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Friday, March 02, 2012

Behind The Music - Degrassi's Zit Remedy

Have you ever seen the show “Behind The Music”?

It’s a show that examines a singer or a band in great detail, from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.  The show pieces together clips of past performances, music videos, interviews, and talk show appearances, and within an hour long program, we viewers get a better sense of what life was like for these musical artists.

In most cases, we see the artists or bands making it bit, having small setbacks along the way, and still are thriving in the music business.  There’s some who walked away from the music business entirely, but still managed to make a decent living doing something else.  On the flipside, some music stars get so caught up in the fame and excess that can come from the music business that they end up getting hurt or worse.

Today, I thought that I would take a page out of the ‘Behind The Music’ manual and come up with my own ‘Behind The Music’ style homage to a fictional television band.  This band delighted thousands of Canadian fans for a brief period in the late 1980s, and over the course of the next couple of decades managed to achieve worldwide success.

Which was an amazing feat considering that they only had the one song that never charted on any major hit lists.

I think we should meet this band, but before we do, let’s find out what show they appeared on first.

Degrassi Junior High debuted on January 18, 1987 on CBC, and ran until 1989.  Later in 1989, the show became Degrassi High, and ran until 1991, with a reunion movie airing a year later.  In 2001, the Degrassi series was reborn under the name “Degrassi: The Next Generation”, and it is a show that is still going strong, currently in its eleventh season.

And, as it so happens, the three characters that are being featured in this blog entry have appeared in every incarnation of the Degrassi series, and they were three characters who really came full circle.

This blog happens to be all about the fictional band, The Zit Remedy (later known as The Zits).

The Zit Remedy was formed in late 1987 by three students of Degrassi Junior High School’s Grade 8 class.  From left to right, you have Derek “Wheels” Wheeler (Neil Hope), Joey Jeremiah (Pat Mastroianni), and Archie “Snake” Simpson (Stefan Brogren). 

As Mastroianni and Brogren explained on the talk show ‘Jonovision’, at the time they filmed Degrassi, none of them knew how to play any instruments, but they were taught basic chords which lead to their one and only song creation, “Everybody Wants Something”.  You can watch a clip of this song below.

At any rate, the music storyline was just one of the many storylines that the three boys were a part of.  And, while most of the storylines for the Zit Remedy were triple acts, each boy had his own set of trials and tribulations, which added to the drama that Degrassi Junior High was known for.

When the Zit Remedy first started, as stated, Snake, Joey, and Wheels were in grade eight together.  Joey and Wheels had been friends since elementary school, and Snake befriended the two of them sometime in junior high.  Most of the show storylines during the first year of Degrassi Junior High involved the Zit Remedy practicing in the school gym, and getting into all sorts of mischief.  But, each member had their own individual plots.  Snake didn’t really have a whole lot to do that first year, except the Zit Remedy storyline.  Joey was the target of bullies, was used by Stephanie Kaye, and he also attempted to get together with goth girl, Liz, with terrible results.  As for Wheels, he learned that he was adopted, and after a talk with his friend Spike, he decided to try and get to know his birth father.

The first setback the band ended up facing though had to do with Joey.  Joey’s final marks in eighth grade were terrible, and Mr. Raditch, the teacher who taught eighth grade at Degrassi, recommended that Joey repeat the eighth grade.  With Snake and Wheels going off to high school, Joey would be left behind at Degrassi, and the Zit Remedy would be finished.  Joey was so distraught that he wasn’t even going to show up at the Grade 8 graduation dance where The Zit Remedy would be playing.

Fortunately, a twist caused The Zit Remedy to stay together.  Due to overcrowding in Toronto area high schools at the time, Degrassi Junior High added a ninth grade to its curriculum.  The students would have to take science classes at nearby Borden High, but for the rest of their Grade 9 year, they would be at Degrassi.

So, Snake, Joey, and Wheels were together again.  Although Joey was stuck in eighth grade again, he made the best of it, mainly due to his crush on 8th grade student Caitlin Ryan.  Snake also seemed to do well in 9th grade.  He began dating 8th grader Melanie Brodie, and he managed to do very well in school.  He did have to deal with the fact that his older brother had recently come out of the closet in between, but I think he handled it the best way he could.

It was Wheels though who would have the toughest time of it all that year.  The 1988/89 school year was supposed to have been a happy time for Wheels and The Zit Remedy.  They had such a positive reaction at the Degrassi graduation  dance with their song that they decided to record a tape of their music, selling their album to every student at Degrassi.  It was supposed to have been a good time for the band.

But then something happened that changed Wheels’ life forever.  Shortly after starting his grade nine year, Wheels’ parents were killed by a drunk driver.  Having to move in with his grandparents was bad enough, but when Wheels grew unhappy with living here, he hitchhiked across Ontario in search of his biological father, hoping that he could live with him instead.  The whole search was a futile effort though, as his birth father rejected him.  Eventually, Wheels was convinced by his grandmother to return back home, and with the support of Joey and Snake, Wheels ended up finishing ninth grade along with Snake.

Again, there was a worry of The Zit Remedy breaking up again due to Snake and Wheels leaving Degrassi Junior High and Joey behind...and again, fate stepped in (this time in the form of a faulty boiler which turned Degrassi Junior High into a barbecue pit) and The Zit Remedy remained a trio, as Snake, Joey, and Wheels all ended up as students at Degrassi High the following September.

So, the 1989/1990 school year was up and running, and all three were now at Degrassi High.  One change that occurred within the band was the decision to drop the word ‘Remedy’ from their name, simply calling themselves ‘The Zits’.  The band also made a video for their single “Everybody Wants Something”, with assistance from longtime friends Lucy Fernandez and Heather Farrell (one of the twins).  The first part of Snake and Wheels’ Grade 10 year (Grade 9 for Joey) was brilliant.

But then Joey and Caitlin broke up after Caitlin fell in love with Claude (That’s Claude that sounds like load and not Claude that sounds like clod), and Joey ended up being placed in a special education class after discovering that he has a learning disability.  And then Snake ends up developing a fear of exams, actually hyperventilating at the mere mention of the word exam.  And, of course, Wheels has another fight with his grandmother, and he moves out once again.

But unlike the situation of the year before where Snake and Joey were very understanding and patient with Wheels, this time, Joey and Snake were growing tired of Wheels’ pity parties and self-centeredness.  After money began disappearing from the Jeremiah household where Wheels was staying, Mrs. Jeremiah ordered Joey to evict Wheels, which damaged their friendship for a while.  Wheels attempted to stay with Snake, but Snake made him sleep on his front porch during a rain storm after getting frustrated by him as well. 

It seemed as though The Zits were on the verge of breaking up for good.  With Snake and Joey visibly upset with Wheels, and Wheels supposedly not giving a damn, it made it hard.

By the time the 1990/91 school year began, Snake and Joey’s friendship was firmly established, and Wheels was still on the outside.  The first half of the year, we barely see Wheels at all, as the action focuses mostly on Snake and Joey.  In Joey’s case, he learns that his bully, Dwayne, is HIV positive, and he manages to keep the secret the entire year, earning Dwayne’s trust and tentative friendship.  Snake, meanwhile, has to decide whether or not to date Spike Nelson or Michelle Accette.  In the end, he chooses Michelle...but don’t think that is the last we hear about Spike.

It isn’t until a tragedy occurs at Degrassi that the frosty relationship between Wheels and the remaining Zits starts to warm.  When Snake discovers Claude’s body after he commits suicide, Wheels visits Snake in an effort to cheer him up, while Joey is preoccupied with helping Caitlin cope with the shocking event.  Later on, Joey mends his friendship with Wheels when Wheels takes Snake’s spot in the Degrassi High Talent Show.  By the end of the series, structural problems with Degrassi High cause the school to be closed, and by the end of the 1990/91 school year, we think that the Degrassi story is over.

In January 1992, the Degrassi reunion movie “School’s Out” aired, and Snake, Joey, and Wheels are all key members in the plot.  Snake has apparently broken up with Michelle, and has been single and unhappy all summer long, working as a lifeguard at a kiddy pool.  Joey has gotten back with Caitlin again, but when Caitlin does extra credit classes allowing her to graduate high school in three years, Joey feels abandoned.  He tries to ask Caitlin to marry him, but when she refuses, he embarks on an affair with Tessa Campanelli.  Eventually, Caitlin finds out about the affair, and the two break up (after Caitlin shockingly drops an F-bomb!).  Wheels, on the other hand, has become a drunk (ironic given that’s how his parents were killed), and he ends up in big trouble at the end of the movie.  After drinking and driving, he gets into a car accident, seriously injuring Lucy Fernandez (who was in the car with him at the time), and killing a small boy.  Wheels ends up going to jail for the incident, and while Joey still manages to stay in touch with him, Snake is disgusted by Wheels refusing to take responsibility at first for the accident, and he refuses to see him again.  Snake and Joey’s friendship is seriously tested during the film (as Snake was the one who accidentally informed Caitlin of Joey’s affair with Tessa), but they manage to repair their friendship.

But Snake refused to speak to Wheels for almost twelve years.  It wasn’t until the third season of the revamped series “Degrassi: The Next Generation” that the Zits would reunite one final time.

The year was 2003, and Snake had found love with his former Degrassi classmate Christine Nelson (otherwise known as Spike), and they ended up getting married and having a son together.  At the time, Spike’s teenage daughter Emma was a student at Degrassi herself, where Snake worked as a media immersions teacher.  Joey was also involved in the new Degrassi show, where his stepson, Craig Manning, was a student at Degrassi along with Emma.  Joey was also in yet another relationship with Caitlin at the time, proving that both Joey and Caitlin were gluttons for punishment.

And Wheels?  Well, we’ll get to that.

Anyway, 2003 was a very bad year for Snake.  Snake had been feeling sick for some time shortly after he married Spike.  As it turned out, Snake had been diagnosed with leukemia and was forced to undergo chemotherapy, causing his hair to fall out.  As a result, Snake was feeling very depressed about things, and Joey suggested that they go bowling to get his mind off of things.

Unfortunately for Snake, Joey had invited Wheels to tag along as well, as Wheels had been released from jail a year and a half prior.  Joey tried his best to ease the tension between Snake and Wheels, but it wasn’t easy at first.  It wasn’t until Joey leaves them for a few minutes that Snake and Wheels really begin to talk, and begin to understand each other.  Wheels admitted to Snake that he had wanted to die after killing the child and hurting Lucy (even though Lucy eventually did make an almost full recovery).  After twelve years, Snake finally finds it in his heart to forgive Wheels, and by the end of the episode, The Zits embark on their comeback tour...which granted isn’t much more than the three men singing ‘Everybody Wants Something’ loudly as Joey drives them home.  But, it was a nice moment, and as explained earlier, it was really the moment where the band came full circle.

But the reason that The Zit Remedy worked so well was because of the chemistry that all three actors had.  Brogren, Hope, and Mastroianni seemed to work well off of each other, and you could tell that the three were just as good of friends off screen as they were on screen.

But as we all know, fate can work in funny ways, and in the case of one of these men, the ending was anything but happy once the cameras stopped rolling.

Stefan Brogren is the only original cast member from Degrassi Junior High who is still on Degrassi today.  Not only does he still play the role of Snake Simpson (who is now the principal of Degrassi), but he also does a lot of behind the scenes work on the program as well.

Pat Mastroianni has taken on a bit of a lower profile since he left Degrassi: The Next Generation in 2006, but he was recently seen in the direct-to-DVD film ‘Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure’.  I imagine that to most people though, he’ll always be known as Joey Jeremiah.

Sadly, Neil Hope is no longer with us.  Reports are that he passed away in November 2007 at the age of 35.  Even more tragic is the fact that nobody even knew that he had died, not even his family or friends.  In fact, his death wasn’t officially made public in the media until February 2012!  That’s four and a half years!  I’m still shocked by this news, and am in disbelief.  But Neil Hope’s personal struggles were reportedly well documented, with him admitting that he grew up with family members who were alcoholics.  It appears as though Hope had his own demons, which for whatever reason was responsible for his tragic death.

But, although Wheels is no longer with us, his work will continue to live on through Degrassi.

Or, at the very least through a song that was performed by a trio of teeny-boppers.

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