Funimation // 2001 // 330 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // July 13th, 2005
Whatever it takes, I know I can make it through.
Since the premiere of Kids of Degrassi Street in 1979, series creators Kit Hood and Linda Schuyler have turned their Degrassi franchise into one of the most enduring and best loved Canadian television institutions. Through the Kids of Degrassi Street and its successors, Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High, Hood and Schuyler have consistently set the standard for adolescent melodrama north of the border, gently nudging a cast of motley, imperfect teenagers through every dilemma imaginable -- from sex and death to drugs and relationships. Even after the show ended, Degrassi refused to die, with a particularly pessimistic made-for-TV movie, School's Out, and a short-lived teen talk show called Degrassi Talks hitting the airwaves before audiences were forced to make do with reruns for nearly a decade. In 2001, however, Schuyler and former Degrassi Junior High writer Yan Moore reinvented the series as Degrassi: The Next Generation, featuring a new cast dealing with their own coming-of-age tribulations. Like the original, Degrassi: The Next Generation is a mainstay on Canadian TV, a cult hit in the U.S., and now, a DVD set courtesy of Funimation.
Growing up isn't easy, and nobody knows that better than the students of Degrassi Community School. Much of the unending drama of daily life revolves around Emma (Miriam McDonald), the daughter of the original series' Spike (Amanda Stepto), along with other new students Manny (Cassie Steele), conflicted teen Sean (Daniel Clark), class clown J.T. (Ryan Cooley), and budding perfectionist Liberty Van Zandt (Sarah Barrable-Tishauer). Eighth grade student body president Ashley (Melissa McIntyre) and her awkward but intelligent stepbrother Toby (Jake Goldsbie) also feature prominently this season, as they interact with other members of the senior class such as Ashley's well-to-do boyfriend Jimmy (Aubrey Graham); Terri (Christina Schmidt), who struggles with body issues; occasional bully Spinner (Shane Kippel); and backstabbing cheerleader Paige (Lauren Collins). Together, the students at Degrassi learn to cope with their lives under the guidance of their teacher, Mr. Simpson (Stefan Brogren) -- better known as "Snake" from the original series.
Fifteen episodes from the show's inaugural season are spread over two discs in this inaugural set, with a third disc reserved for extras.
* Mother & Child Reunion Part 1
As the original Degrassi students reunite for their 10th anniversary reunion, Spike's daughter Emma prepares for her first year of junior high. But before the first school bell has even rung, Emma faces her first dilemma: she must decide whether or not to get together with a boy she met on the internet. 9/10
* Mother & Child Reunion Part 2
Ignoring the advice of her friends, Emma heads to the hotel to meet her online boyfriend. When Toby, J.T., and Manny realize her plans, they tell Spike, who leaves the reunion early to find her. 9/10
* Family Politics
Ashley's campaign for student body president is challenged by her stepbrother Toby, who convinces J.T. to run against her as a joke. 8/10
* Eye of the Beholder
Jealous over the attention that Spinner is paying to Terri, Paige sabotages their attraction by getting her friend drunk before the big school dance. Meanwhile, Toby and J.T. are caught checking out illicit sites on the internet. 7/10
* Parent's Day
When Toby's divorced parents arrive together for Parent's Day, he is embarrassed by their bickering. Ashley and Paige, on the other hand, try to impress Toby's mother, a casting director. 6/10
* The Mating Game
Paige convinces Ashley that she might lose Jimmy if she doesn't have sex with him, but is Ashley ready to go through with it? 8/10
* Basketball Diaries
Jimmy is having difficulty balancing his schoolwork with basketball. He convinces Spinner to give him a dose of his Ritalin before the game, which gets them both in trouble. Meanwhile, Liberty wants Ashley's job as morning announcer. 7/10
* Secrets & Lies
Ashley's divorced dad reveals that he is gay, prompting J.T. to lie about his own sexuality in order to stop a smitten Liberty from hounding him. 7/10
* Coming of Age
With his parents constantly working late, Jimmy spends all his time at Ashley's house. As his fourteenth birthday approaches, Ashley admits that she is starting to feel suffocated. Then, Emma's romantic progress with Sean is threatened when she unexpectedly gets her first period. 8/10
* Rumors & Reputations
Emma sees her teacher Mr. Armstrong put his arm around Liberty, and inadvertently starts a rumor that he is molesting her, while Spinner lets earwigs loose in the school cafeteria to get it closed down. 7/10
* Friday Night
Sean asks Emma on a date, but everything goes wrong when she loses her wallet. Jimmy and Spinner decide to get back at their English teacher Mrs. Kwan with a series of malicious pranks. 7/10
Paige decides to start a cheerleading squad at Degrassi, but Emma writes a newspaper editorial that calls it sexist. In the meantime, J.T. and Toby think they have won a million dollars. 6/10
The students prepare their contributions for the talent show. Toby fills in for an injured Manny in Emma's interpretive dance about endangered panthers, while Paige crashes Terri and Ashley's act and then changes it completely. 5/10
* Under Pressure
Emma learns that Sean has anger management problems, when his failures at exam time have him picking a fight with Jimmy. Spinner, also having problems with his tests, tries to intentionally catch the flu. 8/10
* Jagged Little Pill
Ashley and Toby have a party at the end of the school year. J.T brings a dose of ecstasy, but Sean switches it with aspirin and gives it to Ashley to throw away. Instead, she takes it, and cheats on Jimmy with Sean, destroying their relationship. 9/10
Nowhere is it more apparent that we're living in a post-Beverly Hills, 90210 world than with Degrassi: The Next Generation. Ironically, the American show that was so heavily influenced by Degrassi Junior High when it originally premiered, Beverly Hills, 90210 has used its polished paradigm to rewrite teen TV history, serving as a basis for everything from My So Called Life to Felicity to The OC. While Degrassi: The Next Generation attempts to bring the trend back to the harsh realism that marked the original, innovative series, it simply can't escape the characteristics that now define the genre, and must compromise between soap opera dramatics and socially relevant messages.
Unlike most of its American counterparts, which focus on a group of five or six friends, Degrassi: The Next Generation's biggest strength is in its satisfying, rich milieu of characters. In the earliest episodes, it's easy to write off some seemingly peripheral characters as common stereotypes -- the troubled loner, bully, class clown or boy-crazy girl -- but as the series smartly bounces around to different peer groups within Degrassi, it manages to explore each character's personality and issues with surprising depth. Sean (who ably fills a role reminiscent of Neil Hope's Wheels from the original) is first introduced as an occasional outsider and a potential heartthrob for Emma, but by the series' end, he's one of the strongest characters on the show, an underprivileged loner who is racked by anger, but still stands up for others, and even looks after J.T. and Toby by appropriating their ecstasy. It's these nuances that give the show a sense of reality and depth, since even in episodes when a character is relegated to the background (as often happens), they remain far more than just a nameless extra to the viewer.
With so many well-developed characters, the show is not afraid to dish out levels of tragedy usually reserved for one-episode guest stars. In this way, Degrassi: The Next Generation is also far more realistic -- often brutally so -- than any other series, including purported "alternative" teen programming like My So Called Life and Freaks and Geeks. For once, the kids are not only played by real teenagers, but they manage to act like it -- there are no hyper-aware conversations or simplistic sermons that talk down to the tween audience here. Like its predecessor, the show almost always centers on a Degrassi student making a bad choice -- as teens often do -- and paying the consequences for it. Happy endings are an extreme rarity, though, and if the show expects its young audience to pick up any sort of lesson, it's by showing them the bitter consequences of poor decision-making. The show efficiently tackles each issue in two different ways -- through an intensely sober main plot and a more casual, humorous subplot. Sometimes this works, like in "Rumors & Reputations," which shows the destructive effects of rumors both accidental and intentional, but sometimes it doesn't gel quite so well, as in "Secrets & Lies," which drops the ball on a sensitive story about a gay father finally coming out to his daughter with a silly subplot about J.T. using shameless homosexual mannerisms to scare off a girl that likes him.
Unfortunately, a large cast and semi-bleak plotlines are the very same qualities that buoyed the first generation of Degrassi, so if there's anything to complain about with the show, it's that it's too derivative of the original, without adopting the gritty qualities that made it so memorable. The show does hit on a few new issues, including cyber-stalking and school shootings, but for the most part things have remained the same -- the exact same, in fact. Episodes devoted to such topics as new stepbrothers and sisters learning to come together as a family, buying condoms, and the destructive effects of drugs are ripped straight out of the Degrassi playbook, and handled almost precisely the same as in the first series. But what's most disappointing is the show's visual style, which eschews Degrassi Junior High's stark, almost cinema vérité style for slickly produced graphics and dynamic camera work that fails to distinguish it from the average prime-time network show. Also following Beverly Hills, 90210's lead, the zits-and-all cast members of the original show are replaced here by a much more camera-friendly ensemble. In short, Degrassi: The Next Generation just doesn't feel as authentic as the original, but in a schedule crawling with teen-aimed competition, that shouldn't be entirely surprising.
The complete first season of Degrassi: The Next Generation is presented in an adequate full frame transfer. While a little grain keeps it from being as pristine as it could be, it looks pretty much exactly the same as you see on broadcast TV -- no better and no worse. Sound is also up to par, but nothing special, with few incidents of panning effects to take advantage of the 2.0 stereo track. Where the set does excel is in the extras, and there here is plenty to keep the most devoted Degrassi fan busy. Beyond text-based cast bios, stills, and trailers, there are dozens of deleted scenes and bloopers. Most of the deleted scenes are really just extensions, and aren't really that notable, but there's some fun stuff in the blooper reel for those that have the patience to sit through them all. In truth, however, I would have preferred these to have been included alongside the shows they came from, so they could easily be watched after viewing the episodes while the context was still fresh. There's also Degrassi karaoke, which allows kids to sing along with the show's mildly grating theme, and audition tapes from many of the leads in the show, which is interesting only because it has some actors trying out for different parts than they actually play on the show. There's even a locker calendar for the 2004-2005 school year, which leaves no doubt that Funimation had Degrassi's tween fans clearly in mind when they compiled this release.
In its first season, Degrassi: The Next Generation had yet to emerge from the shadow of its earlier incarnation to become the success it is today. With clearly evident growing pains and too much reliance on what made the first series an offbeat hit, the show was still another year or so away from really coming of age itself, and developing the cult following that it enjoys today. Still, it's really that young audience that Degrassi: The Next Generation: Season One is for, and they will definitely find a lot to like about this DVD release.
As a pleasure, they don't come much guiltier than Degrassi: The Next Generation.
Review content copyright © 2005 Paul Corupe; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 330 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Degrassi Karaoke
* Degrassi Photo Album
* Character Descriptions and Cast Biographies
* Deleted Scenes
* Oops and Bloopers
* Audition Tapes
* Locker Calendar