Television Verité: Degrassi High

Published on November 29th, 2008 in: Canadian Content, Issues, New Old Stock, Retrovirus, TV |

By Jesse Roth

A few years ago, I found myself home during a break from college happily engaging in my two of my favorite pastimes: grazing in the kitchen while watching way too much TV. I used this particular break to become re-acquainted with the television shows that I adored in my childhood; ones that had recently made their way into the lineup on a digital cable channel then known as Noggin. As part of their block of evening and late-night programming (known as “The N”), the channel showcased my personal favorites such as Clarissa Explains It All and The Adventures of Pete and Pete. Later hours were devoted to even older classics such as The Electric Company, a show that predated my childhood (and thus my nostalgia radar) by at least a decade. Nonetheless, I now had the chance to watch and find out what I had missed out on by being born too late.

degrassi high

Another selection on “The N” was Degrassi High, a show that for years I only knew as “some Canadian teen drama.” Though I found out later on that the show actually aired in the United States during my childhood, like The Electric Company, it was never on my radar and I remained sadly ignorant of its content. At 1:00 a.m. one random night, I finally had my chance to check out exactly what this show had to offer a cynical 20-something with very little nostalgia for her own high school experience.

The episode I was treated to was “Showtime,” a two-parter that chronicled the tragic suicide of Claude in the school’s bathroom while the school prepared for its upcoming talent show. Expecting a typical glossing-over of a serious issue (standard for most teen series I saw growing up), I was instead treated to some rather shocking sights. From Snake’s discovery of (and reaction to) Claude’s body during an innocent trip to the stalls, to the subsequent frank and rather uncensored debates taking place afterwards as the school comes to grips with what happened, it was clear that the writers of Degrassi were taking a different approach to portraying teen life. As the students discussed both the sadness and selfishness of the act, they did so using typical teenage vocabulary and mannerisms, discussing this sensitive topic in a way that seemed realistic and not like some corny After School Special.

claude degrassi
Claude, played by
David Armin-Parcells

Watching subsequent episodes, I realized that the reality of this episode was not foreign to the rest of the series. Episodes dealing with abortion, teenage pregnancy and parenthood, abusive relationships, AIDS, interracial relationships, complicated teenage relationships, and the realities of life for students after 3:30 p.m. were par for the course; each topic was handled with frank discussion mixed with lighthearted humor and amateur acting that one comes to expect from most teen series. Degrassi chose to not shield their young audience from these sensitive topics because the writers knew that their viewers lived in this reality and needed some forum in which to better understand what they were seeing in the hallways each day. In addition, storylines, while concluded from time to time, were rarely wrapped up in a neat package in time for the credits. Friendships disintegrated and people suffered consequences as a result of their actions, consequences that often carried over into other episodes.

Along with featuring realistic storylines, Degrassi was careful to build a large cast that looked and acted nothing like the typical grouping of child models drafted for most shows. By featuring a rather diverse cast of non-professional child and teen actors (whom writers relied on to keep dialog “hip” to teenspeak), the show allowed its stories to be played out by people who seemed like the kids many of us passed in the hallways, had French class with, or actually became close to during those tumultuous teen years. Though the scripts were certainly not the tightest writing I have seen on television, the overall feeling Degrassi portrayed certainly tricked me at times into thinking I was watching a part of my own past.

These days, most of my peers tend to cite My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks as shows that came as close as possible to accurately portraying the teen experience from the perspective of those other than the “ruling class” of jocks and preps. These shows are heralded for good reason, of course, and many of us still lament the fact that we were only given one season of each to bask in the brilliant writing and acting put forth in these classics. Degrassi High deserves a place right beside these two shows. Along with equaling the others in its realism, it managed to cover topics in an early afternoon time slot, a time when most would say we should be shielding teens from the truth. Rather than pandering, it spoke to its audience, entertaining them while at the same time showing that they understood. If only more American teen series would have dared to take that step during my own teen years.

One Response to “Television Verité: Degrassi High

  1. James Mckay:
    September 24th, 2014 at 7:29 pm

    How popular is Degrassi in the States?I live in England and all the Degrassi series were popular, great actors and storylines

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