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I was never allowed to watch Degrassi when I was younger, instead exclusively living off of other shows that aired on TeenNick during its later seasons. My relationship to the series, up until this year, came in the form of having the 2010 “Shark in the Water” promotional video memorized by heart for over a decade, and spending a brief period of my adolescence obsessed with Netflix’s follow-up, Degrassi: Next Class. I had been toying with the idea of finally seeing what all the hype was about for a while, so when I discovered that the entire series—14 extensive seasons that total 385 episodes—had been added to HBO Max, I rushed to finally heal the part of my inner child that never got the chance to experience it in real-time. As a teen TV connoisseur, it’s safe to say that I certainly wasn’t disappointed.
Long before remakes and revivals of teen dramas were being made left and right, there was the Degrassi universe. With five iterations dating back to 1979—starting off with The Kids of Degrassi Street; followed by Degrassi Junior High, Degrassi High, and Degrassi: The Next Generation; and wrapping up with Degrassi: Next Class—the Canadian franchise has captured the lives of pre-teens and teens across nearly four decades, literally evolving parallel with the world, and incorporating new factors such as technology and the problems that arise as a result of its growing presence in the daily lives of young people. The most popular and beloved installment is The Next Generation, which aired from 2001 to 2015 on CTV in Canada and The N (Nickelodeon’s channel aimed at teens that eventually became TeenNick) in the U.S., and famously served as the launching pad for Drake, The Vampire Diaries’ Nina Dobrev, Shenae Grimes of the CW’s 90210 fame, and a handful of other cast members.
Created by Linda Schuyler, who developed the franchise alongside Kit Hood, and Yan Moore, Degrassi follows a group of teenagers attending Degrassi Community School as they navigate the many complex issues that emerge throughout their youth. Since it was a follow-up to 1989’s Degrassi High, some of the kids featured in this installment were the children of Degrassi’s alumni, who often make appearances throughout (Stefan Brogren, who plays Archie “Snake” Simpson, has been the franchise’s longest-running character, having been in every iteration since Junior High and playing Degrassi teacher-turned-principal in TNG). Unlike all of the glossy teen shows that typically cast adults in main roles, the actors in Degrassi were around the same age as their characters, and we witness them grow up alongside their characters, playing them up until they graduate high school and start the next chapter of their lives, sometimes remaining on the show as their characters go to college or pursue other post-high school plans before leaving the show and making way for a new class of characters to take center stage.
Degrassi’s first tagline reads: “It Goes There,” and there wasn’t a single subject matter that was off-limits throughout the course of the series. The show’s goal was always to shed light on a myriad of topics that young people are faced with, including but certainly not limited to child predators, rape, self-harm, LGBTQ+ issues, abortion, school shootings, eating disorders, mental health, teen pregnancy, and addiction. It never shied away from highlighting the honest, oftentimes brutally painful reality of growing up, depicting these conflicts and situations with nuance (think of the infamous two-part school shooting episode “Time Stands Still” from Season 4) and authenticity that made it refreshingly relatable and still able to hold up to this day.
Teen television was at its peak in the early aughts, with The OC, Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, and the final seasons of Dawson’s Creek each offering overly dramatic and glamorized approaches to the high school experience that were more about you living vicariously through the bonkers plot than finding something to relate to. It’s not to say that any of these shows were tame or entirely devoid of heavy-hitting arcs, since most of them contained sex, had emotional narratives, and didn’t completely shy away from big topics, but Degrassi blended the heightened soap opera format with a grounded approach to taboo subjects that was rare to see on American TV.
When compared to the other teen dramas that aired at the same time, save for Skins (which cast actual teens and managed to be gritty and realistic) and Gossip Girl’s racy 2008 promotional posters, Degrassi is by far the one that sparked the most controversy. In 2004, the two-part Season 3 episode “Accidents Will Happen,” which centers on 14-year-old Manny Santos (Cassie Steele) struggling with her unplanned pregnancy after her first sexual experience and subsequently deciding to have an abortion, was banned for several years by U.S. distributors due to its discussion of abortion. This wasn’t the only time that abortion was featured in Degrassi history, The first instance was an episode of Degrassi High that was centered in the States, and 2016’s Next Class incorporating an updated exploration of the subject, but it remains one of the most talked about moments in teen television due to TNG’s approach of a topic that not many had dared to venture into before.
Euphoria, HBO’s most successful teen-oriented series (which coincidentally counts Drake as an executive producer), shares some similarities with Degrassi that have naturally sparked debate online. Many have called Euphoria an R-rated version of Degrassi, and comparisons have largely been drawn between Degrassi’s Manny Santos (who put her iconic blue thong on display for the whole school in the Season 3 episode “U Got the Look”) and Maddy Perez (who sports Manny-esque statement pants in Euphoria’s first season). While Degrassi addressed various subjects with a grain of optimism, Euphoria cranks it up to 11, with unfiltered content and a darker, more cinematic tone and atmosphere that isn’t exactly intended for the same audience. Degrassi and Euphoria may not share much in common beyond the surface, but it’s undeniable that Degrassi’s status as a pop culture touchstone paved the way for it and the teen dramas that followed.
As a program geared towards younger audiences, Degrassi’s exploration of the aforementioned issues was approached in a way that could be digestible for the children watching while also being educational. As a result, these topics were frequently explored at only a surface level, taking only a few episodes before concluding and barely being mentioned again; as such, some storylines received more attention and development than others. (Race, for instance, could have been examined much more in-depth.) But the treatment of each character and their struggles was never included for the sole purpose of shock value; something important was always derived from any situation that occurred. Some tropes leaned into cliches and characters were often initially placed into stereotypes—there were the typical jocks, nerds, bullies and rebellious types, popular mean girls, and wallflowers—but ultimately, each person was complex and interesting. While the long duration of the series meant that some plots got recycled throughout the different casts, they never became romanticized, and were always portrayed from different angles. Degrassi isn’t a perfect depiction of teendom, but it never set out to be. In spite of its flaws, it succeeded at bringing attention to the experiences that teenagers encounter in their daily lives.
From the looks of things, the Degrassi franchise doesn’t seem to be running out of steam anytime soon. In January of 2022, it was announced that a reboot was in the works at HBO Max, meaning that we can expect to once again see it delve into even darker corners of the high school experience and put a gritty spin on it. Degrassi may not be as edgy as so many other teen offerings—from Gossip Girl to The Fosters to Generation—but they all owe their ability to tackle these topics and find an audience ready and waiting thanks to that one groundbreaking series from across the border.
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Jihane Bousfiha is an entertainment writer based in Florida. When she’s not watching or writing about TV and films, you can find her tweeting about all-things pop culture on Twitter @jihanebousfiha__.
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