As anyone who reads this blog or read me at The Toronto Sun knows, I’ve never been a fan of Degrassi: The Next Generation. I was too old for the first series, which always looked fairly slapped together to me, like it was shot through a silk stalking with a leg still in it. The new shows all seem so overheated, with teen pregnancy and drug overdose storylines piled on top of cutting and teen suicide scenarios. Aren’t there any kids left who just get pimples or periods?
Clearly, the show was never aimed at me. Others who grew up with Snake or Wheels or Spike love these characters like they were school mates. And while the new show stumbled badly in the Canadian ratings last season, it remains a worldwide hit, airing in over 150 countries.
That it remains popular in the United States was brought home to me Thursday on a visit to the set. Publicist extraordinaire Iain Christiansen arranged to escort my WIMA Talk Radio morning man buddy Mike Miller, who was up visiting from Ohio, his 14-year-old daughter Meredith and her school chum Amity on a complete tour of the Degrassi operation, which is neatly hidden in an industrial corner of Toronto.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cast, crew and especially production executives make young guests feel so welcome. These two wide-eyed kids got to have lunch with the stars, chat with creator and executive producer Linda Schuyler and even put on head sets and help direct an actual scene, yelling “action!” and “cut” like the pros.
The tour of the set was an eye opener even for a seasoned TV scribe who’s been up and down such Hollywood sets as Universal’s Wisteria Lane from Desperate Housewives.
The Degrassi exteriors include a full, brick, high school, which houses the gym, several classrooms (including real ones where some of the cast members have to do their learnin’ ‘n stuff), the pool hall interior and other sets. Dressing rooms, hair and makeup and costumes are also housed here; there’s even a working washer and dryer.
Outside near the school exterior is a street set up which includes several houses and store fronts, including the Degrassi version of the 90210 Peach Pit, the Dot Com Café. There is a whole new, two-story street storefront being built at the end of the roadway so the cameras can catch cars turning corners and stuff. It is one of the more elaborate back lots in all of Canada, comparable to the kinds of major studio back lot exteriors that are all but paved over in Burbank and Hollywood.
There are a couple of cats who have the run of the Epitome Pictures compound. One of them is named Noggin, after the US cable channel that airs Degrassi, although it is being re-branded Teen Nick (the channel, not the cat).
Christiansen allowed the girls to have a sneak peak at the upcoming TV-movie Paradise City: Degrassi Goes Hollywood, which airs Aug. 14 on Noggin or N or whatever and Aug. 30 on CTV. Degrassi super fans Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes are featured prominently in this deal. The girls had already streamed the trailer back home on their laptops and knew the music being used in some scenes. They generally knew more about the series than the people there who were running the show.
A hallway encounter with Stefan Brogren, the former Snake who remains with the series (and directed the TV-movie), drew gasps from the teen twosome. He could not have been nicer, as was exec prod. Stephen Stohn, who shared many stories and quizzed the kids on their career plans. TVFMF favourite Melissa DiMarco—who plays principal Hatzilakos and whose own celeb reality show just got a 23 episode pick up on Citytv--was equally gracious (and maybe enough on her own to actually tempt me to watch an episode of this damn show).
So no more goofing on Degrassi from me. These are warm, classy people who have--off and on--found a way to keep their franchise factory humming for nearly 30 years in Canadian television. Pretty damn impressive.