Bell rings at Degrassi

JIM SLOTEK

, Last Updated: 5:34 PM ET

The ghost of TV's Riverdale haunts a kittycorner of Scarborough. There you'll find a pleasant cul de sac of solidly built fake houses, a variety store and a "Degrassi St." sign.

Fans of the defunct Canadian soap -- and they are out there -- will be able to recognize the street when Degrassi: The Next Generation hits CTV on Oct. 14.

Recycling being a virtue, Epitome Pictures decided to let the "street" stand, adjacent as it is to the impressive, lifesize Degrassi Community School they built on their own studio lot.

"It cost a lot of money," says Degrassi and Riverdale creator Linda Schuyler, as we move from the "gym" to the main hallway and principal's office. "But it would have cost a lot of money to convert an existing school, and there'd be no guarantee we'd have it next year."

So it is that one of the best looking, best-equipped schools in the city has no actual students.

Of course, you wouldn't know it from the teenage traffic in the halls. As director Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo) preps the next scene, Jake Goldsbie. who plays Toby. holds a can of Silly String and his eyes glint. "Guys... guys... no!" says a floor director, sensing unprofessional activity in the air.

McDonald leans over and whispers something to Jake, who immediately fires a blast of Silly String into the floor director's face. "That was Bruce's idea!" he immediately says, pointing a finger for emphasis.

It was indeed. The idea of having kids run amok with Silly String was one of those McDonald touches not included in the script.

"It was one of those little touches to, y'know, fill in the space, give the scene some life, give it some jump," says McDonald, who is directing several episodes of the new series, including the one-hour Reunion Special on Oct. 14 that uses the old cast (Joey, Caitlin, Snake et al) as a springboard to introduce the new.

That episode also features Don McKellar as a sleazy L.A. producer (a role that originally was to go to avid Degrassi fan Kevin Smith before schedule conflicts dragged him away -- "It's too bad. He really wanted to meet Caitlin," McDonald says wryly of fellow director Smith).

The original series ran on CBC from 1979-91 under the titles The Kids Of Degrassi Street, Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High. It officially ended with a made-for-TV movie, School's Out, in 1992.

McDonald is the greybeard of a roster of new Degrassi directors that includes acclaimed youngsters Paul Fox and Laurie Lynd (Cinderella And Me). But age is only skin deep.

"There was one time we were ready to call action on a scene," Schuyler says, "and we couldn't find Bruce. It turned out he'd grabbed one of the kids' bikes and was gone for a spin."

In the episode shooting this week, Emma (Miriam McDonald), the daughter of original series character Spike, ends up wearing drawstring pants in school after having an "accident" from her first period, while Jimmy and Ashley, the school couple, seem headed for the rocks -- with Ashley planning to break up with Jimmy on his birthday.

They're tiny teen traumas of the kind that made the original series so popular. And all involved are hoping that viewers are hoping the new generation of kids will be given some slack (only Stefan Brogren as Snake and Amanda Stepto as Spike are back permanently, and then only on the sidelines).

"I was amazed at the rabid fandom that Degrassi had," said McDonald, who has never even seen a whole episode of the original Degrassi series. "I'd be at a party or a bar and say, 'Oh yeah, I'm doing this Degrassi thing.' And it would be, 'Oh my God!' They'd freak out.

"But nostalgia isn't necessarily the best reason to do this. I'm prepared for a backlash by Degrassi standardbearers, who'll say, 'How come it's not the same as the old one?' --'Um, 'cause it's 10 years later?' "


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