The Canadian series Madison ran for five short seasons (1993-1997), each thirteen episodes long. Often dismissed as a slicker but less impressive cousin to Degrassi, the show nevertheless found a sizeable following, took three awards, and remains moderately popular in reruns. Madison reinvented itself twice, creating three distinct phases.
Madison first sold as an anthology. Each episode focuses on a different student with a different problem. A common setting ties the episodes together: the fictional Madison High School in Vancouver, British Columbia. While these first thirteen episodes have no regular cast, characters reappear. The star of one episode might have a supporting role in the next. Others appear in one or two episodes only. The approach means that some inconsistencies are inevitable. Characters identified as seniors in Season One will graduate two seasons later. Mick, played by Barry Pepper, has a different last name in the first season.
The pilot, "On the Curb," introduces us to Carol Lemieux (Sarah Strange), who would go on to become one of the show’s most engaging characters. Intelligent but not yet wise, prone to experimentation, she leaves her parents' constricting household and drifts away from her old friends. Her new companions include the streetwise and the halfway-homeless. Naturally, she learns their lifestyle holds greater danger than she may be able to handle. "On the Curb" has more forced edge than an Avril Lavigne video, but the actors perform well. It established the tone for the series: the settings could be grittier than the typical teen show’s, but the scripts were as contrived and the actors, magazine-cover-perfect.
The first season continued in this vein. Keener Tom (Chat Willett) blasts his teacher for his failure to control unruly students, but later learns to respect the man’s challenges and impressive credentials. Pretty Penny (Michelle Beaudoin) has difficulties with her mother’s new relationship. Golden Girl Sheri (Enuka Okuma) experiences difficulty balancing her busy schedule and her academic studies. First Nations student Michael (Biski Gugushe) battles personal pressures and alcohol. Madison would never entirely lose the sense that one should consult a study guide and discuss the relevant issues after each episode.
The second and third seasons follow some of the more popular characters through high school. Madison achieved its greatest popularity during this time, and those who recall the show typically remember this incarnation. The second season drew praise for its topical issues and diverse cast.
Carol joins a band fronted by tough, motorcycle-riding Beth (Shaira Holman), and the two gradually become involved. In 1994, when Ellen Degeneres had not yet come out and gay characters remained rare on television, Madison casually presented a relationship between a teenaged girl and a young woman.
It wouldn't be a teen soap without an unwanted pregnancy, and so Sheri becomes pregnant, considers an abortion, and.... That would be telling. The ongoing relationship between Sheri and boyfriend Kevin (Peter Stebbings) will become a focal point of many episodes for the remainder of the series.
David "Twister" Wong (Yee Jee Tso) stood out in the second season, a complex character who defies popular stereotypes of Asian students. Twister dies at the height of his popularity, but the show brought the actor back. Initially, the original character haunts friend Jamie’s (Chris Martin) memory. Then, the actor re-enters the classroom as Grant Wong, David‘s lookalike cousin.
By that point, the show was well on its way to becoming a full-fledged soap opera. R.J. (Jonathan Scarfe) has an affair with an adult woman. Carol and Penny head off on a road trip to find an enigmatic writer. In the third season finale, yet another character dies, and Jamie sleeps with his father’s girlfriend.
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Most of the actors had been teenagers when the show started. By the third season, most clearly no longer belonged in high school. The fourth and fifth seasons follow the first two years after graduation, with a six-month gap between the third and fourth season. The dispersed characters seek jobs, attend university and college, and join the military. Others become involved with organized crime. The dominant subject becomes the transition to adulthood. The teen appeal does not vanish, as a street kid named Clover (Crystal Bublé) wanders through several characters' lives.
Other shows have provided more consistently credible drama concerning young people, and other dramas have pierced further into the issues of the day. Still, Madison managed five generally entertaining, occasionally thought-provoking seasons. Most of its photogenic graduates have found steady work in television and film. Indeed, their collective track record as actors is more impressive than Degrassi's, but the show has never achieved the cult status of its renowned Toronto counterpart.