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Saturday, March 30, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Television

'Degrassi' back in a new generation

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Raging hormones, bristling pheromones and just plain moaning are par for the bumpy adolescent course. These are the more glamorous aspects of adolescence; what about that, you know, other stuff? Things whispered about in bathroom stalls and harbored behind closed bedroom doors?

More than a decade ago, parents who wanted a clue could turn on PBS and tag along with the characters of "Degrassi Junior High." Kids did so in droves, vicariously worrying as the multiracial, economically diverse boys and girls dealt with standard-issue teen trials such as peer pressure, honesty, and responsibility — and pregnancy, drug use, alcoholism and molestation.

Keep in mind, these things happened to seventh and eighth graders, as they do in actual life. Therein was the low-budget series' greatest strength; "Degrassi" felt real enough to keep thousands of middle and high schoolers, as well as college students and twentysomethings, captivated. The Toronto filmed "Degrassi Junior High" and the subsequent "Degrassi High" aired from 1986 through 1991; in the course of its run, the mythical junior high's building burned down, and the high school simply closed.

Still, there is some justice in the world. A few of the key Degrassi players are back on familiar turf, this time on cable channel Noggin, in the new series "Degrassi: The Next Generation," premiering at 9 p.m. Monday.

"Degrassi's" star goofball, Joey Jeremiah, reappears on a reunion episode. So does Spike (Amanda Stepto), the peroxide-haired punk girl. Spike's daughter Emma — an infant in the original show — is a 12-year-old seventh grader (Miriam McDonald) at the renovated Degrassi Community School. Finally, following in the dubious tradition of "student returning as teacher" mapped out by "Saved By the Bell's" Screech, Joey's pal Snake (Stefan Brogren ) is all grown up and teaching Emma's class as Mr. Simpson.

Still, things have changed since Snake, Joey and Wheels buddied up in homeroom, an evolution that results in "The Next Generation's" main drawback — sugary political correctness. The original series' charm lay in its rough unpredictability.

No doubt parents will be happy to simply see difficult messages delivered plainly to children, as in the second episode where the pretty, popular eighth-grader Ashley (Melissa McIntyre) seriously considers having sex with Jimmy (Aubrey Graham), her boyfriend of eight months. Initially bending to the whims of pals and enemies, the pair decide they're not ready. They then proceed to have a balloon fight with the condoms bought for the occasion, as if to remind the viewer that yes, these are still just kids.

Point of fact: "Saved By the Bell," a Saturday-morning comedy that premiered on NBC in 1989, owes its existence to "Degrassi's" success.

Had PBS not seen such a huge response to the series and its teen dilemmas, would "Saved's" Screech be the punch line he is today? Doubtful.

It's hardly shocking, then, that "Degrassi: The Next Generation" is already a hit in Canada, where it debuted in October 2001.

Here, the show's fate is not so certain. As popular as "Degrassi" was, it was still a mere cult hit in the United States; the crowd that had access to it initially on PBS might not be able to tune into Noggin.

Soft-pedaling through the issues might work for today's family of viewers, but what's gentle enough for Mom and Dad's peace of mind might not be enough to hook Junior or the original "Degrassi's" older fans.

Still, "The Next Generation" is a pleasant return to those hallowed TV halls, and the right size for the tweens Britney's outgrown.

Just be happy Noggin chose Degrassi students to navigate teen perils instead of digging up Screech and the gang for another nauseating go-round.

Melanie McFarland can be reached at mmcfarland@seattletimes.com.

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