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Stars of 1980s Degrassi reminisce about groundbreaking series

Highly anticipated Degrassi High reunion scheduled for Fan Expo Vancouver
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'Degrassi' pushed boundaries and covered taboo topics.

Terms like OTP (One True Pairing), stanning (obsessing over a series or character), and shipping (rooting for a fictional couple) didn’t exist back in the 1980s, but even without the lingo, nine-year-old me absolutely stanned for Degrassi Junior High and, later, Degrassi High, and I shipped my OTP – Joey Jeremiah and Caitlin Ryan – hard AF.

The Degrassi series that I loved were the ones that were catapulted to cultural phenomena status a generation before Drake and his friends made their version the teen drama of choice for Canadian Millennials; I’m talking The Kids of Degrassi Street (which ran from 1979-1986), and especially Degrassi Junior High (1987-1989) and Degrassi High (1989-1991).

The pre-Internet incarnations of Degrassi – all shot on location in Toronto-area schools – tackled topics that weren’t being broached anywhere else on children’s television: interracial dating (Michelle’s parents didn’t want her dating BLT because he was black); sexual violence and child abuse; teen suicide (Caitlin’s ex-boyfriend Claude killed himself in the school bathroom); drunk driving; epilepsy; depression; grief; abortion; bullying; poverty; teen pregnancy (14-year-olds Spike and Shane conceived baby Emma at Lucy’s party); AIDS; burgeoning sexuality (Caitlin thought she might be a lesbian because she had erotic dreams about her female teacher).

Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High explored all of these heavy topics with kids playing their actual age – and, despite the gravity of the subject matter, Degrassi was entertaining. It was fun: Joey wore a fedora and formed a band called The Zit Remedy with Wheels and Snake in which they only played one song (“Everybody Wants Something”). There were pranks, pratfalls and hijinks. Caitlin wrote for the school paper and was woke to issues of the day like pollution, animal rights and feminism.


And it was relatable. The kids wore clothes from Zellers and their school looked just like mine. It was must-see TV for an entire generation of Canadian kids whose stanning knew no bounds (even if they hadn’t yet learned the term).

This weekend, Fan Expo Vancouver invites Degrassi stans from all generations to congregate for a high school reunion with the  actors – Pat Mastroianni, Stacie Mistysyn, Stefan Brogren, and Kirsten Bourne – who made Joey Jeremiah, Caitlin Ryan, Snake and Tessa Campanelli household names.

Mastroianni, Mistysyn, and Brogren (who spoke with me last week in separate phone interviews) have all been involved with Degrassi since they were kids, and their relationship with Degrassi has continued into the 21st century. Mastroianni and Mistysyn resumed their roles in Degrassi: The Next Generation, and Brogren played Snake (first as a teacher, then Degrassi’s principal) in both Next Generation and Degrassi: Next Class, and has also written, directed, and produced on the newer series.

Back when they were kids, they had no idea what they were in for. When they started, “I think we knew we were on a fun TV show, but I don’t think we knew we were on a popular TV show,” says Brogren, who, in School’s Out, was the first person in history to utter the F-word on Canadian broadcast television (Snake’s line was “Joey Jeremiah spends his summer dating Caitlin, and fucking Tessa" – and, FYI, Joey totally deserved the derision). “Needless to say, we had no idea it was going to turn into what it turned into” – namely, a juggernaut multi-series CBC franchise that aired in 40 countries.

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Degrassi stars (left to right): Stacie Mistysyn, Kristen Bourne, and Pat Mastroianni. - contributed


Mistysyn remembers getting “letters from all over the world, and we also got a lot from prisons. I guess they didn’t have a lot to watch in jail.”

The bulk of Degrassi’s viewers were impressionable teens, and so the heavy subject matter always needed to be approached with great care, according to Mastroianni. Take the 1991 two-parter in which the character of Claude kills himself: the writers “were scared of copycats,” says Mastroianni. “Research shows that when a television show about suicide airs, there are people who copycat what they see on TV because they think it’s glamorous.” But it was important to tackle the subject, because teen suicide was on the rise in 1991.

Thus, says Mastroianni, Degrassi writers "demonized what Claude had done. People weren’t going to be crying at his funeral, and people were angry at what he did.”

That storyline remains especially poignant for Mistysyn. “It’s interesting to me now because, I don’t know if a lot of people know this, but my own brother, years later, took his life.

“Back in the day, we were so young, and it was all new information for us,” she continues. “It was a new topic for us to think about, so in retrospect, it’s all the more important to me now that we actually did an episode about that.”

Degrassi also explored HIV and AIDS at a time when they were “so brand new that they basically had to be explained to us,” says Brogren. The storyline involved a Degrassi student named Dwayne Murray reeling from an HIV diagnosis, and his classmates demonstrating all manner of prejudice and fear because they didn’t know how HIV could be transmitted. The producers brought in several HIV-positive men to talk to the young cast about “what the disease was, and what was going on in their community,” says Brogren, who adds that, by the time that the episode aired, two of those gentlemen had passed away.

If the Degrassi kids sounded like real kids – and they did – it’s because the producers and writers made an effort to talk to their cast and integrate their feedback, says Mistysyn. “We would tell them if our character wouldn’t say that, or if it didn’t sound real, or what would be a more realistic outcome,” she says.

That realism separated Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High from its contemporaries, according to Mastroianni. “Beverly Hills 90210 was a great show at the time as well, but not a lot of people could relate to going to school in Hollywood or driving fancy cars or being dressed to the nines,” says Mastroianni. “We were the complete opposite of that. We were kids downtown, lower middle class. I think our wardrobe came from the Salvation Army or Goodwill. It looked more like a documentary than a slick show.”

Mastroianni, Mistysyn, Brogren, and Bourne are appearing at Fan Expo Vancouver as part of a Degrassi tour that’s taking them across the country. The aim is to thank fans for being fans and to “make you feel like a 14-year-old again,” Mastroianni laughs. “Everybody was a kid once. We were all young and insecure and awkward… It’s like a reunion, because seeing me makes them feel, ‘Dude, we made it, we made it through our awkward teenage years, we’re grown-ups now.’” 

 

Pro-tips: Marathon full episodes of Degrassi Junior High on Degrassi’s official YouTube channel, and keep up to date with the OG Degrassi gang via the Degrassi Tour’s Facebook page.

 

MORE FROM THE CAST OF DEGRASSI HIGH

Stefan Brogren on how the first incarnation of Degrassi grew in popularity after it ceased production in 1991: “We all went away to school and went on different adventures in life. I went to school in the States, and when I came back that first summer, the show had begun to air after school around 5 [p.m.] every day, and there was this brand new generation of kids who were discovering the show and watching it every day after school, so what I thought was going to be the end of the show and that people weren’t going to know who we were in a few years was the exact opposite. The show grew in popularity and became a monster in a lot of ways as far as the fan following and how hungry they were for more Degrassi. It only made sense after 10 years for it to come back for the Next Generation.”

Stacie Mistysyn on playing Caitlin Ryan: “I did love Caitlin. She was a cool character. I loved that she wasn’t afraid to stand up for what she believed in. She didn’t always get the facts right. She tended to be a little headstrong and jumped to conclusions, but I did love her tenacity, and she was determined and not afraid to stand up for things. I definitely admired her strength.”

Stacie Mistysyn on the gulf between life on and off set: “We all knew each other and it was like a family on set, but when I would go to my real school, I was always kind of struggling. I always had friends, but I was always right in the middle. I was never one of the cool kids, and I was never one of the nerdy kids. I sat in the middle there, which was great, but I struggled to fit in with any one particular group, and my parents were also very strict, so I was leading this double life and it made it hard for me sometimes to fully integrate I feel with my real world.

“And I was also very self-conscious a lot. I was on TV and I was growing up in front of the world. I had an eating disorder, and all those kind of things that a lot of teenagers struggle with anyway. I feel like it was almost a given because being in the public eye so much, I was just extra aware and self-conscious. At the same time, it was a positive experience. It gave me an outlet for a lot of my stress and whatever I was going through at home. It gave me an outlet, and it helped open my eyes to what other teens were going through. We would go to schools and talk. I loved that side of it, but I definitely have my own struggles.”

Pat Mastroianni on the differences between him and his character, Joey Jeremiah: “The person I wanted to be was Joey Jeremiah. I played him as if I was this cool kid in school, and I think because I wasn’t a cool kid in real life, my eyes on camera told a lot more than my performance. People watching my performance on Degrassi Junior High realized he was just this awkward kid and a shy kid who wanted to be liked and please people and he would put on airs and people saw right through that and realized that Joey was a vulnerable kid just trying to get through school. I think that’s what I brought to the role as just Pat the actor.”

Pat Mastroianni on the joys of re-watching shows filmed in the ’80s and early ’90s: One of the funniest things that happened this year was we did a screening of School’s Out at a theatre in Toronto and we had 700 people show up. There’s a part in the movie where Joey grabs the house phone, and he has this two-foot long antenna that he pulls out of the phone, and everybody in the theatre started laughing because we all grew up with that technology back in the day.”

Pat Mastroianni on the challenges faced by 21st-century kids: “I think today, kids are much more depressed than they were in the ’80s and ’90s. There’s so much Internet, there’s so much interaction online, there’s so much social media that the pressures of being a kid today must be so much more intense than it was for us growing up. I know for a fact that research shows that there are so many kids out there that are deeply depressed. They can’t keep up with it. It’s too much, and if you’re not online and in that social network, you feel out of the loop, and you feel alone. The online bullying aspect is crazy. I can’t even imagine or even relate to what kids go through today. Thank god there are shows like Degrassi on today that are trying to inform and educate and help and listen.”

 

Fan Expo Vancouver is the city’s preeminent annual celebration of geek culture. This year’s fan fest includes a marketplace, panels, cosplay and meet and greets with sci-fi and genre celebs, including actors from Arrow, Stargate SG-1, The Flash, Bones, iZombie, Riverdale and more. Nov. 10-12 at Vancouver Convention Centre West. Schedule and tickets at fanexpovancouver.com.