The Sausage Factory, a new crass and comic series that premiered on the Comedy Network last week, is a rare bird in Canadian television terms -- it's the sort of teen series that teenagers will likely want to watch. Too bad, I say, as a grownup with a long-term addiction to teen television hyper-earnest high-school drama.
Billed as "about as far from Degrassi as you can get -- Dawson's Creek meets American Pie," The Sausage Factory will not present viewers with sniffling teen girls in soft-lit bedrooms checking pregnancy tests. Which is a shame. Deliciously overwrought moments of moral reckoning are what Canadian teen dramas do best. Politically incorrect guffaws might well be what the kids want, but for a teen series to garner a grownup cult following, bring on the schmaltz.
The Sausage Factory sets out to be anything but sensitive and earnest, and to this extent, it works. "The high-school years are the years when you're always tiptoeing on the edge of complete humiliation," says the series's Vancouver-based producer Stephen Foster, "and yet that's where the laugh is."
The first episode of The Sausage Factory, which aired across Canada last week, concentrates primarily on the foibles of Zack (Adam Brody), a hard-up high-school lad with a yearning for Lisa (Andi Eystad), the blond overachiever who sees through his every clumsy courtship attempt. In an effort to impress the object of his affection, Zack takes on a volunteer gig at a nursing home. After learning a few lessons from kooky oldsters ("Take my advice and she'll be all over you like bedsores on Mrs. McKinley's ass," says one old codger), Zack is labelled an Angel of Death and discharged from his position after his charges keep dying. Meanwhile, in the secondary plot line, his buddies attempt to verify the disability status of a handsome blind guy who has captured the sympathetic attention of Nancy (Kristen Renton), sexy girlfriend of the sexually frustrated Ted (Adam Frost). You get the idea.
"We wanted to make a little silly half-hour movie every week, a show that captured the spirit of American Pie," says Foster. "With something like this, what you want people to say at the end is, 'That was funny.' Was it great filmmaking? Was it great television? Well, no -- but it was funny."
Television executives are straining to predict which, if any, of the latest slate of Canadian teen dramas will turn out to be the next Degrassi.
The most obvious prediction is, of course, the new Degrassi itself. Degrassi: The Next Generation, produced by the show's original creator Linda Schuyler, currently airs on CTV. Like The Sausage Factory, which premieres on MTV next spring, Degrassi: The Next Generation is slated to air on the U.S. cable network Noggin in the new year.
In terms of numbers, at least, the new Degrassi may in fact prevail as the new Degrassi. In the first five weeks, reports series producer Schuyler, there were 748,000 viewers an episode. Like its lower-budget predecessor, the show deals with issue-oriented dilemmas of preteen and teenage life. Today's Degrassi keeps up the tradition of wholesome political correctness -- it even has a Web site where teens can visit a virtual guidance counsellor who gives advice on the show's issue of the week.
"For kids, it's a chance to see their own lives and issues reflected back at them," reads . "For young adults, it's a chance to look at where they've come from and where the new generation is headed. For parents and other adults, it's an opportunity to peek behind the closed doors of teens' lives."
The legendary Degrassi Junior High series earned its cult status when university students in their 20s began watching the kid series en masse. And the spinoff, though it lacks the originality to be a cult hit, is attracting older viewers as well. Schuyler says the show's adult following is a welcome development, but not an intended one. "I think we unwittingly get the parents interested because they're thinking, 'Gee, so that's what goes on when my kids go off to junior high.' "
The CBC series Edgemont, now in its second season, has enjoyed some of the same accidental grownup following. I count myself among the ranks of those who have become emotionally involved with the sensitive, angst-ridden teens featured on the drama.
According to the show's producer/creator Peter Weir, when Edgemont first went to air, 75 to 80 per cent of the viewing audience was over the target viewership age of 18. The number of post-18 viewers still hovers somewhere around 50 per cent of the show's total viewership (on average around 300,000 an episode).
From the outset, the Edgemont team chose to leave adults out of the drama of the series. A person over the age of 20 does not appear in the frame, and this, counterintuitively, is the key to the show's charm for older viewers. By making Edgemont High an adolescents-only realm, emotional conundrums that would seem laughably minor in the adult world are allowed to take on cataclysmic thematic proportions. It was this device that gave the Peanuts specials, for example, their sentimental charge. Like Charlie Brown and his friends, the teenage characters on Edgemont inhabit an emotionally impermeable universe. Their problems -- the everyday problems of affluent suburban teenage life -- are not mocked but examined in earnest. This earnestness, which seems embarrassingly overwrought in adult-populated soap operas, has nostalgic appeal for adult viewers when the show concerns teens.
"It's something I love about the teen genre as a whole," says Weir. "When you're that age, everything matters enormously. You don't tend to toss things off."
The Sausage Factory, on the other hand, makes frattish fun of similar dilemmas of the heart. Both series choose a romantic plot through-line -- a boy and a girl who encounter many obstacles on the path to hooking up, but the scenarios are treated in entirely different lights. While on Edgemont, Mark (Dominic Zamprogna) struggles to reconcile his guilt over hurting his childhood sweetheart by giving in to his growing love for the icy Laurel (Kristin Kreuk), on The Sausage Factory, Zack devises a series of horny hijinks in an effort to attract Lisa, his long-term crush. Where Edgemont is soft-focused and slow-paced, The Sausage Factory offers brightly lit laugh-a-minute. Where Edgemont posits its adolescent characters as insightful and articulate, The Sausage Factory positions its female characters as do-gooders and its male characters as conniving horn-dogs.
With the arrival of The Sausage Factory, Canadian teen drama has entered into new, non-sentimental territory. The kids are sure to love it, but I'll stick with my afternoon adult fix of Degrassi reruns and Edgemont angst, thanks.