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The Degrassi Legacy and why it matters

In a time when the world was over exposed to glamorised American teenage dramas where teens were being played by thirty years olds a dramatic shift happened. The seeds of this shift were sown in 1979’s (although not screened in the UK until 9th July 1984) The Kids of Degrassi Street. Developed by Playing With Time Inc., a production company owned by Kit Hood and Linda Schuyler, the show was like a breath of fresh air to its young audience. Whilst the U.K. had Grange Hill to follow, Canada and soon the rest of the world were introduced to a group of teenagers who looked like them, acted like them, and had the same issues they did.

Initially four short after school TV specials were made: : Ida Makes a Movie, Cookie Goes to the Hospital, Irene Moves In and Noel Buys a Suit, but the genius behind them was that they were interconnected. Allowing the audience to become part of the world they were watching. Long before the MCU and the Arrowverse, Playing With Time Inc. discovered a secret ingredient that others were missing: don’t talk down to your audience! As a result, these four specials were lapped up and a series soon followed that ran for twenty-six episodes until January 1986.

This was by no means the end of Degrassi though!

On January 18th 1987 Degrassi Junior High debuted. DJH contained many of the same actors that were seen in the Kids of Degrassi Street but they now had new names and characters. Any confusion was soon forgotten as Playing With Time Inc. followed the same rules that made their first series a success. There was no one star, every character had their chance in the spotlight and we the audience wandered the school corridors with them. Most importantly the show never spoke down to the audience especially as it dealt realistically with bullying, drug use, child abuse, Spike’s teenage pregnancy, eating disorders, homosexuality, homophobia, racism, and divorce. Unlike a number of teen dramas at that time, a number of issues were not necessarily wrapped up with a bow by the end of an episode instead they played out realistically over a number of episodes and show real consequences to a characters actions – positive or negative. This realism proved an issue when the show began being broadcast in the UK on 5th April 1988. Parents complained to the BBC that the show was “too strong” in what it was portraying, and it was soon moved from it children’s tv slot on BBC 1 to after 6pm on BBC 2. Certain episodes were pulled from being screened before DJH vanished from the schedules by the end of the year.

After three seasons of 48 episodes DJH came to an end as the kids moved onto Degrassi High! Degrassi High was a direct continuation to DJH with the kids now older and dealing with high school issues. The series opened with a pregnancy scare that leads to an abortion and featured storylines around relationship abuse, working and study, dysgraphia, drug addiction, HIV, parents having affairs, sexual abuse, and suicide amongst other issues. Degrassi High ran for two seasons (twenty-eight episodes in total) and led to the Degrassi Talks magazine show where the actors discussed the issues in the show with other teenagers. Once again showing how much those behind the show valued their audience. Throughout both DJH and Degrassi High the issues were dealt with in a respectful way and not in a sensationalist headline grabbing way that many soaps and drams would deliver such an issue.

On January 5th 1992 came the TV movie Degrassi: School’s Out. This movie marked the end of the initial Degrassi generation we had followed for the last five years. Rather than keep the characters at school and drag it on longer (which they easily could have) Playing With Time Inc. once again respected the audience enough to let the characters grow up and go on with their lives. Degrassi: School’s Out defiantly went out with a bang! Including a scene where Snake (played by Stefan Brogan) makes Canadian television history by being the first person to ever say the word “f**k” on broadcast television!

The Degrassi franchise would remain dormant for a number of years but then it was announced that a new show Degrassi: The Next Generation would pick up ten years later after Degrassi: School’s Out. Debuting on 14th October 2001, D:TNG opened with the two part episode “Mother and Child Reunion.” The hook of the new generation was Emma Nelson (Miriam McDonald) – she was the daughter of Christine “Spike” Nelson (Amanda Stepto) whose pregnancy and life we followed years before. Through Emma and Spike we are introduced to the new generation of Degrassi children as well as catch up with the old ones, many of whom or now parents or in the case of Snake – now a teacher at the school! Like its predecessors the actors remained within their age range and the issues were plenty and dealt with in a manner that showed respect to the audience and to what was being portrayed. D:TNG ran for fourteen seasons (387 episodes) although from Season 10 it was retitled simply as Degrassi. This in turn was followed up by Degrassi: Next Class that ran for four seasons (40 episodes) until July 2017.

Whilst there is no new Degrassi currently on the horizon I feel it is safe to say that Degrassi will rise again at some point. It’s legacy is to rich to be left on a shelf. Kit Hood and Linda Schuyler’s Playing With Time Inc. captured teenagers for over 40 years. Three generations have now grown up with Degrassi and the entire time Degrassi has remained faithful to its audience by always considering them as equals to the characters that were magnificently portrayed on screen. In a time of rich 30 year old teenagers in flash cars in Beverly Hills dominating airwaves, through to over produced “reality” television, the audience always knew the Degrassi was a place that kept it real and that is why they always keep going back there.

Thanks to all involved.

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