Degrassi began with a low-budget after-school show for kiddies and gradually grew into one of the most successful and recognizable Canadian television franchises. For three decades, various incarnations of the show have spun relatively intelligent stories and morality tales about adolescence—- with, of course, a study guide available to help examine relevant issues.
I will discuss each series and related topics. Other nodes provide additional detail.
The Kids of Degrassi Street (1979-1985)
Linda Schuyler, a former teacher, and Kit Hood, an actor and filmmaker, formed Playing with Time productions in 1975, and had their first major success with this show, clearly modeled on the American After-School Special. The major innovation in this series, which ran twenty-six episodes between 1979 and 1985, was the use of a common setting (real-life De Grassi Street in Toronto, Ontario) and recurring characters. The episodes dealt with childhood issues and proved popular with children and educators. The show looks and feels low-budget, but the child actors have a believability and sincerity usually missing from television, even in the era of "Reality" tv. The later actors include many who would continue with the Degrassi franchise. They play different characters here, however, than the ones they would make famous. This, combined with the cheapness and pedestrian approach makes Kids one of the least-watched of the Degrassi series.
By the series' end, the youngest actors were now nearing an age to attend Junior High. The Degrassi story really begins there.
Degrassi Junior High (1987-1989)
Wake up in the morning, feeling shy and lonely,
Gee, I gotta go to school.
I don't think I can make it, don't think I can take it,
I wonder what I'm gonna do.
But when I look around and see,
that someone is smiling right at me,
Wait! That someone’s talkin' to me,
Hey! I got a new friend!
--Lewis Manne and Wendy Watson Destiny Fellows
If anything indicates that Playing with Time (a) saw this as a kid/youth show and (b) was founded by a teacher, it's the Cheesiest Theme Song in Television History, part of which I've quoted above. It sounds like something you'd teach to a kindergarten class, provided you could tolerate their cynical smirking. Never mind. Once you get over the rinky tune and Romper Room lyrics, you see a show that, for the most part, doesn't patronize its intended audience. For that reason, Degrassi won critical acclaim and a huge audience.
Unlike most American high school offerings, Degrassi cast actual teenagers as teenagers, eschewed simplistic high school stereotypes, and allowed issues episodes to resolve. It also dedicated much of its time to the more mundane aspects of teen life, which made it seem less sensationalist than it might have. While eighth-graders Spike (Amanda Steptoe) and Shane (Billy Parrott) have sex, Yick (Siluck Saysanasy)and Melanie (Sara Ballingall) fumble towards an innocent first date. L.D. (Amanda Cook) worries her ill father will die, while a non-poisonous snake gets loose in the halls with comical consequences.
The show reflects diversity in its casting. Characters not only come from different racial backgrounds, they have wildly different home lives. In one episode, Lucy (Anais Granofsky) and friends get drunk and behave irresponsibly with little consequence. In that same episode, model daughter Voula (Niki Kemeny) sneaks out to a dance and gets in deep trouble with her conservative, immigrant parents.
The first season begins with seventh graders; in the second, they move on to eighth grade while new, younger actors join the cast. No one realized how popular and long-running the show would become, and the failure to plan ahead created some minor but bizarre continuity problems. After the second season, the original cast should have graduated and moved on. Instead, an unexplained population/enrollment problem has them attending ninth grade at Degrassi, though taking some of their classes at nearby Borden High. A year later, however, all of the cast, and some of the established Borden crowd, continue at the hitherto unmentioned Degrassi High.
Degrassi High (1989-1992)
The song receives some new lyrics and becomes marginally less cheesy. The characters, however, grow and change in believable and unexpected ways. Yick, an insecure nerd in Junior High, drifts away from his old friends and becomes a stoner. Another character commits suicide, leaving behind confused friends. While favourite teacher Ms. Avery (Michelle Goodeve) disappears, the end of the first episode reveals that hardline Dan Raditch (Dan Woods) has been promoted to principal of Degrassi High, a position he will hold in later incarnations of the show.
Despite the size of the cast, we see different sides of a character. Kathleen (Rebecca Haines), say, is not just the girl with the alcoholic mother. She plays various roles in various episodes. While friendships and cliques exist, Degrassi acknowledges the fluidity of social groupings in high school.
The issues grow more serious, and they rarely do mere walk-ons. Only gay and lesbian issues receive short shrift. A teacher is rumoured to be gay in an episode of Junior High, but this remains unconfirmed. Caitlin (Stacie Mistysyn) briefly thinks she might be gay, but she isn't, and the real issue of that episode is that some people experience uncertainty about sexual orientation during adolescence and shouldn't worry about it unduly. When High finally introduces a gay character, he takes the form of Snake's (Stefan Brogren) over-achieving older brother, who makes a guest appearance and is neither seen nor heard from again, not even in the gay-positive Next Generation.
Degrassi: School's Out (1992)
The kids receive a send-off with this tv movie that begins at graduation and ends at the wedding of Simon (Michael Carry) and Alexa (Irene Courakos)-- who, in a plot filled with teen sex, have saved their virginity for the honeymoon. In between we see the events of the summer, with the focus on the show's most popular characters.
School's Out in Canada and on DVD dropped both the f-bomb and Joey Jeremiah's (Pat Mastroianni's) pants1. Viewers in America and some later Canadian rebroadcasts saw a censored version. The film also features far-reaching implications for some characters, implications which would be addressed in the twenty-first century.
Degrassi Talks (1992)
The other least-watched of the Degrassi shows, this limited run series features the actors as themselves talking to other teens and experts about issues discussed in episodes of Junior High and High.
Degrassi: The Next Generation (2001-?)
Whatever it takes
I know i can make it through
--Jody Colero, James McGrath, Stephen Stohn
With Emma (Miriam Mcdonald), the child born to Christine "Spike" Nelson now old enough to be in Junior High, the show returned. Both the Junior High and the High School were replaced with Degrassi Community School, a composite center that educated students from seventh to twelfth grade.
The pilot episode also served as a reunion special. The show's creators carefully crafted three different plot threads. One plot reintroduces many of the old characters as they attend a reunion, thus establishing the connection between the new and the old series. Another introduces the adolescent Emma and a few of her friends in a somewhat far-fetched encounter with a sexual predator2. A third, somewhat disconnected series of short scenes updates us on other members of the original series. All told, the original pilot runs one and one-half hours (including commercials). That third thread, which requires prior knowledge of the characters to be meaningful, was removed from syndication and series DVD release. This turns "Mother and Child Reunion" into two half-hour episodes which can be enjoyed by fans who have no real connection with the original characters.
Baby Emma and mother Christine/Spike are not the only connections to the old school.3 Archie "Snake" Simpson reappears as a teacher, and eventually marries Christine, on whom he once had a teenage crush. The adult Caitlin Ryan and Joey Jeremiah reappear, and become series regulars for a time. Other characters turn up, especially in the third and fourth seasons, and for the wedding of Snake and Spike. Emma meets her brain-damaged father. Derek "Wheels" Wheeler (Neil Hope) seeks absolution for events in School's Out. Mr. Raditch continues as principal for the first three seasons, before being replaced by the imperious Ms. Hazilakos (Melissa DiMarco) and, later still, the jack-asinine Mr. Sheppard (Kevin Jubinville). Unlike the earlier show, The Next Generation dedicates plots to the parents and teachers, though the teens remain the center, and the trouble they find is often greater than anything their predecessors experienced.
Ratcheting up the issues and their frequency makes the show seem, to some, edgier, but it also becomes more sensationalist. No school goes through quite as many significant and newsworthy problems as the Next Generation version of Degrassi experiences. A Hollywood movie uses their school as a location. A school shooting leaves one character in a wheelchair, while a stabbing at a party kills a fan favourite. One episode gives some credibility to the sex bracelet urban legend of the early 2000s, though in a form modified significantly so as to seem almost plausible.4
Degrassi: The Next Generation also goes out of its way to make amends for the limited handling of gay and lesbian issues in the original series. The Next Generation features a character with a gay father, a gay male teen character (hip Marco, played by Adamo Ruggiero), and a regular boyfriend for that character. A female character, Alex (Deanna Casaluce), discovers her lesbianism in the fifth season and, in the most surprising twist, trendy queen bitch/cheerleader Paige (Lauren Collins) realizes she is bisexual.5 The significant number of gay characters isn't just something that drew criticism from real-life gospel slingers. Within the show, evangelical Christian characters express offense and, if the show clearly takes sides at that point, at least it acknowledges that differences of opinion exist. More significantly, episodes deal with gay bashing and homophobia, while others show that among many teens today, the sexual preferences of others is simply not an issue.
The new incarnation proved more popular than the original, perhaps at the cost of some verisimilitude. Not only was it more sensationalized, it was glitzier. The realistic-looking teens, perhaps aware of their predecessors' limited post-Degrassi success, grew increasingly buff and made-up as the seasons progressed. The scripts also demonstrated a self-awareness that could be entertaining, but was not strictly realistic.
The show, in the post-postmodern tradition of contemporary television, often references its own history and influences. Starting with the second season, episodes bear the titles of pop songs from the 1980s, when the original show became popular. One third season episode self-consciously borrows the plot from The Breakfast Club. Principal Raditch dresses in similar clothing to the administrator from that John Hughes classic. The weird girl, as in the movie, chooses to be in detention, though for a different (and more plausible) reason than her Breakfast Club counterpart. Degrassi also answers a lingering question from the movie. Yes, the kids do say "hi" to each other in the halls the following week. Of course, Degrassi always did take a more positive yet often more realistic approach to teen interactions.
Perhaps the series' most bizarre bit of intertextuality concerns filmmaker Kevin Smith.
Smith is a huge fan. He references Degrassi in several of his films, and has openly discussed his youthful crush on Stacie Mistysyn who plays Caitlin Ryan. In four episodes of The Next Generation, he appears as himself, first filming on location at the school and then visiting Toronto for the premiere of the fictitious movie, Jay and Silent Bob Go Canadian, Eh?6 While there, he meets and experiences a short-lived romance with the now-adult Caitlin.
The show's self-aware sense of humour may also be seen in the online "Degrassi Minis," short clips which often put cast members in non-canonical situations that kid their characters, and in two tongue-in-cheek, out-of-continuity Halloween episodes which parody horror movies.
The show continued in 2008, with Emma and her classmates poised to graduate high school (seemingly a year too late, a fact accounted for by placing the last two seasons in separate semesters). Other characters have graduated, yet still appear in storylines that follow their lives. The show, however, has exhausted the issue-oriented approach and now seems to be flogging the dead horse's bare bones. The 2008 and 2009 seasons have their share of silly, far-fetched, and excessively sensationalist elements. The series continued nevertheless.
Paradise City: Degrassi Goes Hollywood (2009)
This bizarre tv-movie gave a send-off to the original Next Generation kids, who had either left the show or were working their way off it. Several members of the cast, through a series of implausible twists and fantastic coincidences, all end up in Hollywood. Although it has its fans, I could only view it as largely humorless self-parody.
Made-for-television movies which may or may not be referenced in the regular series have, by now, become a standard part of Degrassi.
Starting with its tenth season in 2010, Degrassi switched to a daily soap opera format, dropped its subtitles and the pretense of realism. The new show mixes elements of the original with Gossip Girls excesses, and may be unrecognizable to fans of old Degrassi. It continues to this day, with new students cycling in and replacing old. Since I have not watched in years, I do not know if older characters reappear anymore.
Degrassi: The Morality Tale
Drama requires conflict and consequences, and the Kids of Degrassi experience those on a weekly basis. More often than not, the teens of Degrassi learn harsh lessons.
Spike has unprotected sex once and gets pregnant. Erica (Angela Deiseach) has protected sex and gets pregnant anyway. She has an abortion, only to be stalked by a rabid anti-abortionist. Dwayne (Darrin Brown) has unprotected sex and contracts HIV. Wheels buys condoms— and the saleswoman turns out to be his date's mother. Shane takes hallucinogenic drugs, does a brodie off a bridge, and permanently damages his brain. Wheels drives drunk, kills a child, and leaves a classmate disabled. Emma gives a boy oral sex and contracts an STD. Terri (Christina Schmidt) foolishly gives her abusive boyfriend one more chance and ends up in intensive care. Manny (Cassie Steele) flashes her breasts and finds them posted online. Devout Darcy (Shenae Grimes) takes her first alcoholic drink and someone spikes it with a date rape drug.
As with the fact of major issues, the consequences create problems. Individually, these stories are entirely plausible and they provide fodder for discussion among teens and adults. Many of the situations depicted happen in teens' lives, often with exactly the consequences depicted. Pregnancy often results from sex. Returning to an abusive partner easily could land you in intensive care. Collectively, however, the issues and their consequences amount to overkill. Degrassi is simultaneously a happy place and yet one visited by every conceivable teen issue (including a school shooting and a murder) on a weekly basis. It's a world where any teen issue and lifestyle can be explored, but where an angry god visits judgment upon every transgression.
I have a love-hate relationship with the show. The excesses regularly drive me away from watching, and yet I always return. Degrassi remains far superior to nearly every teen-based, teen-oriented offering on television.
Fans clearly agree, because the show has proven profitable in its various incarnations.
Degrassi: The Merchandising
Degrassi has spawned a fair bit of merchandise. This includes Exit Stage Left, a novel set during Junior High's first season, and several short novels that each focus on a specific character. The Next Generation has an accompanying series of "Extra Credit" graphic novels that fill in the gaps between episodes.
All episodes and incarnations, of course, may be purchased. The series most famous product may be, of course, rapper Drake, who first came to attention as the Degrassi character Jimmy Brooks. Clearly, Degrassi will remain for some time part of the Canadian popgeist, and one of the country's most successful dramatic exports.
1. Actually, this is the second time viewers are treated to wise-ass Joey Jeremiah's bare butt, but this time, it appears in a sexualized context. The movie also features the words "shit" and "asshole," hitherto unspoken in the series but obviously part of the average Canadian teen’s dialect.
2. The fact of the online predator isn't far-fetched, but the manner in which the cast prevent Emma's violation reeks of TV writing.
3. In some markets where Degrassi is known primarily through The Next Generation, the original series has been rebroadcast as Degrassi: Old School.
4. The original urban legend claims that teens perform sexual acts with anyone who snaps a bracelet, with the particular act indicated by the bracelet's colour. In the Degrassi-verse, offering someone a bracelet of a particular colour meant you were willing to engage in that act with them. This allowed the show to indicate oral sex was about to occur between very young characters without having those actors do things that (a) shouldn't be shown in a show watched by children and (b)couldn't be performed by the actors without violating laws against child pornography.
5. The show was not above lesbian exploitation, and not just because Paige and Alex date and even exploit the male fascination with girl-girl relationships in order to enter a trendy, age-restricted event. In a sixth season episode, Alex briefly dances as a stripper in order to acquire much-needed money.
6. Jason Mewes and Alanis Morissette also appear in these episodes as themselves, actors in Smith's movie.