I feel like I write this essay every year, and every year I just want to write it again.
Man alive, I love Degrassi so much.
I skip the intro to this show from time to time, but this essay I should probably do it again, because, well, I DO get new readers with reasonable frequency.
So here it is:
No, I was not a fan of the show as a kid. I was actually only barely aware of it, as I read one novel based on the series. (Looking at Amazon, it appears the book in question was Exit Stage Left. I have zero memories of the plot.)
I became curious when I read a write-up by Kevin Smith, talking about how much he enjoyed the show when he was working at the store where we would eventually shoot Clerks. I became even more curious when the DVDs of the show started coming out and I read a handful of reviews citing the show as being truly wonderful.
So when I found the first season at the library, my curiosity got to the best of me.
Convincing my wife to watch it at was hard at first, but after the first episode, it got very easy. In contrast to every TV show we grew up watching, these kids weren’t all pretty teens with well-off parents. The cast was ethnically diverse. And problems, ranging from underwear to cancer, were all handled with a just-right amount of discussion and proportion.
It was a great discussion show for my wife and I. What would you do? What did you do? What happens if our child does this?
And the show ended at the just the right time, I think. Five years in, they had run through most of the issues that could be discussed. And then… the closing TV movie.
Look, it was grim.
Not in a bad way. Quite the contrary. But the final episode of the series itself ended with a measure of grace and hope. It wasn’t a happy ending, really, but it said that there could be a happy ending.
But the TV movie said that things change, sometimes for the better, but often for the worse, and often in a big way. It was a pretty vicious ending, but an honest one that I respected and even kind of loved.
Of course, by the time we finished that series, Degrassi: The Next Generation was already in full swing.
I enticed my wife to watch it at least in part because I had heard that a lot of the original cast was still on the show. Far from just a teen sitcom/drama, the show had taken a page from shows like My So-Called Life and invested both the adults and the kids with their own plotlines.
We. Were. In.
It feels weird to talk about that first season now, mostly because the other night I realized that the show (now just called Degrassi) has so few ties to that show now.
When TNG began, adults from the old show appeared. New adults had plotlines of their own that often only bounced off the kid plotlines at little angles. The cast was, much like the original series, huge, with people getting their own plots every four or five episodes.
It was an issues show. It was a character show. It was a show about kids and their parents and how both of those things are difficult.
And it was, at the time, unlike everything else on TV.
They’re into season 13 how, while my wife and I are wrapping up season 12. And honestly, after a few seasons where you could tell the writers were trying really hard to come up with new spins on old ideas, this season has been pretty stellar.
The best shows can take a bad character and redeem them, but it’s a tough trick. Degrassi has done is a dozen times, taking characters with insurmountable flaws and building on them until you realize why they are who they are, and that they made mistakes, and that they are willing to change and grow.
This season has been particularly impressive to me because there’s been an odd underlying theme that I’m not sure was intended: Sometimes, bad things happen, it is NOT your fault, and there is little or nothing you can do to fix it.
Degrassi has never shied away from the mistakes the characters have made, and the true brilliance of the show has been that even mistakes that were long covered over or forgotten can come back to haunt you.
This season, though, things have occurred that can’t be fixed. Not really. One character’s alcoholic father was released from prison, and became a danger to him and his mother. So they had to move.
In truth, someone probably just wanted the character off the show, but the reality is that bad things happen and sometimes if you’re not the cause of the problem, you have to escape any way you can.
One character’s dad was hit with early-onset dementia. It was hard. It hurt. And there was nothing TO DO.
And this was on a show for kids. Kids who, honestly, need to know that sometimes life will do horrible things to you.
In the original Degrassi series, a character committed suicide. It was set up, carefully and well, and when it happened it was probably one of the best plotlines of the entire series.
And now, Degrassi was doing it again. And I figured that the original couldn’t be topped…
But you know what? They might have managed it.
Again, and I know I already said it, but actions have consequences on this show, and often the consequences are long-ranging.
Here, a series of people blame themselves for the death of their classmate, and the way they handle it isn’t confined to a single episode. It’s smeared messily across the show, one person after another expressing their grief, fear, and loss in horrible and often surprising ways.
In a year of my own life where I’ve seen a lot of grief and loss, and observed the many ways it can be handled, so many of those reactions rang true.
And in a year of bleah musical numbers on Glee, a bunch of fresh songs, covers, and even a terribly sung version of I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You and I’ve Had the Time of My Life bested every musical number I’ve heard on Glee this year.
That’s the long and short of it, really.
Degrassi has accomplished so much, and part of that accomplishment, I think, is that it does things other shows should do better, but don’t.
The other accomplishment has been as it slowly pulled off so many things that shouldn’t have worked, but did.
First, it rolled through more than 300 episodes without ever taking an extended vacation. Add in all the original series, and Degrassi has more than 400 episodes to its name.
As the years have zipped on, it’s cycled through a ton of cast members. Quite literally one character remains on the show from the first episode of the new series – and he was also in Degrassi Junior High.
Another thing that kind of blew my mind the more I thought about it was how many different types of shows the show has been.
Imagine, if you will, that The Big Bang Theory started as a sitcom, then shifted to a drama, then added a bunch of new cast members to the show, and then got rid of the old cast.
The newest version of Degrassi started as a parent/child show, not unlike My So-Called Life. Then it slowly dropped out the adults from the “classic” show. It went from being about kids in high school to being about kids in high school and college.
It got rid of the college kids. It started adding in semi-regular TV movies, some of them an hour long and some of them two.
It went to a telenovella style, pumping out four episodes a week.
It went from putting out 15 episodes a year to 40 with no real drop in quality.
It was a soap opera. It was a drama. It was a lesson-of-the-episode. It was a comedy.
It was a middle school show. And a high school show. And a college show. And a life outside of all of those things show. (Though now it’s basically a high school show all the time.)
It was always, always, always progressive, and pushing for social justice. But it doesn’t shy away from multiple sides of every issue, and what it means for the people involved, and what the fallout might be.
Not bad for a series that originated out of a 30 minute after-school special from Canada.
I’ve questioned over the years how long the show could possibly run, but most of those questions had to do with the fact that the show tried to cling to their original cast. But now those cast members are all gone, though not forgotten, and it’s clear that the show can survive as long as the people and the stories remain interesting.
Can it run forever? That I’m not sure about. The thirteenth season is on the air now, and I’ve read that casting for season fourteen has begun. But as the years roll out, there’s less and less chance that new people will pick up on the series, I think. A favorite character will leave, and some people will drop out, and no one new will show up to pick up that slack.
It’s just a matter of time.
When that time comes, I hope they capstone the series again. Snake (or Archie, or Principal Simpson, however you think of him) can drop yet another f-bomb on Canadian television. Maybe they can burn the school down again, or maybe…
I don’t know, maybe this time they can come to a semi-happy ending?
Personally, I’d love for the show to go out on that same note of uncertainty that it did the first time.
It’s the Degrassi way.