High School Never Ends: An Interview with the Creators of 'Degrassi'

A brand new class is about to enroll at Degrassi Community School, and you'll be able to relive your teen angst alongside them on Netflix.

|
Aug 3 2015, 5:25pm

All photos courtesy of Degrassi

The Degrassi franchise has been painting an indelible, can't-miss portrait of the middle, junior, and high school experience for more than 35 years and 300 episodes. This writer wasn't even born when the original show aired, but I was shown Degrassi Junior High in middle school and was immediately hooked into the show's particular brand that mixed sincere storytelling, kids who talk to each other like actual kids, cutesy synth music, general lo-fi aesthetic, and crazy plotlines like the one where a student jumped off a bridge on acid. More than anything, watching Degrassi is like looking into a real, living school that felt like people actually went to and hung out at.

"It goes there," was the advertising mantra for the post-9/11 iteration of the show, entitled Degrassi: The Next Generation . And it did. At the time, the show tackled issues—perhaps sometimes a bit absurdly—with an honesty rarely seen on teen shows. There were cyberstalkers, "MyFriend" pages, kids experimenting with weed, and school shootings (if you'll recall, Drake got his start playing Jimmy, the jock who became paraplegic following him getting shot by the bullying victim Rick). More recently, the show featured a Peabody Award-winning storyline about a trans student who must deal with pushback from a deadly, knife-wielding bully. The show also engaged in plenty of interesting, morally-ambiguous storytelling that never force-fed the viewers clear cut answers or endings to plotlines. While this is fairly commonplace in the world of prestige TV, it was pretty radical in a show aimed at high-schoolers.

After 14 seasons, the current era of

Degrassi came to an end last week. In January of 2016, the show will have a new class, as well as a new home in Netflix. VICE caught up with Linda Schuyler, one of the creators of the original series and a member of the Order of Canada for gifting the show to Canadian society. We also spoke to her husband, Stephen Stohn, who was a lawyer for the original show and executive producer on Degrassi: Junior High.

VICE: What's up?
Stephen Stohn: The coolest thing just happened. I heard some screaming in the corridor. Some girls had talked their way in. They were rabid fans. From Ohio, Connecticut, and Michigan. We took pictures and one of the girls shyly pulled up her pants leg and it had the lyrics, "Whatever it takes" tattooed on her leg.

Can you just talk a little about the transition to Netflix? How is the show changing?
Linda Schuyler: We're in production and busy editing. When we came back this year, we would have been in season 15 of Degrassi. Without knowing anything about [Netflix or Teen Nick] creatively, the writers and I decided to take a hard look at the show. We've been on the air for 14 seasons which is something to be tremendously grateful for. We're very thrilled that we've had 14 years with Teen Nick and CTV in Canada. We realized that the kids we're talking to today are a new generation from the kids we talked to in 2001 when we came out with Degrassi: The Next Generation. Then, we were very much talking to millennials. There's a new generation, Generation Z, who weren't even born when we started that show. That was a very sobering fact...We've done a lot of research into Generation Z and decided we need a reboot.

Is there going to be some change to the flow of the show as it is coming out on Netflix?
Linda: There is going to be some change to how the narrative of the show unfolds. There will be two chapters of ten episodes each. Each chapter has its own thematic storyline. As we tell each story, there are some stories that compete with each other and then bits and pieces flow through. We actually don't have a roll out plan from Netflix yet but we are aware that our audience could be binge watching. We're trying to make an experience that will be satisfying on a weekly basis. But if you watch it at once it's a very juicy form of creative storytelling.

What are some things that are going to be different with the new generation
Linda: The millennials had an attitude that the world owes them something and that they're entitled. Generation Z is a very interesting bunch. If you look back and watch Degrassi in 2001... we all know what happened on 9/11. So this generation [of millennials] has grown up with a world that's known terror, they've seen recession, they've seen their parents struggle with money so they should be in despair. Interestingly, they collectively feel that we've made a mess of the world and it's they're going to be the ones to save it. So there is a great energy and hope with this generation. So it's quite fascinating...and social media is such a big part of their lives and how they communicate and trying to figure out how much information to put out there and what the dating protocols are. Degrassi's always been about relationship formation and who's cheating on who and when you're ready to have sex, and now the way to communicate is very complicated with this social media and we try to reflect all that.

Stephen: The centennials are going to save us all. As children of the 60's, we thought we were going to save the world. We thought our parents were part of these institutions that messed everything up. ISIS is still there, polarization of America is still there, school violence is still there... But generation Z, having grown up with their first memories of always having been Post-9/11 and having economic troubles and some sort of device in their hands... they're different. You might expect that they might run away and become dissolute. But their reaction is to say, "Yeah it'd be nice to be a movie star or a rock guitarist or ballerina," but when the rubber hits road they really want to be a doctor or a nurse or work with the United Nations and just try and make the world a better place. I am so looking forward to telling stories of this generation.

You talk about the post-9/11 years. I'm curious if was there a conscious decision to make the characters on Degrassi: The Next Generation a little more harsh and cruel to each other than in the original series? They're very mean to each other and there's a lot of blackmailing and backstabbing.
Linda: I'd say the second set of seven years tended to go in that direction. What I'm finding now as we're developing the Next Class: There's a little more kindness, a little more caring perhaps. They're a bit more hopeful.
Stephen: One key difference between Degrassi Classic and current Degrassi is how slow the pace is. With the current writers there is an imperative to make every moment as interesting as possible. There can still be breathing space. But when the breathing space is there, it's there to make a point. There's either some underlying tension or underlying thought. Usually we'll put music under it to reinforce that. But that means there's much more storyline in each episode. Which means people are constantly talking to each other and relating to each other.

I wonder if what you're talking about is how there isn't that easy camaraderie and people are reacting more to the point... As we sort of progress through characters, if the new characters come in and they're just nice and easy going so there's not that much drama. So the new characters will be abrasive. They'll be queen bees or they'll be pushing away. Or they're really sarcastic. What they're doing in all of that is trying to find their way into the school and into their friends, so they may be seen as unlikable.

Degrassi was always interesting in how many episodes and story arcs might end on a depressing down note or an inconclusive one, where we're not really sure the right decision was made. Is that something that was also intentional? Linda: I see high school kids as having one foot in childhood and one foot in adulthood. Trying to figure out who you are as you're growing up has given me years of storytelling... I feel like it's our job as producers to present all sides of the argument. Then the audience can make their own decisions. Ultimately that's what kids need growing up: the tools to make their own decisions without being be told what to do.

What should someone's goal in high school be? Go to college? Become an artist? Just get through it?
Linda: I see it as an opportunity to expand your horizons. One of the fundamental principles of our show is the acceptance of individual differences. Whether that's sexual differences, physical differences, economic differences... When kids come out of middle school, they're not exposed to much beyond their parents' own values. I think we were one of the first shows to have a transgender character as a main character. Especially kids from small communities don't get exposed to this level of diversity. One of the things I love people to get out of our show is an acceptance of diversity. Whether they get a job out of high school or go to university, we want people to feel that they don't need to be afraid of strangers and can accept individual differences, and also that they are not alone.

Do you feel that high school is generally a positive or negative experience? Linda: At Degrassi? Nooooo. We tackle some issues but that's not necessarily negative. If kids talk about it in the schoolyard or at sleepovers we need to talk about it on our show. We try very hard to be authentic. We're not trying to sensationalize them. At the same time we're not trying to penalize or minimize them either. Because these are real issues. We also have lovely stories about two girls arriving to prom in the same dress or a girl showing off a keychain to her friends and not realizing it's a sexual vibrator or about penis pumps and how they work. Really fun stories.

Do you believe the old adage that what we go through in high school determines our personalities for the rest of our lives?
Linda: There's a comment I heard that's, "Show me the boy at seven and I will show you the man." That actually inspired the whole British documentary series called Seven Up that follows kids from seven for every seven years of their life. And then you look at our show and it's in groups of seven years. So I think there's something to that. On one hand, you don't like to think your life is preordained or predetermined but there are some truisms of your personality that are consistent over the years.

In the original series, characters insulted each other with the word "Broomhead." Where did that come from?
Linda: That was just a silly name because we wanted a derogatory name to use on the show. So we went through the phone book to try to find a name we could use and we found Broomhead.

So that was the person's last name?
Linda: [laughs] It was a person's last name.

How unfortunate. And who wrote the music for the Zit Remedy?
Linda: Our friends who wrote the music had a nephew in eighth grade. So they said to him, "Could you write us a song?" So it was written by an eighth grader. I can't believe how many people know that crazy song.

In this climate, is it still viable to try to send messages to kids in by using a TV show? Are kids necessarily still looking at you for advice?
Linda: Well, I think you just stumbled on why we are so thrilled at being on Netflix. We are where the kids are. Traditional broadcasters have trouble with this demographics. With us partnering with Netflix worldwide, we can reach kids wherever they are and not on some schedule. It's so exciting and so refreshing.
Stephen: Back in the day, when there was no internet and very few shows aimed at teenagers. Degrassi was genuinely a place for education. These days, kids have access to everything. So our mission now is, can we become the authentic voice of generation Z? That's like one of those mission statements you see on the wall of a McDonald's. To do that, we need to think about what it is we mean by making an impact or engagement. You have to tell stories about the audience but you also have to be reaching out to the audience. We're going to be a bunch of online productions this year in addition to the main show, where we have an issue like race or butts or catfishing, and we have the actor puts something up about it on YouTube, and then the audience responds with their experience, and of course the hidden agenda of this is that the audience becomes involved the more story ideas we get.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter.

More VICE
Vice Channels