They want kids to want to turn this on. PBS's `Degrassi Junior High' treats teen themes honestly

To prove male superiority, the boys' soccer team challenges the girls' swim team to a relay race in the pool. But Melanie, one of the top swimmers, has been mercilessly teased about wearing her first bra and at first refuses to participate. Meanwhile, Arthur and Yick, two undersize seventh graders, can't understand why one of their classmates is a foot taller than they are. It must be what he eats, they deduce, and so lay a plan to spy out and follow his diet.

Sound like the authentic stuff of junior high school life?

The producers of a new public television series titled ``Degrassi Junior High'' hope so. The show, which premi`eres Sept. 19 (check local listings), will be the first TV offering aimed directly at preteen and early teen-age viewers, says executive producer Kate Taylor.

Segments like ``The Great Race,'' briefly outlined above, try to tackle such perennial early-teen topics as peer pressure, coming of age, sexual awareness, drinking, self-consciousness. A lot of thought and research went into the choice of subject matter for the 13 segments already completed and those in the planning stage, Ms. Taylor says. And an equal amount of effort has gone into approaching those subjects in a way that will make a young audience think, but will avoid finger-wagging or preaching.

The active involvement of the show's youthful cast has been crucial in this regard. All are members of the Toronto-based Playing With Time repertory company run by Linda Schuyler, co-executive producer of the series. The kids, some 50 young actors of various ethnic backgrounds from the Toronto area, take part in a ``read-through'' of each script before it goes into production. ``They might say, `That joke is terrible,' or `I don't think Voula would react that way,''' says Taylor, who travels from Boston to Toronto every other week to join in these sessions and other production tasks.

The quality of that production, judging from a tape of ``The Great Race'' (incidentally, the girls won), is high. The school atmosphere and the kids' manner will likely revive memories of junior high for parents, as well as ring contemporary bells for younger viewers. The show, like the middle-school mentality itself, weaves together adult themes, adolescent anxiety, and a dose of childhood innocence.

The acting isn't always smooth, the humor not always perfectly timed - but somehow this seems appropriate.

``Degrassi Junior High'' strives very hard to be topical, with episodes that touch on teen pregnancy, child abuse, drug use, and homosexuality, for instance.

``What we're hoping for is authenticity, sensitivity, and entertainment,'' says Taylor.

Take, for example, the episode when Stephanie, the super-image-conscious class president, feels compelled to show her friends she can drink. The drunkenness that results is shown ``in its full bloom,'' says Taylor. ``But we're not trying to say, it's OK or it's not OK to drink. What we did feel like saying was, `Drinking can be dangerous, and you can really be sorry if you overdo it.' ''

Have Taylor and company received any complaints from adults who think Degrassi Junior High deals too explicitly with topics like alcohol abuse or sexuality?

``So far we have not,'' says Taylor, explaining that the show's first 13 episodes have already run in Canada and have been shown to a number of test audiences in the United States. A number of groups that serve young teens have endorsed the show, among them: the National Middle School Assocation, the National Education Association, and the American Association of School Administrators.

Taylor and her associates at WGBH, Boston, are coordinating a nationwide campaign to promote the show by alerting adults who work with junior high-aged kids. Classroom packages are being prepared for teachers of social studies, English, and other disciplines who might use the program as a basis for discussion or composition.

Community-based promotions - such as running an episode of ``Degrassi Junior High'' as a short subject in a local theater - are being staged by PBS affiliates. The central challenge, says Taylor, is to win for public television an audience - young teens - that it's never had.

Her hope is that the promotional drive, plus the early evening time slot the show is being given in most areas, will help draw the interest of that age group.

``We want kids to want to turn this on,'' she says.

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