Touring Degrassi: an exclusive peak at the new set

STEPHANIE McGRATH

, Last Updated: 5:34 PM ET

TORONTO -- In the middle of an industrial park in North York, Ont., an alternate teen universe is being born.

In about three weeks, a red brick shell of a building will be transformed into a buzzing school, complete with lockers, gymnasium and cafeteria, and a miniature street lined with the facades of brick houses that look like any house in any suburb (except for the fact that they're supported by small wooden beams hidden in the back) will welcome the new, young cast of "Degrassi: The Next Generation".

Shooting on the series begins July 3, which means the construction crew have many long hours of work ahead of them.

Some rooms are more intact than others. Lockers line one wall, which will eventually become the Degrassi school corridor once numerous step ladders are moved, sawdust swept, and walls finished and painted.

Across the enormous studio sits the show's variety-store set, and just across from that, one of the teen character's homes is being created. Standing in the "house", you could convince yourself it was the real thing, if not for the few illusions you notice up close: staircases lead to nothingness and basement doors that hide the fact there's no basement behind them.

Beside a set that will very shortly become a classroom sits a small structure that sports a black curtain, and a paper sign taped to the wall that reads: "Change room, please knock" - just another reminder that although the "Degrassi" universe will look very real on your TV in October, it's really a world of support beams and doors that only take you to the next set.

But for the show's writers, Yan Moore, also the creative consultant who worked on the original "Degrassi" and Aaron Martin, also a story editor, the quickly expanding set is only reinforcing a world they've been creating in their minds, on paper and in auditions. Walking through the studio, Martin and Moore are visibly excited about "Degrassi". They point at various sets and explain who will live in that room, and then walk over to a underdeveloped corner strewn with sawdust and small bits of wood to demonstrate where the students will hang out together.

To them, very soon, the set will be a real place, where real issues and real teens will evolve.

When Canadian teens tune in to "Degrassi: The Next Generation" this October, they're more likely to see actors who resemble their lab partner than the Holmes, Jacksons, and Van Der Beeks that people "Dawson's Creek".

"'Dawson's Creek' is very soapy show, whereas ours is more issue-oriented," explains Moore. "They're going to see much more real kids. Remember the first season of 'Dawson's Creek'? Where they were all saying, 'I may be 15', but in fact they were 18, 19, 20? But our kids are within a couple years of the characters they're playing."

Adds Martin, "I think 'Degrassi' is more of a reflection of what it's like to be a teen than shows like "Dawson's Creek", which have their place and everything, but you know, the kids on 'Dawson's Creek' speak like they're PhD students compared to what normal kids speak".

In preparation for the new series, Moore and Martin have talked to teens, watched lots of TV, and read reams of magazines and newspapers, but each says the core issues that affected the teens who tuned in regularly to watch the exploits of Snake, Caitlin, and Joey Jeremiah on the first "Degrassi" in the '80s remain pretty much the same as the viewers who will see a whole new set of "Degrassi" characters evolve this year.

"We're dealing with split parents, parents with flaws (alcoholism), rumours, peer pressure, family life, dealing with siblings, dealing with friends, romance -- yes," says Moore. "Of course. Always".

Yan and Martin are reluctant to give away any major plot secrets, but they do say they're planning to stay far, far away from stereotypical teen characters.

"One person's geek is another person's love god," says Moore, who admits to having a soft spot for the "nerd" because of his own nerdy past. "We're trying to make them three-dimensional."

That's not to say that every "Degrassi" student will be loveable just because they have a back story. One character in particular is "anal to beat the band," says Moore, while another is "awfully close to a bitch".

"(It's) one of our favourites," says Martin lovingly about the less-than-pleasant character.

Both Moore and Martin say they love to create characters who will never win the Miss Congeniality title at school.

Says Moore, "You get in touch with ..."

"Your inner evil", finishes Martin. "Cheap therapy".

Moore quickly comes to the character's defence, explaining there is a reason for her madness: her poor relationship with her mother.

With all the new teen magazines, countless teen TV shows, and Freddie Prinze Jr. movies flooding the young market, will the target audience be too burnt out on their own generation to support a new show -- even one that sports nasty characters with troubled pasts, on-again/off-again romances, and heavy family problems?

Martin thinks "Degrassi" could actually be an oasis of true teen experience in the middle of a wasteland littered with impossibly pretty "TV teens".

"I think what's happening is that the teen genre has gotten to a point that it's regurgitating the same thing over and over again, and I think that's why in some ways 'Degrassi' is a good antidote for that, because it's not the typical teen show that's been out for the last 10 years," he says. "Kevin Williamson's ('Dawson's Creek') kind of stuff, which was really cool when it first came out, has become a bit played out, and I think teens are seeing through that now, so it's good for 'Degrassi' to come at this point."

"Degrassi" is obviously more than just a day job for the two writers.

"I hope it actually does talk to the kids," says Moore, "actually does communicate. Hopefully it will affect kids lives the way the previous one did. The previous one is still alive on the air. It would be nice to keep on talking to kids like that."

Take a virtual tour of the "Degrassi" set with our exclusive photo gallery HERE.


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