Beyond the scenes
Father-daughter trek to a TV show's setting develops into a peace mission
Teen drama. We have a lot of it in our house.
Given all the fussing and fuming, door-slamming, name-calling, and general moodiness that goes on these days, it's sometimes hard to imagine my daughter, Emma, 14, and I doing anything together - other than fighting.
So it's funny that a teen drama, this one televised, opened a door into my daughter's world for me and launched us on a journey of discovery about ourselves and this fabulous city.
"Degrassi: The Next Generation," now in its eighth season, is the latest installment in a long-running series of youth-oriented TV shows, all based and filmed in Toronto. It is also Emma's absolute favorite show; her laptop is loaded with episodes purchased at the iTunes store, and she has watched several of them many times over.
When I proposed that the two of us take a trip together, there was no hesitation on her part as to our destination. We were off to Toronto in search of any and all things "Degrassi."
During our three-hour flight, I watched several episodes of the show in a cram course Emma designed. I quickly discovered that key characters such as Mia, Clare, Peter, and Sav are typical high school students, only better looking and beset by an endless series of character-building crises torn from today's headlines.
At dinner that night in the stylish Annona restaurant at the Park Hyatt Toronto, our home away from home, Emma regaled me with background information about her favorite characters. Absent sarcasm and raised voices, it was easily the longest conversation we'd had in months.
There aren't many tourist stops around town related to "Degrassi," because the show is shot at the Epitome Pictures studio complex about 10 miles from the city center. The studio is closed to the public, but we arranged to meet the show's executive producer, Stephen Stohn, for a tour and an interview. I wanted to understand how this show had gotten such a hold on Emma.
"Our rule has always been never to have a scene with just adults. It's always about the kids," said Stohn, an entertainment lawyer and president of Epitome Pictures. He is married to Linda Schuyler, who created the "Degrassi" franchise back in the 1970s with its first show, "The Kids of Degrassi Street." "Our message is that you have the power to make choices. But there are also consequences. We've never tried to say there is a right choice or a wrong choice."
Stohn was a gracious host and guided us through the studio complex with stops at several familiar sets, including the entrance to the Degrassi Community School. Emma was agog and aglow.
Schuyler and Stohn clearly are on to something. Their current show is the highest-rated on The N cable network, and it has received a shelf-full of accolades. "It's nice to have ratings and awards, but the e-mails we receive about kids and parents talking together about things in the show really mean more," Stohn said.
We kept that positive vibe alive on our cab ride back to the hotel. (I did, however, slip into my all-too-familiar role of embarrassment enabler by speaking too freely with the driver.) That afternoon, Emma had an appointment at the uber-hip Vikaspa down the street from our hotel. She emerged 2 1/2 hours later buffed by a facial and relaxed by a full-body massage. When I suggested a little shopping, we were happily still speaking the same language.
The elegant Park Hyatt sits at a city crossroads. To the right is the funky, student-oriented area surrounding the University of Toronto. To the left is the trendy shopping district surrounding Yorkville Avenue. There was little question which way we were headed.
Over the Rainbow claims to have sold more than half a million pairs of jeans in its 32 years in business. On this Saturday afternoon, the Yorkville Avenue store was mobbed with teenagers eager to add to that total. Never satisfied with the obvious, Emma found a sweater that was a must-have. Fortunately, that day the US dollar was trumping its Canadian cousin. As Emma browsed, I tried to tamp down the cynical notion that we get along best when the credit cards are hot.
Other shopping stops around Yorkville included trendy clothiers such as Uncle Otis, UPC Boutique, and Accessity. Along the way, we also managed to pick up some items for the folks back home.
Hunger halted the spending spree, and we popped into the popular Trattoria Nervosa for some pizza and pasta. My supersensitive teen was uncomfortable with the proximity of neighboring tables, but we persevered. Then it was back to the Park Hyatt to raid the hotel room's mini-bar for snacks and sodas into the wee hours. We even talked a bit about boys - the real ones, not the TV kind. Something seemed to be working.
Some things never change, however, and I spent much of the next morning trying to get Emma out of bed. Two room service deliveries finally did the trick. Our most enjoyable hours of this day were spent exploring the Bata Shoe Museum located on the outskirts of the university campus. This handsome museum houses some 10,000 shoes, many thousands of years old. We examined special exhibits on North American native footwear and ballet shoes. Luckily, none of the "fabulous" boots we saw there were for sale.
That evening, we had reserved a table at 360 The Restaurant at the CN Tower, close to the top of the spindly structure near Lake Ontario that is the world's tallest freestanding structure. Emma expressed big misgivings about dining 1,151 feet above the earth in a room that was rotating, however slowly. But we survived the complimentary glass elevator ride up and settled comfortably into our curved banquette to take in the truly stupendous view as the sun drifted down.
Our meal was memorable not only because my daughter branched out and tried the mushroom soup, but also because our dinner conversation touched on topics that seemed almost, dare I say it, adult! We speculated how it would be to live in Toronto, and whether the Canadians would let us in. We agreed it might be a good place for college. We both wondered exactly what was keeping the very tall tower standing.
After dinner, we went one level down to the observation deck and dared each other to stand on the thick glass in the floor and look down at the ground far below. Emma laughed when it became clear that I had the far greater fear of heights.
We were headed home the next day, but before the airport, we had one more "Degrassi"-related stop. "The Kids of Degrassi Street," the series and the franchise, got its name from a street in Toronto near where Schuyler lived when she worked as a teacher in the 1970s. Emma just had to go there and take a look around.
Our cab driver hadn't heard of it, but I found it on a map, just a few miles to the east of downtown. Degrassi Street wouldn't look out of place in Boston, with its Victorian row houses and a small park across the way. We found a street sign in a good location and the cabbie pulled over so I could take Emma's picture, gazing up at it. The Toronto Historical Association says the Degrassi Street signs are the most frequently stolen in the city. Apparently, there are a lot of fans out there.
A few hours later, as our plane reached its cruising altitude, Emma was about to plug in her earbuds, listen to some music, and settle back into her own world. But before she did, she shot me a sideways smile and said, "Hey, Dad, good talkin' with ya."
Thanks, "Degrassi." Thanks, Toronto.
Doug Warren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.