Monday, February 20, 2012

Neil Hope, Degrassi, and Lessons Learned

I often feel the urge to explain my deep love of Degrassi. I’ve had a few friends write it off as a strange kind of nostalgia, a return to the TV of my childhood. But no. I missed the show back in the 80s. My only encounter with it then was in the form of one of the tie-in novels, about which I have little memory.

No, Degrassi was one of those things that I kind of missed, but kept coming back to haunt me. I know I read something about it when some TV group or another rated among The Greatest Shows of All Time. And I definitely remember a little piece that Kevin Smith wrote about it.

And then, of course, Kevin Smith was on the show a couple of times, as a version of himself that didn’t quite match up with reality.

And so, when I came across a copy of the first season of the show in my local library, I was just curious enough to pick it up, and get my wife to watch it with me. After all, I like the work of Kevin Smith. Might it not be possible that I would like the things he likes?

At its best, good TV can be like a good novel, filled with twists, and turns, and setups and payoffs, and characters you find interesting. And despite the fact that Degrassi was a TV show aimed at kids? It was all those things, and more.

Degrassi has been on the air in one form or another for something like 25 years now, with 19 separate years of new shows. And the overarching theme, to my mind, has always been this: What you do has consequences. Some are good. Some are bad. But there are always consequences.

That’s a big part of why I’ve watched every episode of Degrassi, and even own the complete series. So often on television, especially in the shows of the 80s, bad things happened to guest stars. Fred would come in, and he would be the best friend of the star, even though we had never seen Fred before. Then Fred would be diagnosed with AIDS, and we would all learn a lesson about needle sharing. Then we’d never see Fred again.

That almost never happened on Degrassi. On Degrassi, the cast was an ensemble, with almost everyone carrying equal weight. And so, when someone was diagnosed with HIV, it was a huge deal.

And now, with all the throat-clearing done, let’s talk about one of my favorite characters: Wheels.

Wheels was adopted. He knew this, and talked about it. In a very memorable instance, he met his birth father. And in an even more memorable instance, his parents were killed in an auto accident, and Wheels tried to get his birth father to become his real father.

Only his birth father wouldn’t allow that to happen.

Wheels got to a very, very, very dark place after that. And unlike a lot of American children’s television, wherein a character can eventually straighten up and fly right? It never happened.

Instead, Degrassi ended in what was possibly the most depressing way possible. Wheels got drunk and killed someone in a completely senseless car accident.

Eventually, the character of Wheels came back, briefly, on an episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation. And all those years later he got, if not a happy ending, at least some kind of closure.

Degrasssi: The Next Generation eventually phased out all of the classic characters except for the fellow who played Snake. I was sad to see them go, but I understood. You can only have so much churn amongst the same five or six adults before you completely run out of plotlines for them.

And yet, every once in a while, I find myself hoping that one or more of the classic characters will come back, if only for an episode or two, and let us know what became of them.

And here’s where reality intersects with fantasy, I suppose. Because Neil Hope, the guy who played Wheels? He died. In 2007. And the world is just now finding out.

If you believe the stories being written, and I guess I have to, he didn’t keep in touch with most of family and friends. So when he died alone, as a John Doe, the police couldn’t locate any kind of next of kin.

That sounds impossible to me, that an actor who worked on a very popular TV show for five years, who even came out of retirement (of a kind, as he never acted in anything that wasn’t Degrassi) to reprise his character, that he could just die and no one could know who he is. This is a face that’s still on TV today.

And yet it happened.

At the end of every episode of classic Degrassi, the MO of the show was that the final shot was a freeze frame on the person who learned something that week.

When I learned when and how Neil Hope left the world, alone and forgotten for five years, my brain immediately locked into a kind of freeze frame of him as a teenager. Standing there in his glasses, staring out at the world, his life a complete mess.

I could see that frame, could see that kid, his life ahead of him. I’m not looking at Neil, really, but at some kind of TV version of him.

I can see that face, and wonder, what did he want to be? Surely, not a footnote of Canadian television. Surely, not the guy who died alone at 35, the age I am now.

But I say again: That’s what happened.

Neil, of course, can’t learn a lesson from this, because he’s gone from this world and on to whatever comes after this.

But maybe there’s something people like me can learn from that freeze frame.

It’s possible that Neil had a terrible family, and awful friends. It’s equally possible that he was fighting mental illness, or other issues.

But as I sit here, thinking about him, I think:

I wish he had gotten help.

I wish he had held onto his friends and family. And if he needed new ones, that he had found the ones he needed.

I wish someone had thought to check up on him sooner. Five years is a long time to wonder what happened to someone, without taking any time to look into it.

More than anything, Neil’s death reminds me that in the end, connections are all we have. If I die tomorrow, rich and/or famous, it doesn’t mean anything if it takes five years for anyone to discover my death. If that’s the case, Something Had Gone Wrong.

So this is me, being reminded of that my actions have consequences, and that I need to remember to tend to the people I love, and let them tend to me.

I’m not sure that’s what Neil would have wanted me to learn from his death. But in life, and on Degrassi, a lot of people learn hard lessons, whether they want to or not.

Those lessons hurt, and there is loss. But hopefully, some good can come from it.

So goodbye Neil. And goodbye Wheels. And thanks, for this lesson, and all the others.

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