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News came this summer that Degrassi would be doing what it does best – changing. The long-running youth TV series will be leaving its home on MTV Canada and ending its 30 year broadcast run to move on to a new medium.
From its inception as The Kids of Degrassi Street in the 1980s, to Degrassi Junior High, to Degrassi High, Degrassi The Next Generation, and finally up to Degrassi, the series has not only changed with the times, but it actually changed before the times.
As one of the longest running series in TV history, Degrassi owes its longevity to a variety of factors. Beginning as four short films in 1979, Degrassi went on to reinvent itself as weekly episodes, three made for TV movies, and even adapted the telenovela episode style a few years ago.
The series embraced social media before it was the cool thing to do, creating online profiles for characters as well as webisodes and weekly behind the scenes interviews and tours with the cast. Now Degrassi has become a leader in the industry, seamlessly bridging the gap between audiences raised on broadcast and audiences raised on online viewing.
With the start of each TV season seeing a crop of new shows come and go before fans can even learn the main character’s name, it’s abundantly clear that all of Degrassi’s adapting to viewer landscapes would be for not, if it wasn’t for the most important factor – the content has always been trailblazing.
What was truly radical in Degrassi’s quest to break new ground in television and storytelling wasn’t that it attempted to reinvent the wheel. Instead, Degrassi was a show about teenagers, played by teenagers, and included story lines that could be found in any high school. It sounds so simple when you say it out loud, but capturing the human experience is a daunting task. Just ask the shows that don’t make it out of Pilot season.
Taking on the taboo and touchy on TV can be a ratings gimmick, but for Degrassi, the sensitivity displayed over years of challenging material made it the go-to show for difficult story lines. Degrassi’s topics over the years read like the pamphlet wall outside a guidance counselor’s office. Have you been affected by suicide, domestic abuse, homelessness, drugs, sexual assault, alcohol, bullying, sexually transmitted diseases, violence, gangs, or stalking? Are you questioning your sexuality, your identity, your relationships, your class schedule, your future, your place in the world? Did your boobs and/or butt end up broadcast to the entire student body? Then we have an episode for you.
From writing a character with HIV during the 1980s to having the first transgender teen on youth television, there’s no shortage of examples of Degrassi forging its own path. As one of the first shows to address teen pregnancy and abortion, Degrassi has handled the issue in a number of ways. In 1986, 14 year-old Spike gets pregnant and keeps the baby. Fast forward to 2010 and 15 year-old Jenna decides to give her child up for adoption. This year in its final season, senior student Clare becomes pregnant and puts off her college admission to later find out she lost the baby. As one of the first shows to actually use the word ‘abortion’ on TV, the first season of Degrassi High aired in 1989 and showed teenager Erica going through the painful decision of obtaining an abortion. During Degrassi: The Next Generation, high school student Manny also decides to terminate her pregnancy. Thirty years, five pregnancies, four different outcomes, and one show that has acted as a mirror for teens looking for someone to understand just how scary it is to be somewhere between childhood and adulthood.
Many of us learned about date rape and eating disorders from watching the kids of Degrassi. We watched as bullying led to a school shooting. We cried as students suffering from depression took their own lives.
Of course, it wasn’t all serious on Degrassi. We learned about first loves and finding your passion. We watched as characters triumphed after being met with everyday adversity. From watching Joey Jeremiah streak across the cafeteria to shipping Eclare, how can we sum up in a few sentences what a show so important to our upbringing means to us?
We could talk about the awards Degrassi has won, the celebrity fans its gained, the careers its kick-started, or the first thing foreigners gush about to Canadians when travelling abroad. But what has always set Degrassi apart and why it’s so important is the individual relationship viewers develop with the show. Someone out there ‘got us’ during a period in adolescents when no one feels understood.
What John Hughes started with one afternoon of detention, Degrassi has expanded over 30 years. Being a teenager is scary and exciting, heartbreaking and hilarious, confusing and thrilling all at once. Asking someone out on a date is just as nerve-wracking on a landline as it is on ‘Facerange’. Whether it’s 1988 or 2015, what Hughes and Degrassi have always understood is that the clothes may change, but for the most part the high school experience does not.
When Degrassi comes to an end on MTV this week, it’s not goodbye. The impact the series has had not only on youth TV, but TV in general, will still be felt for years to come. Its timelessness will live on through the generations who discover the series and make it their own soft place to land.
Starting today, the final block of new Degrassi episodes will air every night at 9E/6P on MTV until we say farewell to the current class. Tune in to see Degrassi at its best – honest, real, emotional, evolving, and timeless.