03.01.12

Wheels Is Dead: Remembering a Canadian Childhood

Neil Hope—Wheels on the hit 1980s Canadian show Degrassi Junior High—died in 2007, but was identified only recently. Glynnis MacNicol remembers growing up with the imperfect teens of Degrassi.

Wheels from Degrassi is dead. Wheels is dead!

How to explain the significance of this to anyone who didn’t grow up in Canada?

The New York Times ran an unusual obituary Tuesday: Neil Hope, a teen actor who played Derek “Wheels” Wheeler on the popular 1980s Canadian television series Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High, died at the painfully young age of 35 … in 2007. Sad enough news on its own, but the deeper tragedy was that after his death, in an Ontario boarding house, no one showed up to claim his body. Hope, who had struggled through his short life with alcoholism, was eventually buried in a municipal grave. According to the Times, his family became aware of his death only recently.

It’s painful to imagine anyone’s life ending on such a sad, unobserved note—but doubly so when one considers how deeply Hope’s TV persona resonated with an entire generation of Canadians. 

The Degrassi series, which aired on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation from 1987 to 1991, followed a group of fictional kids who lived on Degrassi Street in Toronto (a real street, although the series was filmed elsewhere in the city). Unlike their American counterparts, Degrassi kids were not a pretty or polished group. They looked pretty much like any other group of kids at that age at that time. They looked like the kids you went to school with. And they might have been; for the most part the producers of the show cast regular kids with no acting experience.

As one of my Canadian friends put it to me when I broke the news to her, “Nobody on Degrassi was perfect. Everyone was ugly, full of embarrassing hair, zits, glasses. The girl in the wheelchair was really in the wheelchair … It was honest.”

“Nobody on Degrassi was perfect. Everyone was ugly, full of embarrassing hair, zits, glasses. The girl in the wheelchair was really in the wheelchair … It was honest.”

Wheels embodied that honesty. We all knew him. He was the kid who never failed out of class but never dazzled either. The kid who sometimes got into trouble, but never enough to make him the bad boy. The kid who hung out with the guy you wanted to date (in this case, Joey Jeremiah). The kid whose parents you never saw and who sometimes showed up to school in the same outfit a few days in a row. He was the kid you lost track of after high school.

It was the storylines that really set Degrassi apart from everything else on TV at the time, and, for that matter, almost everything since (with the possible exception of the dearly departed My So-Called Life, which always struck me as America’s answer to Degrassi).

Things happened to the Degrassi characters that actually happened in real life—and, as in real life, there were no tidy endings.

One of the enduring storylines on Degrassi Junior High was Spike’s eighth-grade pregnancy. Spike, she of the punk-rocker hair that belied a gentle personality, eventually opted to keep the baby (Emma). Some of the episodes that stand out most in my memory are the ones where Spike has to find day care so she can go back to school and keep her job at the hair salon. It didn’t look ideal.

In Degrassi High, one of the twins, Erica, also got pregnant and decided to have an abortion. Which she did! After a great deal of agonizing, to be sure, but with no moralizing and no sensationalism—perhaps unheard of today on teen shows not exclusively airing on HBO.

That was the remarkable thing about Degrassi: there was very little moralizing.  Characters did not operate under some preconceived, TV-land set of rules. The kids came from broken homes, alcoholic homes, abusive homes, wealthy homes … and great homes. They came from a range of ethnicities. Things didn’t always work out.

You can imagine, in a pre-Internet era—when the only TV version of teenagedom that teens and preteens got to see was a glossy, whitewashed depiction of a world that simply didn’t exist—how utterly irresistible it was, how enormously powerful, to see something that reasonably resembled your own life on television.

And the fact that Degrassi was set in Canada, made in Canada … well, that was like winning the lottery. Twice. 

The truth is, Canadians are an inherently insecure folk. Primarily about our so-called national identity, and specifically about what makes us different from Americans.

Underlying this anxiety, which forms the basis of all Canadian humor—and where one can trace the roots of Saturday Night Live—is the deep and abiding fear that the United States is only vaguely aware of our existence. Of course, that’s never been an issue in the other direction. As former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau once famously put it, living next to the U.S. “is like sleeping with an elephant: no matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

And every television show. Canadians who grew in the '80s and early '90s were just as steeped in American culture as any American teen—our lives were equally dominated by Sesame Street, The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, The Facts of Life, Growing Pains, Saved by the Bell, 90210. 

It was this saturation, by the way, that led to what Canadians call CanCon—formally Canadian Content—a 1971 mandate requiring that a certain percentage of content aired on Canadian radio and television (from 25 to 40 percent, depending on the decade) originate in Canada. You could spot CanCon programming a mile away: vaguely embarrassing, entirely unironic, always well meaning and frequently not well produced. (This is what Canadians mean when they say something is very Canadian.) Given the options, I’d take Alex P. Keaton and his Nixon obsession any day.

CanCon is one of the reasons why, for Canadians who grew up in the 1980s and '90s, Degrassi was such a big deal. It was honest, it was riveting, it was something you could boast about watching. It was the opposite of boring.

I struggle to find the appropriate American comparison. It’s not that there haven’t been great American shows for teens. It’s more that Americans are so accustomed to seeing some version of themselves reflected back to them that it’s hard to describe the thrill of having some aspect of your country depicted so accurately. 

In Neil Hope’s case, it was, sadly, too accurate. On the show, Wheels always seemed to be getting the short end of the stick. His adoptive parents are killed in a car accident. He struggles with drinking and drugs. He never seems quite able to get his life together. In the series finale, he drives drunk and ends up killing a child and severely injuring his passenger. And then he disappears … to jail.

Hope disappeared in real life too. Every single Canadian I spoke to today immediately knew who I meant when I said “Wheels from Degrassi.” But none of us, myself included, could remember the actor’s name.