Also, They Have Free Health Care

You've got to search for this Canadian high--but you'll be glad you did

Degrassi: The Next Generation
The N
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In 2005, network TV reeked like a neglected brick of dill Havarti. Like the twitching anal glands of Paris Hilton's pet kinkajou. Like an economy-size bottle of Shania, the only holiday fragrance that automatically pitch-shifts the wearer's voice. The damning evidence: Quality shows like Judging Amy, Joan of Arcadia, and Arrested Development were quietly liberated from their time slots, while Extreme Makeover: Home Edition soared in the ratings, prompting random shouts of "Move that bus!" from would-be Ty Penningtons. (How does Ty manage to grip that bullhorn with all that Man Tan on his charity-calloused palms? And where can I sign up to adopt 12 legless orphans and score a sweet-ass Jacuzzi as consolation prize?)

With the exception of engaging TiVo-candy like Lost, Housewives, and Grey's Anatomy, the Big Three, the WB, and Fox have largely failed us. (I'm willing to grant UPN a pardon because I love Veronica Mars and PLEASE BUY MY PILOT, I NEED GOLD TEETH.)

So what's a disappointed viewer to do when the networks fail to deliver? Look to the north, my child. Seriously. The best show on TV right now is, believe it or not, an earnest soap about teenage Canucks. Sure, it airs on "The N," an American cable channel located in three-digit Siberia on your Comcast box, but this show is as unabashedly Canadian as Strange Brew. In fact, next season's episodes are already airing in the land of gravy-slaked Francophones, and according to our northern neighbors, the new eps are as bold, candid, and insanely entertaining as fans have come to expect. I speak, of course, of Degrassi: The Next Generation, a.k.a. Viewable Crack.

Confession: I've been obsessed with the Degrassi universe since the '80s, when Degrassi Junior High and its near-identical spinoff Degrassi High aired on my local PBS affiliate. As a kid reared on glossy American shows, I remember being astonished by how real the pubescent actors looked. They had acne, baby fat, botched perms, and ill-fitting clothes. The female characters towered awkwardly over their pipsqueak male counterparts, just like at my junior high.

Most shockingly, the consequences of the kids' actions didn't vaporize at episode's end. Spike (Amanda Stepto), a moody eighth-grader with stratospheric hair, got pregnant, gave birth, and over the course of the series, raised her daughter while enduring a starkly realistic level of hardship. Young Caitlin (Stacey Mistysyn) questioned her sexuality when she began fantasizing about a female teacher. (Imagine that happening on Saved by the Bell.) Abortions were had. Joints were puffed. Students were epileptic, bulimic, wheelchair-bound. Characters ran away from home and never returned. There were no conciliatory hugs, no "very special lessons" to be learned--just ambiguous transitions that never seemed explicitly right or wrong. Best of all, the school rock band (appropriately called "The Zits") was really, really bad. If that's not groundbreaking naturalism, I don't know what is.

Degrassi: The Next Generation (henceforth referred to as DTNG) is every bit as thrilling and disarmingly fresh as its '80s precursor. It's the kind of show that tends to provoke derisive snickers from first-time viewers, followed by sheepish inquiries as to when the next episode airs. The original concept for DTNG was, admittedly, geared toward the Degrassi faithful: What happens when Spike's "baby" Emma (Miriam McDonald) faces adolescence and its attendant perils? Amanda Stepto stepped up to play the now-adult Spike, and, in an admirable display of continuity, other original cast members (including the eerily ageless Mistysyn) returned to reprise their roles. It was every Degrassi freak's ultimate fantasy fan-wank, and the show was an immediate critical hit in both Canada and the States.

DTNG, now in its fifth season, still prominently features Emma's clan, but the show has become a true ensemble. Like the original series, the actors look like they've been plucked from an actual school, rather than a casting agent's lineup. And true to its gritty roots, DTNG doesn't shrink from controversy: In Season 3, bubbly cheerleader Manny Sanchez (Cassie Steele) had an abortion at the age of 14. Later, sweet-faced Emma suffered a bout of gonorrhea. A school shooting rocked the halls of Degrassi in Season 4 and resulted in a main character becoming permanently paralyzed. Recently, class clown J.T. (Ryan Cooley) accidentally impregnated the student council president, then tried to overdose on stolen OxyContin.

Sure, it's melodramatic, but it's still a more faithful reflection of modern teenage life than, say, The O.C. Plus, the writing crackles, the actors are charmingly unspoiled, and the adult characters are as fallible and tortured as they were back in 1987. (The keyboardist for the defunct Zits is now a bald used-car salesman, and the bassist is a bald high school teacher. Brilliant.)

DTNG has attracted some high-profile American fans, including Entertainment Weekly (which ran an effusive guide to the show) and director Kevin Smith, whose longtime Degrassi fixation culminated in an actual acting stint on the series. The show deserves every accolade it's garnered; DTNG is truly addictive popcorn TV, best enjoyed in five-episode blocks on a lazy afternoon. Be sure to grab a pillow to cushion your jaw when it drops--as The N's promos like to claim, DTNG repeatedly "goes there."

Shock value aside, where else are you going to hear those awesome accents? (Canadians make Minnesotans sound normal by comparison.) Shrug off the crushing disappointment of last year's network lineups and resolve to adopt a Degrassi habit in 2006, eh?

 
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