From Zit Remedy to Downtown Sasquatch: A Multi-Generational Degrassi Journey

Many, many years ago, when my husband and I were much younger parents, we discussed how we were going to handle talking with our child about all things related to puberty and being a teenager. My husband did actual research into the topic, and ended up purchasing a copy of “It’s Perfectly Normal”. I, on the other hand, did exactly zero research and instead announced that I would just plunk our kid down in front of reruns of Degrassi Junior High, as is the tradition of my people.

MOST EMBARRASSING BOOK FOR PRE-TEENS EVER

My husband chuckled indulgently at me upon this declaration and did not believe that this plan would work for our American-raised child, especially after we actually did try to screen the show for our ten-year-old kid. Our then 5th grader announced that he hated the original episodes from the 1980s, and that Degrassi Junior High was the most boring show ever. He was marginally more interested in the 2001 reboot, called in true nerd homage style Degrassi: The Next Generation. Those kids at least had computers and the Internet and modern clothing, whereas the generation I grew up with were weird and boring!

The first generation circa 1987, wearing “weird 80s clothes”

Part of this problem was that the first generation of Degrassi kids were not consistently trained as actual actors, . Degrassi Junior High, as most Canadians know it, started in 1987 as a follow-up to the CBC “after school special”, The Kids of De Grassi Street, which ran from 1979 to 1986. Unlike the American shows though, none of the Toronto children who appeared first in in Kids, and later, in Degrassi Junior High, were really full time actors. They were Toronto kids, the same age as their characters, who showed up on weekends in a working high school to appear in what would eventually become a cornerstone of Canadian culture.

In contrast, the kids of the Next Generation, the reboot that started in 2001, were actors who could consistently project emotions. And while the first few episodes leaned heavily on the adults from the first generation (now turning thirty in 2001) to provide context and continuity, the show quickly transitioned over to the rising 7th and 8th graders, born in the late 1980s when the first generation was in junior high. Degrassi: TNG initially centered on one 7th grader girl who had been born to an 8th grade mom in the first generation of the show, but the plots quickly expanded to cover a dozen 12 and 13 year olds and their stories within the first few episodes.

Obviously, I didn’t watch TNG when it came out in 2001. I was a 23 year old grown adult, and even with the nostalgia factor, I had no interest in watching a show about teenagers. Therefore, when I flipped it on as a 40 year old grown adult, I was immediately engaged in resolving the stories of the characters I had grown up with. The kiddo, however, was very engaged in the story of the 7th grade boys, the pre-teens like him who were still focused more on goofing off than on chasing girls. This led to a lot of me yelling at my child to “shut up because I want to see what happened to Lucy after Wheels almost killed her drunk driving in the 1992 series finale!”, while my child complained that the adults were getting too much screen time and he didn’t think we were seeing enough of the kids.

Unfortunately, we only had one season of the 2001 episodes that our then-5th-grader could relate to, before the kids aged up a year. When we moved on to the second season, the actors and their characters aged up to grades 8 and 9. Four episodes into season, the show took on date rape with a 9th grade girl. And while TNG Season 1 had already covered pedophiles on the Internet, recreational use of Ritalin, gay parents, taking Ecstasy, and Not Having Sex Before You’re Ready, those were still “light” issues compared to the physically abusive parent and teen date rape narratives that opened the second season. These traumatic storylines were more than the kiddo could process as a 10 year old, and as he was really just not that interested, we decided that we would take a break on the show until he was old enough to understand it. (Also, my husband was genuinely shocked by the intensity of these episodes. I think this was when he realized the show was just going to go for broke on every issue possible without sugarcoating or cutting away from very traumatic depictions.)

Cut to quarantine in Toronto this fall: with kiddo and me in lockdown, I decided to take a second try at the show together. We re-watched the first season, and a 12 year old child was much better equipped emotionally to connect with the narratives for both the 7th and 8th graders. When we got to the second season, he was able to process and take in the much more emotionally intense and traumatic situations the now 8th and 9th graders were facing. And suddenly, my seventh grader was very engaged with a Canadian government subsidized teen drama where every episode was a Very Special Episode. Also: baby Drake when he was a duckling!

My son was so into the show that he and I started bingeing episode after episode while in Toronto in December. We continued when we got to Pittsburgh for the holidays, as I attempted to explain the show to my American in-laws. We kept going after the holiday break, watching two or three episodes a day even as the kids aged up into grades 10 and 11, and the issues became more complicated. I would use the subject matter to introduce topics to my son, and then reference back to It’s Perfectly Normal to reinforce the biological aspects where necessary. I got to work in all the topics, across the major areas of Coming of Age. We hit everything from teen pregnancy to coming out, from gay bashing to drug use, from child abuse to gender stereotypes, from studying science to inappropriate boners. (side note: nothing I have had to discuss with my child has been quite as mortifying as explaining to him what the term “boner” refers to…except maybe the plotline where I had to explain how a character contracted oral gonnorrhea)

In 2001, 7th graders could still shop at Zellers and Eatons.

Finally though, as the characters became older, the scenarios became more complicated, and kiddo and I were both concerned that he would not be able to relate for much longer. In Season 5, when a character considered plastic surgery for her acting career and I had to explain breast implants, we decided that these issues were too mature for a seventh grader. We had to find a new option to watch, where we could show 7th graders again. Without a viable modern option, I opted to try again with the first generation. This time, despite the “weird” clothes, and the complete lack of technology (not even an Apple IIe!), we discovered that kids had the same problems in the 1980s as they (probably) would in 2020 (if there wasn’t COVID!) Kids still struggled with being accepted! Kids still struggled with pregnancy and drugs and drinking! And most of all, high school kids still struggled with being honest and vulnerable thirty years ago! Who would have thought that being a GenX teenager was every bit as emotionally challenging as being a Gen Z teenager?!?

So after retreading the stories of Canadian teenagers born in the 1970s (ME: “These kids are only a year older than your dad! This is what high school looked like for us!” CHILD: “MOOOOOM NO STAWWWWP”), we had covered even more issues: abortion, being sexually confused, the stigma around AIDS, and teen suicide. The original Degrassi Junior High was light-years ahead of its time with a commitment to covering genuinely uncomfortable issues, and some episodes that addressed homosexuality or abortion were even banned in the United States. The first generation featured real-looking teens who wore their own clothes and did their own makeup, and represented a wide socioeconomic range of East Toronto, and even if that was because CBC clearly had no money to pay for wardrobe or makeup, it made the show that much more authentic, especially compared to American contemporary shows like Saved by the Bell and 90210.

More importantly, Degrassi covered issues that were so relevant, I remember watching key episodes about pregnancy and AIDS as educational supplemental videos in Health class in Grade 10. My husband, wandering in and out as we plowed through the original Junior High in January, even remarked he was surprised by how progressive the show was. I got to be a Smug Canadian (TM) about how my country subsidized this particular teen drama and brought issues to the forefront that are still underrepresented in American media. Degrassi Junior High reinforced the Canadian cultural mosaic message of the late 1980s by including first generation Canadian kids in their cast, covering both stories like those of the Vietnamese boat refugees, as well as racial slurs against a Nigerian-Canadian boy, both within the first two years of the show. Junior High even worked in a storyline about accepting a gay older brother in 1988 (who would never be seen again!), and featured a significant arc about de-stigmatizing homosexuality and AIDS in Degrassi High in 1990. These are all values my son takes for granted, as immersed as he is in the progressive ethics of Brooklyn, but as we keep having to explain, even as recently as the 1990s, these narratives were important to humanize the very real issues seldom shown on national TV.

Even starting over with the original kids only bought us a few weeks though, and we eventually ran out of time with his age range as the 7th and 8th graders approached grades 12 and 13 (Grade 13 was still a thing in Ontario in the 80s and 90s). The kiddo decided he wanted to try again with the older kids in the newer show, so when the first generation ended with the School’s Out! movie, we resumed TNG already in progress with Season 5, taking a little extra time when necessary to discuss the challenges outside of a pre-teen frame of reference.

Throughout the series, the kiddo has related to some stories more than others, and has been more disturbed by some plotlines than others. He found it very hard to watch the infamous school shooting episode in Season 6, in which Drake’s character is shot in the back and paralysed. Still we’ve consistently kept watching, even as the show managed to veer into the ridiculous several times. As TNG picked up steam in the early aughts, the commercial network behind it began to syndicate the show to the USA, and needed new hooks to keep the audience growing. This gave us one of the worst and least realistic narratives when CTV brought in Degrassi superfan Kevin Smith to guest star in a half-dozen episodes across two seasons, under the premise of filming a fictional installment in his franchise called Jay And Bob Go Canadian, Eh!. This is only worthwhile because it led to a hilarious scenery-chewing cameo by famous Canadian Alanis Morissette where she yells so many Canadian cliches that it would even put Bob & Doug Mackenzie to shame.

Even as the show started to spin off from After School Special into into Teen Soap Opera style drama, it still covered what I just started referring to as VALUABLE LESSONS (TM). Every day, we would watch a few episodes and then I would quiz the kiddo on what valuable lessons he had learned. Every episode includes at least two plots, with Plot A featuring the Tough, Thorny Issue of the episode and Plot B being the lighter, more day-to-day story. Multiple plotlines means lots of conversation points to work with, almost all of which result in my son eye rolling and mumbling “mommmmm, stawwwwwp” at me while I pause YouTube and inform him that if he wants to keep watching, he will listen to me sidebar about the relevant topic. I’ve even been been able to work in my son’s responsibilities as a cisgender male, which include:

  • CONSENT. EVERY TIME. NO EXCEPTIONS.

We also learned other VALUABLE LESSONS universal to all kids:

  • Tell the truth, because people will find it out anyways and then it will be WORSE

In both the first and second generation though, I believe that that the producers never meant for the show to run more than a couple years. In the first generation, the characters who were 12 and 13 in 1987 ended with a made-for-TV movie centered on their 1991 graduation, and no new characters were introduced to keep the series going past 1992. In the second generation, the characters who were 12 and 13 in 2001 didn’t end their narrative until their first years of college (which allowed me to plug the Canadian university system to my son)…and then the show had to contrive a plot to bring new 10th graders in for Season 7 to re-fill the cast. By Season 8 in 2008, the kids still aged up, and graduated high school, but the show stopped following graduates to university. Instead, new 9th and 10th graders would show up every season until the “Next Generation” kids from 2001 were completely aged out, and the show became just Degrassi in 2010. Around the same time, seasons went from twelve episodes to over twenty episodes and eventually to over forty episodes per season. The episodes are still 23 minutes, but there is just a lot more of them.

This extension into the “telenovela” production style is a byproduct of what I call “America Money”: the transition to MuchMusic in Canada and Nickeodeon in the USA. By 2008, the show was radically changed from the 12-episode season CTV-based series that started in 2001. Gone were the cheesy synthesizer soundtrack themes, initially replaced by in-show music clips from CBC3-type indie bands, but then expanding to feature five or six songs from major labels per episode (I just heard Imagine Dragons on an episode playing in the other room as I edit this post). The show’s production values increased, with the school suddenly acquiring more elaborate facilities beyond the original handful of classrooms. More episodes means more commercial airtime money after all…but it also requires more drama to fill those episodes, and the show became a full on teen soap opera, ending Seasons 6 and 7 with made for TV movies that took the characters to US cities (Degrassi Goes Hollywood!, Degrassi Takes Manhattan).

Even with the format change and 200% more drama though, show still covers VALUABLE LESSONS, and features groundbreaking narratives for a mainstream TV show. Very few teen shows in 2010 would heavily feature the story of a FTM trans boy, but Degrassi had one struggling to just to use the boys’ washroom. However, the format change also means that we have been plowing through at least four episodes a day since we hit Season 9 because it feels like there is a never ending supply of teen drama to watch. We’re in Season 12 now and we still have at least a hundred episodes on the MuchMusic/Nickelodeon run before we even get to Degrassi: Next Class on Netflix. We’re also on at least the seventh teen pregnancy plotline, the second school shooting, and the third character with a self harm/cutting problem, so the show is retreading over its Greatest Hits pretty hard. The timeline has also only allowed for coverage from Facebook (“Facerange” in Seasons 9 onwards) and MySpace (“MyRoom” in Seasons 6 and 7) to date from the social media sphere, because we’re just not at Instagram or TikTok until Next Class.

After four months of watching though, I am still surprised by the kiddo’s interest as I honestly did not see my son becoming so enthusiastic about this show. He is genuinely engaged with these narratives and situations, mostly due to the effects of COVID. After all, kiddo hasn’t been in a school situation for a year now. He misses being with other kids his age, the teens and tweens he’s used to seeing every day at school. Watching a TV show every day with kids interacting in a very authentically awkward (albeit scripted awkward) way makes him feel like he’s still able to pick up some of the social behavior examples he’s missing at school. Degrassi allows him to see a dramatized version of what social interaction looks like for kids in the grades immediately above him. He is so into the show that even the use of the over-dramatized situations as teaching tools for his parents to bring up HORRIBLY EMBARRASSING TOPICS is acceptable if we can just watch another episode. And my husband has acknowledged that this actually was a good option to plunk our kid down in front of a Canadian television show because it covered way more VALUABLE LESSONS, and with much more emotional impact, than my American husband thought a TV show could. (Canada: Telling Teens It’s OK to Be Gay Since 1986!)

Now, after almost 300 twenty-three minute episodes, we’ve covered teen problems from four years of GenXers (born 1965–1980) and twelve years of Millennials (born 1980–1995), and we’re just getting into the later Degrassi and Degrassi: Next Class years that feature members of Gen Z (born 1995–2010). Just as I’m one of the youngest GenXers, my son, born the year I turned 30, is one of the youngest GenZers. This is why it’s disappointing that Netflix canceled Next Class in 2018, just as the students started to include children born in 2000, but before the show could include children born after 2005. It’s also a strange parallel that, just as the original generation ended with characters born five years before I was, the Next Class ends with characters born five years before my son was. The most time we’ve spent has been with the seasons featuring characters born in the mid-90s, halfway between each of our generations. But so long as they have cell phones and the Internet and their clothes aren’t weird, my GenZ child can relate to them, and we’ll just keep on covering all the teen issues until we run out of time and only see these characters in Drake videos.

Finally, for those GenXers who followed the original generation: Snake is now the principal of Degrassi Community School, like he has been placed under a curse that prevents him from ever leaving the school. And he eventually married Spike, and became Emma’s stepdad, and stayed friends with Joey Jeremiah and yes, we did have to hear the occasional rendition of “Everybody Wants Something” even as late as 2004. (Thankfully, all the high school bands featured in the show since 2001, have been actual bands with more than one song.)

You can find all the seasons of Degrassi except for Degrassi High (1990–1991) and Degrassi: Next Class on the official YouTube channel (along with plenty of best/worst, first/last, etc videos https://www.youtube.com/user/epitomedegrassi). You can find the original Degrassi High and its finale movie Degrassi: School’s Out! on YouTube but you’ll have to hunt around for them. Finally, you can find Next Class on Netflix, although these kids all seem to be in their 20s like the producers decided to 90210-ify it. And no one seems to have a good source for the original Kids of De Grassi Street, which I 100% would have made our kiddo watch if I’d been able to find it when he was younger so HEY CBC GET ON THAT.

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