Violence. Addiction. Ego. Intimacy issues. Growing up. These are the motifs that inform TV shows for teens, and they have sprung directly from the rib of Degrassi, the great Canadian juggernaut of edutainment that will never die.
It is a truly blessed time to be a grown adult fan of television shows about and marketed towards high-schoolers. Consider Hulu's telenovela-inflected show East Los High, or Pretty Little Liars, which daringly just jumped five years into the future and has, over the years, inspired a freakish number of intelligent and charming podcasts. And though it's not currently on air, we shouldn't forget the Shakespearian saga that is Gossip Girl, whose first two seasons ought to be required binge-watching for any adult with a Netflix password, access to marijuana, and a free weekend or two.
The brilliance of Degrassi—especially Degrassi: The Next Generation, otherwise known as The One Drake Was On—is that it depicts every horrible thing that could have possibly happened in high school, all pretty much at the same time. Since 1979, the show has depicted teens going through trials and tribulations ranging from murder, suicide, teen pregnancies, AIDS, and a pre-rap-superstardom Drake making the following face while getting a boner:
Still, the new season of Degrassi—whose first ten episodes were released to Netflix last Friday—feels like an outlier in the bold landscape of teen TV. Showcasing a new cohort of students at Degrassi High, Degrassi: Next Class is the show's newest rebrand, this time as a more realistic alternative to the competition. Whereas East Los High verges on magical realism—that show combines plot lines about AIDS, pregnancy, domestic abuse, and high-level drug-dealing with EDM and dance battles—and Gossip Girl centers around the lifestyles of the impossibly attractive and rich, the newest iteration of Degrassi is a kinder, gentler teen drama.
Degrassi: Next Class is for the most part sweetly earnest, treating the things teens go through—sex, drugs, rapid-fire changes in personal perspective—as monumental events. It aims for a kind of realism with refreshingly lowered stakes: Degrassi's pansexual drug addict essentially just stumbles around a lot and kisses both his ex-boyfriend and his female Ativan pusher; the boy branded as a lothario earns his rep through a series of make-outs, not by Chuck Bass-edly bedding every young lady in sight. One girl jumps to conclusions about a boy's preferences after stalking his Instagram likes, and the kid who refuses to wear sleeves gets schooled on how consent is an ongoing conversation. The plotlines are clearly ripped from the headlines, but they never verge on absurdity as teen-centered shows often do, even when the intensity is amped up. (One genuinely nail-biting affair starts with the "gamer club" arguing with the "feminist club" about what is and is not a trigger.)
In real life, high school can be serious stuff. Your friend might get pregnant, a teammate may get wrapped up in drugs, you could wind up in a destructive relationship, someone might call in a bomb threat. But, in all likelihood, not all of that stuff will happen to the same group of teens—and that fact could make previous Degrassi incarnations feel over-the-top. What Degrassi: Next Class understands is that high-school drama is usually more about the emotions stirred up by events than the events themselves. Kids always feel like their world is crashing down, when in reality the foundations are just being rattled a bit.
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