On


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