It's like bumping into childhood friends you never expected to see again.

The faces are vaguely familiar, and so are many of the names -- Spike, Caitlyn, Joey. "Degrassi: The Next Generation" gives faithful fans a chance to catch up with the characters they watched struggle through adolescent angst more than two decades ago.

"Next Generation," which begins its fourth season on Friday, is the most recent addition to a Canadian series that began in 1982. The show features many of the same actors that starred in "The Kids of Degrassi Street" and "Degrassi Junior High." Like its predecessors, "Next Generation" deals with some of the most controversial and taboo topics facing today's young adults -- from their perspective.

"It's about what happens to you in that time between being a child and an adult and testing the two simultaneously," said creator Linda Schuyler.

"Degrassi Junior High" aired in the United States from 1986 to 1991 on PBS and touched on teenage pregnancy, abortion, racial discrimination, drug addiction, abuse, relationships and other issues facing kids of that decade.

Today's "Next Generation" is shown on the N -- Noggin's "tween-to-teen" prime-time lineup -- on Fridays at 8 p.m. Beginning next week, episodes from

previous seasons will air Saturday through Thursday at 8 p.m. (The network is available to digital and satellite subscribers.)

"Next Generation" has dealt with date rape, teenage pregnancy, abortion, school shootings, cutting, drug abuse and sexual orientation.

" 'Degrassi' gives [teenagers] the tools to potentially deal with these situations. The show gives the audience the respect to realize they're ready to deal with these topics and issues." said Sarah Tomassi Lindman, vice president of programming at the N.

Besides being entertaining, Schuyler said the show also aims to "educate and enlighten," a mission that brings a great deal of responsibility.

"There are some issues you have to be careful about," she said. "One is always afraid of copycat behavior.

"We just finished production on an episode involving violence in the school. You want to make sure you're getting it right. Whenever we deal with sensitive topics, [the scripts] are always vetted by experts," Schuyler said.

"At the end of the day, we hope we've put out the most responsible piece" possible.

That includes offering parent discussion guides (available online at www.discussion. the-n.com), which feature questions and tips to accompany episodes.

Schuyler, 56, came up with the idea of a dramatic show for children and teenagers almost 25 years ago, while teaching at a junior high school in Toronto.

She found that videos that mimicked after-school specials encouraged discussion among her students, but she was frustrated with the limited number of those shows.

Having always had an interest in production, Schuyler decided she would create a program to help students open up.

Her first series, "The Kids of Degrassi Street," debuted in 1982. "Degrassi Junior High" followed in 1986 and segued right into "Degrassi High."

When "Degrassi High" went off the air in the early 1990s, Schuyler worked on other TV projects. Years later, she found herself dealing with another show about junior high students. That idea developed into "Next Generation," which was not originally part of the "Degrassi" concept.

That connection emerged when one of Schuyler's writers calculated that Spike -- a character from "Degrassi Junior High" who became pregnant and decided to keep her child -- would now be raising a daughter in junior high.

"It became a really elegant way to launch 'Next Generation,' " Schuyler said.

It also provided a way to bring some of "Degrassi's" most popular characters -- played by the original actors -- back for "Next Generation."

Principal Raditch, Spike, Caitlyn, Snake and Joey Jeremiah are original characters who have recurring roles on "Next Generation."

Stacie Mistysyn, 33, still plays Caitlyn, and she's one of the few actors from "Kids" who has been on every "Degrassi" series.

"I grew up on the show. In a way, the show helped me work out my teenage angst and borrowed from my teenage angst at the same time," she said.

"Teenagers these days have more on their plate than I did as a teenager. There's so much out there now. They seem to be growing up faster," she said.

Despite the changes in the world over the past decade, Schuyler -- who said she depends more on her writing team and the actors to relate to her target audience this time around -- found there is not a lot of difference between what teenagers were going through in the '80s and what they are experiencing now.

"A lot of the stuff is the same from the '80s 'til now -- affairs of the heart, changes to the body . . . it's very similar," said Schuyler, who mentioned present-day technology as one big difference.

"When we kicked off the new series, we dealt with a cyber stalker. In the '80s, we didn't know what the Internet was," she said.

The N's Lindman said the program "speaks to teenagers" because there is no more than a one year difference between the actors and the characters they portray.

"That gives the show a very, very real texture that our audience really responds to. They can project themselves into the show," Lindman said. "There are no 23-year-olds playing 16-year olds."

Stacey Farber, 16, who plays Ellie, said the actors on the show don't look like supermodels.

"We don't have perfect skin. We don't look like the kids from the 'O.C.' That helps kids relate to it more," she said.

Jake Epstein, better known as Craig to fans, said the show's popularity springs from its ability to please the audience and still be "true to teenagers."

Although "Next Generation" deals with some pretty heavy topics and a lot of moral and ethical dilemmas, Schuyler said the educational and social messages don't ward off young viewers because it is not "preachy."

"The moment it sounds like it's good for you, our audience will leave in droves," she said.

For now, the viewers are sticking around. According to Nielsen Media Research, a new episode that aired July 2 earned the highest ratings year to date for the network. About 300,000 people watched the show, and it was the No. 1 program for Noggin viewers 12 to 17.

The cult-like allegiance of fans was overwhelming to the actors during a recent promotional tour.

Epstein said he was "blown away" by the welcome he and a cast member received at Madison Square Garden.

The original "Degrassi" series has a similar following of faithful fans. However, for today's teenagers -- many of whom have never seen the '80s series -- "Next Generation" is their only exposure to the franchise.

"For our audience, this is the series for them. They were not alive or they were too young" to recall the original shows. "This is their 'Degrassi,' " Lindman said.

The Degrassi Series

* "The Kids of Degrassi Street" 1982

* "Degrassi (Junior) High" 1986

* "Degrassi: The Next Generation"2002

A Shot at a Spot on TV

* Interested in winning a guest spot on an episode of "Degrassi: The Next Generation?" Visit www.the-n.com for details. Entry deadline is Oct. 1.

Degrassi: The next generation

Fridays at 8 p.m. on the N (aka Noggin)