"Degrassi kids just have this honesty that Hollywood kids lack."
Back in the '70s, a sitcom called Happy Days hit it big. The sanitized portrayal of teen life in the 1950s, despite its family-friendly tv sensibility, initially featured some real issues, moderately touching moments, and something that was almost—- but never quite—- an edge. Despite the stylized plots and characterizations, the show's early episodes had some grounding in the Eisenhower era. Fonzie, the hood with a heart of gold, was still a hood; he had a difficult past and some definite criminal associations.
As the show grew in popularity, it changed. The plots grew even more contrived; the characters, cartoonier. Real historical references largely disappeared, as the show increasingly referenced its own in-jokes and popularity. This incarnation of the show gained even greater fame, but over time, the changes, the sitcom cartooniness and the relentless fan-pandering, would contribute to its demise.
In the fall of '77, an agent invited the Fonz to Hollywood for a screen test. In the tradition of television sitcoms, the entire main cast tagged along for a (three-episode) vacation. While in California, the Milwaukee greaser came up against a local hotshot, which resulted in a challenge: would the Fonz be brave enough to water-ski over a shark?
The third part of this adventure has become the most-referenced episode of Happy Days, but not for reasons the show's creators anticipated. Its pivotal event has become the locus classicus of franchise decline.
In 2009, someone decided to give the core cast of Degrassi: The Next Generation a tv-movie send-off. Most had grown up and moved on, or were working their way off the show. They had graduated. New kids were taking their place. And the original series cast's best moments, arguably, had happened in their tv-movie finale, Degrassi: School's Out. The new show, always more media-savvy and Hollywood-aping, decided to follow in Fonzie's wake.
This entry in the Degrassi saga does not merely jump the shark; the series has already done that. Rather, it runs its hijacked school bus over an ocean filled with megalodons and hits an iceberg of congealed New Coke.1 The young cast sinks in a whirlpool of humorless self-parody.
"Around here, you’re only as good as your last scandal."
--cameo ex machina Perez Hilton, giving advice that Degrassi's creators have long since taken too much to heart.
Jason Mewes (Jason Mewes) is casting for his directorial debut, Mewes-ical High. Impressed by his recollections of Degrassi Community School (which he and Kevin Smith used as a location a few seasons back), he heads to Toronto, hoping to find an unknown with that "Jersey Girl-next-door quality." Aspiring actress and theater-school student Manny Santos (Cassie Steele) hopes to get the part, but fails. The latest members of the cast to have a band also audition for the movie and they, too, don't succeed.
Meanwhile, Paige Michalchuk (Lauren Collins) has moved to Hollywood, where she works for the narcissistic star of a hit reality tv show, The Shores. An absurd twist has her get a major part in Mewes' movie by sheer accident—-Paige, whose character has no experience and has previously demonstrated no real talent for acting. Apparently, Hollywood movers and shakers gleefully hire unknowns who wander into auditions looking for a cell phone, and then put them up in luxury mansions. Now a success, she decides to pay for her friends Marcos (Adamo Ruggiero) and Ellie (Stacey Farber) to fly down for a visit.
Back in Toronto, Degrassi alumni Jay (Mike Lobel) has been handed a school bus to fix over winter break. Scamp that he is, he loads up Manny, the band, and (for no really good reason), Mia (Nina Dobrev), and heads for the land of swimming pools and movie stars. On the way they have a number of wacky road trip adventures, and we discover that Manny, whose prior experience with a band involved ineptly hitting a tambourine, can sing lead vocals, unrehearsed, getting an entire biker bar clapping along to a voice that sounds like it has been augmented by a corps of studio technicians. Of course she can; the actress is trying to kick-start her singing career. That this has nothing to do with her character, the show's history, or even plausible plotting, is irrelevant.
Numerous coincidences bring the gang together. While looking for back bacon, Ellie runs into Craig (Jake Epstein), who now lives in Hollywood. He was last seen trying to make his way as an up-and-coming, not-quite-famous singer, and he can now somehow afford a shoreline condo in Venice Beach. We also meet minor celebrities, witness some very lame comedy, and confront a broad range of tacked-on issues.
Are the Degrassi writers, once so critical of drug use, demonstrating a change of perspective by creating something while under the influence? Or was this supposed to be a parody?
Degrassi has sent itself up more than a few times before, with brief, knowing references and not-in-continuity Halloween specials. The problem is, if this was supposed to be a joke, it's not very funny. If they wanted to use this plot, they should have pushed it even further. Given the number of musical interludes, perhaps they should have just played this as a tongue-in-cheek musical ("Degrassi goes Hollywood-- with a Hollywood-style-teen musical!").
Even more damning, teen drama of the sort that made the show a success gets shoved in at every turn, and we're supposed to take it seriously. It's pretty hard to take anything seriously against this backdrop, and the writers don't particularly try. Someone steals the bus. The kids wander across it by accident, retake it without opposition, and get to the studio on time. Ellie gets depressed, gets drunk, and wanders into the water. Her friends miraculously find her before she drowns. Paige acts like the insensitive bitch she used to be, even to the friends she always liked. She falls, injures herself, and decides to be nice to people again. Plot problems come and go as easily and as frequently as the soundtrack's mediocre musical numbers.
NextGen's trademark pop-and-self-referentiality goes beyond passing references (an amusing dig, for example, at 90201's Shenae Grimes, in real-life a Degrassi alumni). Paige and Manny's old high school rivalry plays as though the whole world knows about it—- as though, say, they had been on a tv show. Kevin Smith (Kevin Smith) turns up at random intervals to give advice, acting like the real-life fanboy he is. Elements that garnered Next Generation fame and a growing fan base have been exaggerated into caricature, without the accompanying redeeming laughter.
MARCO: Paige! Ellie's hurting!
PAIGE: I'll talk to you tomorrow! This is my first red carpet. I want to enjoy it.
When the original series left the airwaves, they received a TV movie, Degrassi: School's Out. More drama happened that summer than one would reasonably expect to find in one small social circle, but at least it was plausible drama. What's more, the characters stayed grounded in the show's reality. It wasn't perfect and it had its share of cheesy moments, but it respected the tone of the series, and gave the characters real and difficult challenges. Life took some pretty grim turns. High school was over, and they weren't all going to be friends forever. Paradise City climaxes with a scene stolen from an episode of The Partridge Family, followed by hugs and waves.
For all I know, The Next Generation's new fans loved it. I cannot help but think that, if the original series had concluded in this fashion, there might never have been a Next Generation.
1. Shall I go on? It nukes a fridge containing Jar Jar Binks over Ishtar and through Heaven's Gate. This is Spider-Man's Clone Saga and Brand New Day combined, with a guest-appearance by Mopee. The sole redeeming feature is that some of the actors are pretty good. With this script and direction, however, they cannot help but embarrass themselves.