Confession: I love Degrassi. Now, I realize I’m not part of the 13-17 year old Canadian demographic - I’m no longer a teen and, as far as I know, I’ve never been Canadian. But 40% of viewers are people outside the target audience, so bear with me.
I only recently started watching the show, but apparently it’s been around for as long as I have. It was created in 1980, and has gone through several incarnations. It’s now called Degrassi: The Next Generation, and that’s the one I’m a fan of. There’s simply nothing else like it on American television.
And it’s not even an American TV show! It plays in the States thanks to the generous folks at The N. It features realistic teens attending the fictional Degrassi High, and deals with social issues like peer pressure, drug use, sex and even abortion - all in a very non-preachy, non-judgmental way. If you look at the shows produced in the States over the last decade that were targeted at the same audience, the only thing that comes remotely close to Degrassi is Malcolm in the Middle. True, it was much more comedic and stylized (though don’t get me wrong, Degrassi is often very funny), but at least it dealt with a working-class family in a compassionate and three-dimensional way. Before Malcolm, you’d have to go all the way back to Roseanne, My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks (i.e., the 1990s) to find shows where the creators were unconditionally on the same side as their teen protagonists.
Today, it’s all about condescending, basically imitating teens and talking down to them at the same time. The teens of American TV are shallow creatures indeed, obsessed with sex and money, byproducts of the amoral corporate culture of the Bush years. The tube is littered with trash like One Tree Hill, Popular and 90210 II. These shows aren’t meant to be illuminating or realistic; they’re made to sell shit to teens that they don’t need to be buying in the first place.
Across the norther border, Degrassi is refreshingly free of condescension. The characters are flawed but likable, and the plotlines address the issues facing young people head-on. In the very first episode of Degrassi: TNG, Emma, a smart and idealistic girl, develops an online crush on a boy named Jordan. They agree to meet, and “Jordan” turns out to be a sexual predator. This episode aired years before To Catch a Predator with Chris Hanson, and I’m convinced it saved lives by addressing this issue at a time when it was not widely covered by the media. The opener of the second season is equally strong, dealing with a father’s physical abuse and featuring a powerhouse performance by Jake Epstein.
But Degrassi isn’t an after-school special. It’s fresh and entertaining, and the writing is exquisite. Each episode has the same structure: One storyline deals with a single character and is usually serious in tone, while the second storyline is more comedic and often deals with issues brought up in earlier episodes. It works every time, and personally I’m studying the show to see how this structure might be applied to a short script I’ve been working on. Sneer if you must, but Degrassi is a vital piece of popular culture that’s a lot rarer than it should be.
Episodes of Degrassi: TNG are currently streamed here: http://www.ctv.ca/mini/degrassi2006/index.html