Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
Recommended To: Fans of Saved By The Bell, Beverly Hills 90210, and their ilk
Special Warnings: Episodes dealing with depression, suicide, anorexia, drug/substance abuse, sexual assault (obvious from descriptions)
For Canadians of Gen X, it’s impossible to meet one not familiar with the kids of Degrassi. For some of us (like me), teachers showed episodes of this critically lauded show in class as teaching moments/reprieves on the last day of class before holidays. Joey Jeremiah? Our Zach Morris. Hell, Kevin Smith loved the show so much, he named the infamous Caitlin of Clerks after Degrassi’s Caitlin Ryan.
Degrassi is your typical “lesson of the week” teen show in its structure, but it still works so well that I found myself marathoning both old series recently in a week’s time. The difference is in the kids themselves: these young actors aren’t polished adults playing teens; they’re playing themselves, awkwardness and all. There is continuity over the series, but mostly, we are treated to a spotlight of a character each episode as he/she deals with a serious issue. What also endears here is the lack of a laugh track minimizing their lives; instead, these kids face serious issues, screw up, face consequences that sometimes endure, and still have parents bugging them for good grades. Everyone does not get a shiny new car for their sweet sixteen; these kids buy their own after working jobs. Condoms break, and pregnancies happen. Even ableism is handled in an episode of Degrassi High, where well-meaning girls don’t invite their wheelchair-bound friend because they “know” a theatre isn’t accessible and what a shame, only to be confronted angrily that “not inviting me and assuming what I can and can’t do is as bad as places that aren’t accessible – I’m a person”.
The shows are shot in the late 80s-early 90s, so the fashion is fricking hilarious, but the show is impressive for how far it’s willing to go. Gay characters? Abortion clinics and protesters? Degrassi has it. The show is sex-positive while still encouraging, through the thoughts of its teens, to at least wait for someone you care about and be safe about it.
Oh, and they did the caffeine pill abuse before Bell’s infamous Jessie meltdown. True facts.
Degrassi was a voice for the youth of its time, demonstrating that they were more competent and adult than mainstream media gave them credit for, but also still vulnerable and prone to mistakes. It endures for being easy to relate to. Put on your jelly bracelets and tune in, and remember your teens with a laugh (and maybe a tear or two).