In June, TeenNick announced the death of Degrassi:The Next Generation. “For an incredible 14 seasons,” said TeenNick’s Keith Dawkins in a statement, “‘Degrassi’ has been a groundbreaking show tackling so many important topics that real teens face in their everyday lives.” He added, “In the final episodes on TeenNick and through the hour-long special and social activations, we hope to say goodbye in a way that is both fitting to the show and ‘Degrassi’s’ passionate fan base.”
But fans don’t really have to say goodbye to the Canadian teen drama—the show will be back on Netflix as Degrassi:Next Class in 2016. That season will be the 20th in the franchise, after three seasons of Degrassi Junior High, two of Degrassi High, and 14 of Degrassi: The Next Generation. That’s a lot of episodes (nearly 500), especially for a show this intense.
When Degrassi Junior High launched in 1987, it was lauded as a game changer, the prototype for every major teen series of the last 20 years, from Beverly Hills, 90210 to Gossip Girl. The show won an International Emmy for best children’s show in 1987, and walked away with an award for outstanding dramatic series on TV at the 1988 Banff festival in Canada. The Los Angeles Times reported that year:
“Degrassi’s” students grapple with drinking and drug abuse, the repercussions of shoplifting, the fallout from divorce, the gnawing insecurity that accompanies changes as major as puberty and as minor as getting a new pair of eyeglasses.
And that was just the first season.
I started watching Degrassi:The Next Generation when I was in high school, late at night on The N, and was instantly hooked. The episodes were somehow both explosive and contained. Situations escalated quickly and spectacularly and were either immediately resolved or neatly tucked away for later, to be used as garnish on another episode. Characters’ experiences stretched all along the spectrum of teenage drama: depression, eating disorders, dating, friendship, drugs, guns, and lots and lots of sex. And as teenagers are wont to do, they found help in a friend and stabilized, and then stepped back to let someone else perform a different (but altogether familiar) version of the same precarious dance. And everything happened in delightful Canadian English, which is great.
So I was sad when I heard that Degrassi was ending, but mostly I was surprised. How could they possibly have sustained this show for so many seasons, without repeating some storylines?
To answer the question, I considered every episode of Degrassi Junior High, Degrassi High, and Degrassi: The Next Generation and classified episodes according to the subject of its primary plot. To do that, I relied heavily on the Degrassi Wikia episode guide, which was generally comprehensive and in places quite poetic:
This took a very long time. My love for Degrassi stands strong.
Some notes on classification. For the purposes of this exercise, I allowed only one topic per episode, and picked the one I thought best represented the main story and honored the series’ abiding ethos:
- I classified sex crimes under “sex” rather than “crime,” because in the Degrassi universe, sex crimes often lead to trials. To make a distinction between the act and the prosecution, I split them up in this way.
- I also categorized some diseases, like eating disorders, as self-harm rather than illnesses because on Degrassi, eating disorders tend to be contained to a few episodes and treated as incidents rather than life-long struggles.
- Pregnancies are listed under “sex” because they are almost always unwanted consequences of unprotected sex.
- “Harmless trouble” includes teenage shenanigans that don’t end in tragedy—your classic twin swap, house party gone wrong, teens getting high off placebos episodes—and “activism” is for those episodes that focus on teens fighting for causes like animal rights.
Overall, I looked at 454 episodes, which include Degrassi movies that are treated as several-part television finales but not spinoff films. The list also does not include Degrassi Junior High precursor The Kids of Degrassi Street, because there’s no character continuity between the shows. Here’s how the episodes break down:
The overall episode breakdown is mostly unsurprising—most episodes were about love and sex, and all the messy stuff that goes along with them: dating, breaking up, cheating, thinking about having sex, not having sex, having sex, etc. Many were about family and home life in general. I was, however, surprised that a few of the episodes had heavy gambling plots—Degrassi‘s teen underbelly is apparently a high stakes space.
You can see here that proportionally, Degrassi: Junior High and Degrassi: High hit heavier subjects than Degrassi: Next Generation. The series and seasons were both significantly shorter (Degrassi: Junior High‘s three seasons had about 13 episodes each, while later Next Generation episodes had upwards of 40 episodes each), but are responsible for half of all episodes that deal with death.
There were only a few episodes that dealt with bigotry in earnest, but they were pretty hard hitting. In season three of Junior High, a white student (Michelle) suspects her father dislikes her boyfriend (BLT) because he is black. BLT also suffers (uncensored) racial slurs at school. In season two of Next Generation, a Muslim student (Hazel) pretends to be Jamaican to avoid discussing her faith, and is then wrongly accused of attacking an openly Muslim student (Fareeza) over her religion.
There is lots of crime and violence at Degrassi: Consider the two-part premier of season 11 of Next Generation, where a female character (Bianca) is sexually assaulted by a gang member (Anson). When her boyfriend (Drew) comes to her rescue and the two get into a scuffle, she strikes the assailant with a brick which, she learned later, killed him. Anson then tries to recruit Drew to the gang, to take Anson’s place, and instructs him to kill someone as initiation. Drew turns himself into the police and takes the blame for Anson’s death. This was a premiere!
Degrassi really takes the cake for drug diversity. One character (Katie) develops a codeine addiction that is discussed over several episodes. That is a drug deep cut.
After a decade-long hiatus (Degrassi: High went off the air in 1991, and Next Generation premiered in 2001) Degrassi hit online creeping hard. In the two-part series premiere, a pre-pubescent student (Emma) engages in an online relationship with an adult man posing as a teen—catfishing before we even called it catfishing. He lures her into a hotel room and tries to rape her, but her friends tell an adult in time to save her. Other disturbing relationships include IRL interactions with creepy adults, and lots of angry/controlling/abusive boyfriends.
Interestingly, the gay character most hesitant about coming out (Riley) doesn’t appear until season 8 of Next Generation. The football player grapples with his sexuality for a long time—by being homophobic, mostly—before finally coming out. Gay characters like Marco and Dylan who appear in earlier series and Tristan, who appears later, came out pretty quickly and didn’t struggle too much after they did.
There are so. many. episodes. about. sex. But the best ones are when two members of a couple mutually agree that they’re not ready for sex. If you want to see a young Drake play with a bunch of condoms as though they are balloons, check out episode six of season one of Next Generation.
Degrassi doesn’t handle eating disorders with much deft. Emma develops and gets over hers in two episodes. But, to the series’ credit, some eating disorder episodes are about male students.
People die on Degrassi with startling regularity, and in horrific fashion. In Junior High, both parents of one student (Wheels) die in a car crash. One Next Generation character (JT) is stabbed to death at a house party. Another (Adam, the series’ sole transgender character) is killed in a car crash while driving and fighting with his girlfriend over text. At least Degrassi characters seem to have high cancer survival rates.
Let’s talk about “glomerulonephritis,” the impetus of my favorite Degrassi arc. An untreated strep throat infection leaves Next Generation‘s Holly J. with glomerulonephritis, a kidney-damaging disease. She needs dialysis. But it doesn’t work! So she needs a kidney transplant. Nobody in her family is a match, because (surprise) she’s adopted! So Holly J. seeks out and finds her birth mother, Dawn, who agrees to give her a kidney, but only for $20,000. Holly J.’s all for it—until she remembers that buying an organ is illegal. The issue is finally resolved when a friend of Holly’s, Fiona, buys a $20,000 dress from Dawn in exchange for the organ, which apparently works as a trafficking loophole.
These are the sweetest, saddest episodes of Degrassi, when the students either graduate or have to deal with things like miscarriages.
Parents and adults in general play more of a role on Degrassi than other teen shows, in part because many of them are grown Junior High and High alum. And also because the show seems to take seriously the fact that teens live at home, so lots of the things they care about happen at home.
During this process, I learned some ancillary details about the franchise that are hard to quantify but are worth noting:
- Kevin Smith appears in several episodes of the show, as himself, and plays a not-insignificant role. Kevin Smith loves Degrassi.
- Alexz Johnson, who played the instant star on another Canadian TV favorite Instant Star, sings the Degrassi theme song in later seasons.
- In the 14th episode of the third season of Degrassi Junior High, which is about racism, a character drops the n-word, uncensored, before the opening credits. It is incredibly, and presumably intentionally, jarring and upsetting. And it made me very confused about Canadian public television standards in the late 1980s.
- Drake (‘nee Aubrey Graham), who played a Next Generation character who was paralyzed from the waist down after being shot at school, starred in a PSA encouraging students to speak up about possible shooters back in 2004.
- And finally, a number of Degrassi Junior High episodes have been posted to YouTube by PBS, which aired the show on the U.S., and are worth revisiting or watching for the first time.