By Kerensa Cadenas
My senior year of high school, I discovered The N (now Teen Nick)–a digital cable channel that primarily geared to teenage viewers and provided a flurry of Canadian teen programming I had never seen. I don’t really know how I started watching Degrassi: The Next Generation, but I was instantly hooked. I spent much of that year heavily invested on whether or not Ashley and Jimmy (OH HI FUTURE RAPPER KNOWN AS DRAKE) would sleep together (they didn’t, but they used condoms as balloons), impressed with Emma’s burgeoning activism and above all else wanting more.
My Degrassi obsession that summer and next year prompted one friend to walk out of my house if it was on the television and a handwritten Degrassi 12 step program. However others were much more receptive to its charms and in college culminating in a weekly drinking + Degrassi viewing party.
I watched Degrassi up until the bitter end–until all my characters–Craig, Ellie, Manny, Jimmy, Emma, Marco, Paige–had disappeared from the show. And this was after I watched all of the original episodes from the 1980s.
Degrassi started off as The Kids of Degrassi Street, airing from 1979-1986, about a group of kids living on Degrassi street in Toronto. Many of the same actors (as different characters) starred in the next chapter Degrassi Junior High, running from 1987-89, focusing on teens in junior high. Beyond just focusing on school dances, tough classes and unrequited crushes–Degrassi Junior High looked at more serious issues like teen pregnancy in the episode “It’s Late,” Spike gets pregnant after having sex with Shane at a party. Later on her pregnancy and life as a teen mother are explored throughout the series. Other issues like drug use, drunk driving, losing parents, racism, and homosexuality were also explored. Degrassi Junior High turned into Degrassi High for the last two seasons following our beloved characters Joey Jeremiah, Spike, Snake, Wheels, Caitlin, Lucy up to high school graduation through the trials and tribulations of school, angst and complicated relationships. A TV movie called Schools Out in 1991 wrapped up the stories from the end of the series.
The show was broadcast all over the world and on public broadcast channels. When creator Linda Schuyler began working with former Degrassi head writer Yan Moore on a new project–the pair realized that Spike’s daughter, Emma, from the original series would soon be entering junior high. Thus, Degrassi: The Next Generation was born. It began airing in 2001, follow Spike’s daughter, Emma as she navigates junior high alongside her friends and classmates. The first episode served as a reunion of former characters from the original–keeping us up to date on their lives–and introduced us to Emma via Degrassi’s later catchline “it goes there” with her meeting an online friend who turns out to be a creeper old man.
While Degrassi’s introduction to Emma, in all honestly, is a terrible, melodramatic episode of television, subsequent episodes (and the ones I revisited from the original series) hit me hard. While at 17/18, I was clearly not the age demographic any longer, unlike the shows I watched when I was younger, Saved by the Bell, California Dreams, Hoop Time basically anything on the Saturday NBC morning roster or MTV’s more late-night inclined one, Degrassi was immediately relatable. It felt real and authentic in a way that other teen shows, I had previously watched or was currently watching never did.
And that feeling of authenticity sticks with you, it sinks in, it hooks you. And I’m not the only one who feels that way–Degrassi is the longest running program on Teen Nick, has won dozens of awards and heralds celebrity fans like Kevin Smith who has written about Degrassi and also guest starred multiple times.
So what makes Degrassi more authentic than other teen shows? The fact that it takes into account things that many other teen shows don’t: age, diversity and realistic situations. When these combine, Degrassi packs an emotional punch, at times, is unlike any other teen show I’ve watched.
In a 2005 New York Times article, “DGrassi Is tha Best Teen TV N da WRLD!,” creator Linda Schuyler discussed how Degrassi is a show about firsts.
‘Degrassi’ is a show about firsts, so when you’re doing a show about firsts, and some of your actors are really experiencing these things for the first time, there is a sincerity and an authenticity that comes through in the performance that I don’t think the best actor in the world can necessarily create.
Degrassi unlike many other teen shows has actors who are around or the exact age of the characters they are playing–usually around 14-15. After watching the first episodes of both Degrassi Junior High, Degrassi High and a handful of episodes of Degrassi: The Next Generation–I was struck by how young they actually looked. In the 80s versions—pimples, big hair and absurd eyeshadow ruled. And in TNG–pimples, braces and baby t-shirts–were everywhere. The viewer can think back to a time when our own teeth were covered in braces, we didn’t yet understand hair conditioner or wore Winnie the Pooh shirts every day.
Degrassi also explores the evolution of self during our teen years. The show’s format follows a core group of characters from the beginnings of junior high until high school graduation (and at times beyond). We see characters like Emma (from TNG) age from gawky, confident, self-righteous, activist tween into an anorexic, Barbie-esque, wannabe stoner or Craig (TNG) from a troubled, gorgeous, angst-fueled wannabe photographer into a troubled, gorgeous, cocaine-fueled musician. We literally see these actors age before our eyes and see their personalities change for the better or worse through their experiences. It is a natural and organic feeling which translates into the viewing process.
Degrassi also creates realism through caring about creating a diverse world amidst white washed, middle-upper class characters. The show represents diversity through a multitude of lenses—race, disability, sexuality, class. In the episode “Smokescreen,” from the first season of Degrassi Junior High, Yick refuses to do a family history project for school because he doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s a Laotian refugee. Within Degrassi: The Next Generation, Marco comes out in season three to his group of friends–to varying degrees of acceptance. Even a ten second hallway shot is filled with a hugely diverse section of teens in every way. The amount of diversity on Degrassi–both the original and its predecessor–is shockingly refreshing for a genre that currently feels like it’s severely lacking in that department.
Both Degrassi’s excellence with age and representations of diversity converge in the situations that the characters go through. While realistically, not every teenager will go through these things, but Degrassi handles them delicately and with a sensitivity that reverberates. In “A New Start,” the first episode of Degrassi High, Erica finds out she’s pregnant after sleeping with a boy at summer camp. Having grown up deeply religious alongside her twin sister–Erica is torn between what her religion thinks and what she wants. When she decides that she does want to get an abortion, her twin Heather, disapproves and it threatens to dismantle their relationship. While other teen shows, like Saved by the Bell, did look at issues like drug abuse, it was relegated into the “very special episode” format and then never discussed again. Degrassi, for the most part, fully weighs the choices that the characters make. For example, Erica’s abortion is later mentioned when a pro-choice student harasses her over her decision at school. And this delicacy showing the importance of and repercussion of our characters decisions about abortion, coming out of the closet, dealing with substance abuse continues throughout the series and has got many of the episodes banned in many countries. Degrassi isn’t always perfect though, in a season 9 Degrassi: The Next Generation episode “Just Can’t Get Enough,” Peter does crystal meth for the first time at a party and immediately hooked. At the end of the episode, he’s sent to rehab but in later episodes his meth addiction is rarely if mentioned at all. But the trust that the Degrassi writers create is what makes the emotional connection.
The honesty with which the lives of these teens is told is what makes everything more heart wrenching from the most devastating like Paige’s rape or the suicide of Caitlin’s ex-boyfriend Claude is because we know these people. We are in tune with their successes and their failures, their flaws and great attributes. We see them evolve in and out of these characteristics and experiences. We celebrate when Joey and Caitlin finally get back together over 20 years later or when Marco and Dylan share their first kiss. Seemingly simple events, like a battle of the bands, that happen in the wake of betrayed relationships hold an emotional truth that goes beyond just your typical teenage angst.
Those truths are what keep Degrassi running, what bring new viewers to the old episodes and are what catches your breath during a rewatch of Degrassi: The Next Generation season 5’s “Together Forever.” It’s how your heart feels while you watch that montage of the lives of your favorite characters change–Liberty giving birth and Craig moving on–while his song plays in the background. And it’s that truth that let’s you know, anytime you return to it, you’ll still feel this exact way.
Kerensa Cadenas writes for Women and Hollywood, Forever Young Adult and Bitch magazine. She was the Research Editor for Tomorrow magazine. You can find her other published writing at her website. You can find her on Twitter reporting about her summer activities you won’t care about. During her rewatch of Degrassi, she was reminded she’s still in love with Craig Manning.
Previously on Teen Dreams: Square Pegs: Construction of Popularity, Nerd Girl Desirability and Fleeting Crushes