High school traumas on television typically involve botched dates and crushes, but few shows delve into weighty situations about teenagers and sexuality.
The 90-minute season premiere of the popular show Degrassi: The Next Generation, airing from 8 to 9:30 p.m. Friday on the Noggin network will do that by looking at the subject of date rape. On Noggin, which is available on digital cable and satellite TV, Degrassi is part of a 12-hour block of programming geared toward teen and 'tween viewers. Called the N, the block begins at 6 every night.
Degrassi follows ninth-grader Paige, played by Lauren Collins, and her friends through their lives in and out of school.
For Paige, life is grand. She's captain of the cheerleading squad, she fronts a sassy band called PMS, and there's Dean, the dreamy older athlete who invites Paige to a high school party.
Degrassi has been understanding the complications and pressures of teenage life since the series began as Degrassi Junior High in Canada in 1986. The date-rape episode focuses on the not-so-innocuous party with alcohol and sex and the horrific results when casual flirting goes too far.
"At first, I don't think (Paige) thinks she's been raped," said Collins, 16, from her home outside Toronto. "She really genuinely feels that it was her fault. She went upstairs with him, and even though she said "no,' she was really the one that initiated what happened.
"I think that's probably happened in so many cases, so I think that it's so great that they went about it that way because these girls . . . they really think it's their fault. I think the initial realization that, "Okay, wait a second. Maybe this wasn't my fault' is really the biggest step."
The show delves into the emotional complexities that follow Paige's rape. It also questions the role of the law and of friends, portraying their varying reactions to the situation, from anger to empathy, and provides realistic answers.
"You would tell your best friend over an adult or a teacher," Collins said. "Your best friend is who you tell everything to, so I think that it made the most sense for Hazel (Paige's best friend) to be the one to get it out of her . . . to be the driving force, what gets her to finally tell someone."
After seeking help from a friend, Paige feels emboldened to seek professional help. Collins said the lesson is that "you can't keep these things to yourself. They won't go away."
Apart from the rape, the episode also includes the story of Marco, who begins to identify himself as gay. Other story lines involve best friends (and locker-mates) who quibble over personal habits and must learn to respect each other.
With all the issues raised, parents will likely have their own questions. The network anticipated this, planning a guide for parents that includes discussion questions to share with their teens. Check the Web site www.the-n.com.
"I think it's important that the parents understand these are the things that come up at school," Collins said. "So, if they're coming up in real life, why not expose the kids to it through television and give them ways to deal with it?"