DVD Review: Degrassi Junior High
Many years ago – before google – I was reading Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” comics and hung on a short trip in which the titular Harvey raced home to catch “Degrassi Junior High.” What was this show? It sounded familiar, like I’d accidentally caught it on channel 12 or something. But as I said, the world had not yet coughed up google, and I had no way of checking it out on my own.
More recently, around a year ago, I flipped through the new channels added to my parents’ cable service and found a show listed as “Degrassi.” Woohoo, I thought! But it turned out to be a show called “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” started in 2001, syndicated on MTV-spinoff channel The N. Not a bad show – and indeed, crafted by the same people who had made Harvey Pekar’s favorite show – but not what I was looking for.
But as it happens, that new show has proven popular enough to rekindle interest in the original “Degrassi Junior High.” The first season of this is now available on DVD, and it’s wonderful.
The gist: Degrassi Junior High is a school for 7th and 8th graders in a nameless suburb of Toronto. (We do know it’s on Degrassi St.) The start of the 1986 school year has welcomed a group of newly-elite 8th graders and newly-lowly 7th graders. Our window into this is a pair of siblings, Stephanie and Arthur Kobalowsky. But in the first minute of the first show, we learn (via a rant by Stephanie) that their parents are newly divorced, and she wants to take her mother’s more WASPy nomme Kaye, and deny Arthur three times before the cock crows. (“Look, I’m in grade 8. That means I’m cool. You’re in grade 7. That means you’re, urgh, embarassing.”) In doing so, she wants to enter Degrassi social life like a comet.
And thus we have Stephanie Kaye, one of the best characters in TV teen history, if not the best character. She’s a tragic character – it’s obvious that, given a few years and some tutelage, she’d be one of those Academic decatheletes collecting college applications like Pokemon cards. But she’s 14 and it’s 1986, so she thinks she wants to be popular. This entails bringing cut-off tops and lyrca tights to school under her “home clothes,” changing in the bathroom, and running for school president with the power of her new sluttasticness. She has a dumpy immigrant friend (Voula) who BEGS to be her “executive assistant” and write speeches, but she sells out quickly when a semi-cute boy named “Wheels” says he’ll vote for her if she lets him kiss her. And she does! Soon Stephanie decides to lock up the hetero male vote on a platform of “All the Way With Stephanie Kaye!” She dumps Voula as campaign manager and hires Joey Jeremiah, a poor man’s cool kid who says things like “Joey P. Jeremiah at your service! P for ‘playboy’!”
Stephanie wins the election but loses her soul. More on this later. Importantly, her campaign has introduced Joey into the school heirarchy and into our hearts. Joey, as I said, is supposed to be cool. In actuality, he’s a black hole of lameness tossed amid a group of reasonably cool friends. There’s Wheels, who parlays his sick flirtation with Stephanie into a series of horribly failed dates. There’s Snake, who’s absurdly tall and sought-after. And there’re some tangential friends like Rick, who escapes an abusive (and apparently alcoholic) father to become a hated “class criminal.” And there are the 7th grader, tied together by Arthur and his Chinese friend Yick, who have the most useless b-plots ever.
There actually are some intricate, interweaving plots that go through the entire first season of “Degrassi.” But the appeal of the show is the impossibly awful luck of the protagonists, who manage to get into after school special-esque scenarios every week. Stephanie’s plots are always the best. There’s a fun espisode wherein she gets knackered on sherry before heading to the school dance to meet Wheels and ends up puking her soul out while hapless Voula gives an important speech. There’s an even better episode wherein she goes to a soap opera star’s book-signing, tells him she’s 16 (she’s 14), and sees that he’s written his phone number on her autograph. Obviously, she calls the number and sets up a date which ends with her barely avoiding a rape in a motel parking lot and calling her mother to pick her up afterward.
Later in the season we get to know Spike, who’s nowhere near as hapless as Stephanie but makes up for it by being 10 times less lucky. She lets her boyfriend Shane nail her at a party (“I wanted him to like me!”) and immediately gets pregnant. Thus follows a pretty heartbreaking (and banned in the UK) episode where she listens to idiotic friends claim you can’t get pregnant the first time and sits outside a clinic with her mom to engage in the most awkward conversation since Appomattox. As the season ends, the fates of Spike, her really pathetic boyfriend, and Stephanie are up in the air.
For her troubles playing Spike, actress Amanda Stepto was allowed to host an episode of the Degrassi spin-off “Degrassi Talks!” OK, you won’t believe this. “Degrassi Talks!” was a magazine show wherein members of the show’s cast travelled Canada talking to seemingly random people about teen issues. Three episodes of this are included on the DVD set. This was the theme song:
We’ve all got our problems
but can’t always solve them
we need someone to listen
cause we all need some talkin’
no time to ignore
but we’ve got to explore
we can’t have it all the way
let’s do this together
I’ll talk to you
and you’ll talk to me
We’ve got to reach out to set us free
Coast to coast we we hear real stories from real people
You’re not alone
Let’s do this together
I should point out that this was sung by members of the cast.
Hopefully I can stop spoiling the show now and sit back, satisfied that I’ve painted a picture of why this is such a fine and edifying television program. I don’t know how soon WGBH Boston Video can put out season two, but I want it now.