I still remember watching the very first episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation. The slogan for the Canadian drama was, at the time, “If your life was a TV show, this would be it.” The phrase felt far more fitting for Degrassi than any other show that I had watched before, though at the time, my life problems consisted mostly of my sister and me fighting over the remote. I wasn’t yet in middle school when the series premiered in 2001, but I remember thinking that the characters on this series — the youngest of whom were in seventh grade — were not quite cut from the same cloth as my beloved Lizzie McGuire or Ren Stevens, Disney Channel darlings whose lives were infinitely shinier than that of Emma Nelson or Ashley Kerwin’s. By the time Emma’s mom had to rescue her from an internet pedophile in the pilot episode of Degrassi, I was strangely hooked. Degrassi quickly became my show, and at the ripe age of 24, it bizarrely still is.
I didn’t start watching Degrassi for a life lesson. At the time, I thought Degrassi was the edgiest series ever. Though the series was a half hour long, it wasn’t a sitcom; rather, it was a sneak preview into the world that I would slowly grow into. I was a few years younger than Emma, Ashley and the rest of the early cast, and it wasn’t long before I realized my peers and I would soon understand the meaning of the show’s slogan. The episode in which Emma gets her period in class came just a few weeks after my class was shown the “birds and the bees” videos. I still feel that Degrassi prepared me better.
Of course, lots of shows use growing pains as fodder for story — Degrassi did that in spades, but it also did something that few other series dared. Degrassi was not your typical drama series in the sense that it didn’t set up story arcs. Instead, characters were given arcs by throwing problems at them the way that life would throw problems at any teenager. If anyone was to argue that Manny’s teen pregnancy or Craig’s bipolar disorder came out of left field, it was because, well, life doesn’t prepare you for these kinds of things, either. There aren’t Easter eggs in life the way there are on Game of Thrones. Watching these characters struggle with problems that fell into their path was always a reminder that, no matter what, you could climb over those hurdles — and, perhaps most importantly, you weren’t alone in doing so.
People joke that Degrassi has an “after school special” quality about it, with its issue-of-the-week formula and its ripped-from-the-headlines story lines. These people aren’t exactly wrong, but for young viewers of Degrassi, the formula isn’t quite as important as how the show chooses to tackle these specific issues. Take Marco’s coming out, for example. When I first watched Marco confess to Ellie that he was gay, my heart ached for him. We had spent episodes with Marco as the object of Ellie’s affection, as “one of the guys” in Spinner’s crew. It was only then that he confessed his secret, and by the time, he was hardly just a character the show was using as a stand-in for a coming-out story line. Marco was a person who happened to be gay and who was hurt by homophobia he encountered daily.
As a young person who never experienced a friend coming out, I felt immediate empathy for Marco. Later, when a friend did open up to me about his sexuality, I had no experience to connect with it other than what I saw on TV — and what I saw made me realize the importance of sending the message of love and acceptance to my friend in that moment. Perhaps Degrassi can’t get all of the credit for this, but it certainly gets some.
Then there were the harder episodes of Degrassi to swallow, the ones that didn’t paint a picture of the world that anyone liked. Paige’s rape, and the subsequent trial, was a painful lesson in how victims of sexual assault are treated not only by their peers but also by the legal system. Paige loses her case against Dean, the soccer player who raped her at a party, but not before suffering through post-traumatic stress, victim-blaming and depression. I can’t help but wonder if other Degrassi fans are disheartened by the fact that years and years after Degrassi prompted the discussion about rape, we’re still having the very same one with the Brock Turner case. Regardless, Degrassi taught me more than the sad reality of prosecuting rapists: It also taught me the importance of putting my faith in those survivors brave enough to speak out.
Degrassi did, and does, more than provide entertainment for teens: It teaches empathy by allowing us to see the worldview of so many different characters and, in turn, so many different struggles. I will never know what it’s like to be bullied due to my religion, as Hazel was, or followed around a store by a racist clerk, as Danny was. Degrassi validated all those stories and gave its audience the ability to see life through different lenses.
Degrassi has gone through many changes — it’s now called Degrassi: Next Class, and its home moved to Netflix from TeenNick, just to name some changes — but it’s still tackling issues smartly and not always easily. I learned so much in my 15 years of watching Degrassi, and I hope that the next generation can as well.
Degrassi: Next Class streams its second season on July 22 on Netflix.