When a TV show logs over 525 episodes, it's bound to repeat storylines. For Degrassi, the never-ending teen drama that has been on the air since 1979 (barring a few short breaks), it's basically a necessity. There are plenty of recycled plots: coming out of the closet, meeting internet strangers, teen domestic violence, sexual assault, and, of course, the family drama staple of teen pregnancy.
Degrassi's taken on that last subject multiple times. In a 1987 episode of Degrassi Junior High, 14-year-old Spike finds out she's pregnant and carries the baby to term. Her child Emma was the star of 2001's Degrassi: The Next Generation, which (along with the 1992 TV movie School's Out) featured a character—specifically, Manny—getting an abortion in the episode "Accidents Will Happen." In the third season episode "#IRegretNothing" of Degrassi: Next Class, the series's sorta-continuation on Netflix, it's Lola who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant after a birth control mishap, with no plans to keep the baby. While Lola's isn't the first abortion storyline in the series, it's the most daring, honest, and somehow, most comforting take on the subject that the show's staged yet.
"Degrassi is all about teenage awakening and teenage first experiences, and obviously sexual experiences are a big part of that," executive producer and co-creator Linda Schuyler told me when she called from Canada (where it was, predictably, snowing). Schuyler is aware of the show's plot-recycling habit while also acknowledging that it serves a purpose. "Our audience is constantly renewing itself," she explains. "The political times and the climate is changing. We're always aware that whoever our audience is now, it doesn't matter what matters we've told in the past—it's going to be fresh for them."
Schuyler explains that they've done so many teen pregnancy storylines with varying results because, "It's always been the attitude of the show that it's not our job to be telling young people who they should be living our lives but it's our job—through lively story and lively character—to show them alternatives to their lives, and show them that they have choices."
This emphasis on choice—for the writers and the fictional characters—is key here. Many teen dramas treat teen pregnancy and sex as a one-and-done storyline, but Degrassi keeps finding new ways to return to the subject by exploring all of the options its characters face to give real teenagers a show to look to for reassurance, no matter their decision. "We're not trying to pretend that there aren't difficult situations that teenagers are going to find themselves in. That's part of the growing experience," says Schuyler. "But we also want to reassure our young audience that they're not alone and if they find themselves pregnant—or questioning their sexuality, or in a difficult situation at home—we hope that our show is a safe space where you can realize that other people are going through that as well."
The triumph of "#IRegretNothing" is in the specifics of Lola's circumstances—especially in context of "Accidents Will Happen," in which Manny faced a lack of support from her friends. The first person Lola tells, fellow student Yael, offers to accompany Lola to the clinic without a second thought. In "Accidents Will Happen," as Schuyler recalls, Manny went to the procedure with her mother; this time, "We chose a character who didn't have a mother, and who had an old world father. She just felt that if she told her father it wouldn't get her anywhere because he wouldn't support it. She just knew that she had to do this for herself."
Schuyler notes that these small distinctions are important because, "It really is each individual who has to judge their own circumstances." Plus, there was an opportunity to create a different storyline about how the abortion conversation has changed: "We also wanted to reflect what is happening with the times because abortion now, in 2017, is an easier procedure than it used to be." She pauses before adding, "At least it is in this country—and I hope it remains so in your country."
Lola also doesn't ask for advice from friends or family before making her decision—she only needs to run a few internet searches, which (in typical Degrassi fashion) are accidentally revealed to her entire class because of a mirroring mishap on her phone. As Schuyler puts it, "We made sure that before she went to the clinic, she had already made her up mind that she wanted to have an abortion. She had suspected that she might've been pregnant, had spent the two weeks prior thinking about it, and we wanted to show that is possible to make a strong choice like this and it be OK." And even though Yael and the clinic nurse both non-judgmentally ask Lola if she'd like to take more time to think her decision over, she sticks to her guns. "We thought for young, modern women, it's very important to signal to them that it is their body, it is their choice."
But perhaps the most powerful scene of "#IRegretNothing" is when we Lola in the procedure room—something that Degrassi has never done, and a revolutionary decision for a show with an audience that aggressively skews young. (Especially considering that "Accidents Will Happen" was initially seen as unsuitable for air by Nickelodeon's The N network due to its subject matter; in regards to "#IRegretNothing," Schuyler cites the support from the Canadian Broadcast Company and Netflix). There's a requisite scene where Lola is told the facts at the clinic: It will take about five minutes, she'll likely experience cramping and bleeding, and she'll still be able to have children. "Some women feel a sense of loss. Others, relief," the clinic nurse tells her.
Where most shows will skip ahead to what happens after, Degrassi puts Lola right in the stirrups and the audience stays in the room as the doctor narrates what's happening—applying the numbing medication, using an aspirator to "suck out the contents of the uterus." When Lola asks, "Am I the first 16-year-old you've ever done this to?" he responds, "You're not the first today."
The scene isn't played for sensationalism, and there's no The N-style "It Goes There" hashtagged in the corner of the frame. "We didn't show her in the procedure room because we were trying to be sensational or grab ratings," Schuyler explains. "We tried to keep it as normalized and natural as possible, and at the same time we're not trying to trivialize it." And it's a well-balanced scene— dramatic and powerful, with frequent breaks in tension as the doctor talks casually with Lola to put her at ease while adding some levity for the audience's sake. Schuyler credits that particular element to showrunner/episode writer Sarah Glinski, a "wonderful young woman and mother of two young girls. [While writing], she said, 'What would I like my young girls to know about this topic?' She also brought a lovely light sense of humor to it without being inappropriate." Glinski was also "really big on wanting to show that there's no shame in what Lola did, and we wanted to see Lola own it. I think that's very positive for young girls." (Lola, for her part, takes her technological mishap and turns it into an empowering vlog where she discusses her decision to have an abortion.)
The end result is the season's standout episode, and Degrassi's best-written abortion storyline yet. Degrassi may still be (mostly secretly) enjoyed by countless adults, but it will always be, first and foremost, a teen show. Schuyler mentions that the show's youngest writer is "about 23" and that the teen cast (who are actually teens!) all read and workshop the scripts to maintain authenticity—because teens are the ones who need these stories, these reminders that they are normal, these reassurances, and these safe spaces on television. "As it says in our theme song, you will make it through," Schuyler said. "Teenage years can feel so extreme and we just want to reassure young people that they're not alone. If they talk to the right people and they try to make the right choices, they will certainly be OK."
Follow Pilot Viruet on Twitter.