Whatever It Takes



To ask what Degrassi is “about” is like asking for the DNA sequence of a hurricane. Degrassi is both about nothing in particular, and about everything that could ever happen. It’s about teenagers, about teenagehood, about high school and heartbreak and hope and hormones and also about how doing any kind of drug even one time will completely ruin your life. It’s about being gay and having abortions. It’s about relatable situations, like when your crush likes your best friend, or when you’re embarrassed to tell your boyfriend that you’ve been LARPing, or when you get oral gonorrhea from giving a blowjob to the sketchiest guy in school to cope with your post-school shooting PTSD. It’s also about familiar problems, such as when you get a boner in class, or when you get kicked out of your band because of your 72-hour meth addiction, or when your dead mom’s second husband who rescued you from your abusive father enlists Kevin Smith’s help to find you after you run away from home in the middle of a manic episode because you went off your meds after your girlfriend told you she needed space. It is, perhaps most of all, about when you don’t want to be cute, you want to be hot, and you know that a blue studded thong is what’s going to get you there, so you hike it up halfway to your waist and set your track pants below your hips, and when some nerd gets jealous of the attention you’re getting and rats you out to the principal for violating the no-visible-underwear rule, you come back the next day going commando, because you’re on a mission and Degrassi is about doing whatever it takes, whatever that means.

It’s not good in any of the ways that real shows are good. But it is amazing.


Degrassi started, technically, in the ‘80s, but I’m American, so when I talk about Degrassi, I mean the 405-episode stretch of continuity that debuted as Degrassi: The Next Generation, then chopped off the subtitle later on, and was briefly reborn on Netflix as Degrassi: Next Class. It was a show designed to be both mirror and message, a show that kids could watch to see realistic teens facing recognizable problems, but also a place where they could learn about lurking dangers and acceptable solutions. Serialized edutainment: a years-long after-school special with the episodic pacing of a sitcom and the narrative arc of a soap.

The show made a point of casting believably unglamorous actual teens, a commitment that waned over the years, but never enough to leave a Degrassi cast photo possibly mistaken for one from the CW. The kids on Degrassi have bad skin and braces and gawky, lumpy pubescent bodies; the queen bee is pretty but no great beauty. Episode after episode, these perfectly average teenagers confront the big (sex, mental illness, going to rehab because you did drugs) and the small (wet dreams, unwanted crushes, getting kicked off the basketball team because you did drugs) challenges of growing up. Each week, they dive into the darkness and emerge at episode’s end having learned a lesson that the target audience can theoretically apply to their own lives: ask for help; resist peer pressure; honesty is the best policy; like, seriously, don’t do drugs.

On Degrassi, no one is beautiful and everything hurts. If I had to sum up high school in a sentence, I couldn’t do much better than that.


If you’d asked me when I was in high school, I would have said that I was uncool. Furthermore, I would have insisted that I didn’t care about coolness. The former was true, demonstrably—substantiated in theater club productions and furtively written fanfiction; the latter was obviously a total lie. Sure, I had no interest in being liked by the popular girls with their Juicy Couture. But what I couldn’t see, or wouldn’t admit, is that snickering with my friends about how embarrassing they all looked in their pastel tracksuits and ruffle skirts was just clout-chasing of a different kind.

Of course we thought we were cool. The only reason we never would have said it was because our laws of coolness forbade us above all from ever admitting that we cared about coolness itself. We were too cool for coolness, because we knew on some level that coolness was an adolescent concern, and we wanted to be cool like adults. I wanted as badly as anyone to be seen as correct, to like good things (Paul Giamatti, Michael Chabon) and hate—or, at most, ironically enjoy—bad ones (the Star Wars prequels, Ashlee Simpson). I harbored a particular disdain towards anything marketed to people my age. For to be a teenager and like something made for teenagers was to reveal oneself as an easy mark. I viewed my occasional forays into the young adult section of the bookstore as guilty pleasure excursions, indulgences I read with a self-mocking distance that I snobbishly imagined was lacking in the unsophisticated audience the authors had in mind.

This was how I encountered Degrassi. Around the time it came into my life, the satellite channel airing it in the U.S. promoted it with the tagline: “Degrassi: It goes there.” I found this very funny at 16, the way teenagers usually find it funny when adults try to get on their level. I could see the desire to impress me by insisting that there was something here I could learn because it knew something about me. I took pleasure in rolling my eyes at the attempted coolness, which was palpably calculated and therefore doomed to fail. I approached the show like this: at a remove, and eager to laugh at the melodrama. Occasionally, I would condescend to think that a particular scene was pretty good, actually, but mostly I was satisfied to feel above it all, smart enough to perceive its hokey machinations without letting its sentimentality tug at my heart. I was too cool for Degrassi, and that was the appeal.

But the fuckers got me anyway.


Make no mistake: Degrassi is deeply, aggressively uncool. The plots are designed to scandalize and educate, delivered with all the subtlety of a ninth-grade health class—sometimes literally, as when a health teacher helpfully explains that gay people are born that way. A vengeful ninth-grader can’t just send some shitty messages to the reigning mean girl; she has to start an internet hate group that catches the attention of the entire school until she’s under police investigation because the harassment has rendered her enemy so miserable that she can’t get out of bed. Every plot has to hit a telegraphed crisis point regardless of realism, so we watch the crowd at a hip Toronto college bar fall into horrified silence in the face of a guitarist’s nosebleed—because nosebleeds obviously mean cocaine, and none of these people have ever heard of anything so shocking as a musician with a drug problem.

The accumulation of issues is comically hyperbolic, rendering this ostensibly average institution the unluckiest school in Canada. When one mopey student bitterly calls the school cursed, you can see where she’s coming from: even beyond the time she had to become a goth because she did drugs and alienated all her friends and then her boyfried knocked up some other girl, one of her best friends started self-harming, another was sexually assaulted, and the third got back with her abusive boyfriend and is now in a coma. But at the same time, babe, it’s season three. Drake hasn’t even been shot yet!

The concatenation of tragedy means that you can enjoy Degrassi as a specimen of the failed seriousness that defines camp, and sometimes I do. It’s fun to laugh at the dolly zoom on Ashley’s stricken face after her mom intones, “Your dad’s gay,” or the teeth-gritted way that Emma confronts her sketchy hookup with, “You gave me a social disease.” In casting real, unvarnished teens, the show landed a few shining young talents and a veritable army of kids that you’d watch in a school play and think did just fine. For example, it kind of saps the gravitas out of the situation when the closeted jock struggling with his sexuality looks more like he’s struggling to remember his lines.

But I would not watch—over and over again, across years—400 fucking episodes of a show that on its best days only hit ‘so bad it’s good.’ Degrassi fails—spectacularly, hilariously, boringly, bizarrely, offensively, and often—but sometimes Degrassi works. And when Degrassi works, it doesn’t work by temporarily morphing into a show with believable dialogue and competent acting and decent production values. It works by being Degrassi: awkward, earnest, unsophisticated, uncool.

If you think that also describes basically every teenager ever to live—yeah, now you’re getting it.


The uncoolness of Degrassi is a feature, not a bug. It’s flagrantly uncool, defiantly uncool, and that’s the source of its power, because the only way you can get that uncool is by trying really, really hard. Degrassi tries; its effortful passion vibrates from every corny line and stilted delivery, and over time a strange alchemy begins to take place. The line between the palpable desire of the show to be itself and the adolescent yearning of the characters to become themselves starts to blur.

But wasn’t that what it was like in high school, after all? The false knowingness, the undercurrent of desperation. No one on Degrassi ever talks like a human being, and most of the kids never let you forget they’re acting, and is that any less true of high school itself? When I started working with teenagers a few years ago, I was astonished by how universally awkward they were. Even the sharp, funny ones, the well-dressed and well-spoken, and even the athletic and highly involved—there’s an air to them, hesitant and unformed, that my memories of my own high school experience had erased. In my head, my friends and I were nerdy and insecure at times, but we bounced fluidly off one another, moving through the world in each other’s company like we knew we belonged. But of course, we were, like the show, trying: to seem smart, to be witty, and to say the things our imagined versions of ourselves would say. That’s the thing about teenagers: they’re still learning how to act.

Degrassi neither convincingly mimics nor artfully interprets the cadence of adolescent speech, but its kids-putting-on-a-show-in-the-barn energy captures something true about adolescence that slicker, smarter, better shows can’t quite hit. It’s an odd realism in reverse: instead of successfully capturing the stories and images of youth, it fails in the ways that teenagers fail, and in doing so reveals a different kind of truth—the gawky mechanics of movement among those who don’t know they’re still young, little foals trying to convince themselves that they’re stallions. It tries too hard; it’s clumsy and inarticulate. You can see the seams, always, and it never knows quite as much as it wants you to believe. There’s humor in that, but there’s pathos, too.

The casting is key here. Because of the age of the actors, their unspectacular faces and ordinary bodies, and the rawness of even the most talented performers, you’re constantly aware that you’re watching kids. You’re watching them grow up, for real, and there’s a human tenderness that accumulates over time. When J.T. gets stabbed or Clare gets cancer or Manny gets pregnant, it matters that we remember them the way they were before: the pipsqueak class clown whose voice hadn’t yet dropped, the self-serious ninth-grader committed to her principles and confused about her emotions, the pigtailed romantic daydreaming in the back of math class about being swept off her feet. Watching Manny confess her predicament to the one-time crush who lied to her and knocked her up, it’s impossible to forget what a kid she once was, squeezing stuffed animals to her chest until she decided to will herself into maturity by dressing the part, and it’s equally impossible to avoid how obviously she’s a child still, suddenly shouldering the weight of a very grown-up decision.

Of course, I didn’t want to see myself in this when I was in high school. There was nothing I wanted to admit less than the simple fact that I was still a kid. Nothing takes me back to that feeling like Degrassi does. Watching it now can feel like talking to my teenage self, trying to tell her that she should relax, that she has time, that everyone else is trying, too, and the world won’t end if she gets caught. She doesn’t listen, but that’s okay. She’ll figure it out eventually.


The issue-of-the-week plotting is Degrassi’s M.O., its purpose, its driving engine. But what defines Degrassi’s truly singular vibe is its style, its specific blend of go-for-broke storytelling and persistently small scope. Teen shows tend to find their identity either in their artful observations of adolescent life (My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, PEN15) or as sugar-rush thrill rides leaping from scandal to scandal (Gossip Girl, Euphoria). Degrassi tries to do both, accomplishes neither, and creates something else entirely out of ever-simmering ashes of its failures.

Or, to put it another way: any teen show could bring you a troubled rich girl drinking her troubles away. Only on Degrassi would she decide to cope with her loneliness by adopting a pig to stash in her designer purse. Paige stands up to her rapist by, in sequence, singing at him during a battle of the bands, coming after him in court, and crashing her boyfriend’s car into his. Sean doesn’t want to talk about his feelings after the shooting, so he runs away from his girlfriend on a Jet Ski that he can barely ride. Drew Torres’ girlfriend gets jumped by a gang, so he joins a fight club to cope with his post-traumatic stress. Becky Baker gets so freaked out about falling for a trans dude that she sends herself to conversion therapy, then comes back more convinced of her own heterosexual desire and Adam’s guyness than ever. Eli crashes his hearse to win his ex-girlfriend Clare back, then decides that the way to prove he’s past his undiagnosed manic episode and totally normal now is by locking his ex and her new beau in a sweat lodge built for a school project to talk their issues out. Those two eventually break up because they become step-siblings, and the stress of that living arrangement sends Clare into the arms of a cult targeting troubled teens that’s also an illegal drug operation.

It’s tempting to say the whole show is like this, but the magic of Degrassi is that it’s not. It’s turned to 11, all the time, and it’s also always granular, zoomed in on high school’s tiny frictions: being jealous because your friend has more money or is getting new attention from boys; needing space from your significant other but not knowing how to ask. Some of the show’s most memorable moments happen on the smallest scale, as Degrassi dives, unchained by dignity, into the terror of changing and hormonal bodies. It tackles situations as common as getting your first period at school (solution: take a page from your feminist mom and tell your whole class that they have no right to make you feel ashamed of something perfectly natural) and as specific as sending your guy friend into a transphobic panic while you fumble with your stand-to-pee device (solution: mend fences with the power of detention, school radio, and potentially questionable racism analogies). There’s an episode about regaining sexual function following lower body paralysis, and one about when your best friend tells you about the shower trick so you try it but doesn’t work and you ask your doctor if there’s something wrong with you because you can’t jerk off. You don’t see that on other teen shows, either.

Degrassi swings big and stays small and always goes hard. It commits, whether it’s advancing the story of an abusive relationship or devoting a C-plot to an attempt to break the world pogo stick record. It goes straight from an episode about an aborted Vegas wedding culminating in joyous Elvis karaoke with a gold, glitter bodysuit and drag queens dancing back-up in support of true love, to an episode about suicide, and both episodes work because whatever Degrassi is doing at any given time, it’s doing it the most. It’s fearless in the face of weirdness and discomfort, which leads to an incredible episode about sexy vampire fanfiction, but also to the scenes that aim for something raw and real and manage to bring it home, because ugly feelings like grief and trauma are fucking weird and uncomfortable. Sometimes pain looks like Paige trying desperately to make out with her boyfriend in the car outside the hospital where their friend lies unconscious after her violent boyfriend shoved her to the ground; sometimes it looks like Maya Matlin, sick of being the dead kid’s girlfriend, spitting out, “He broke up with me by killing himself!” Sometimes it looks like Craig making everyone uncomfortable by refusing to grieve his dead abusive father, while meanwhile in the B-plot his friends stay too long in the tanning booth and worry that they’ll look silly at the dance.

That’s the other thing about pain: time doesn’t stop for your catharsis. Late in the series but far from the end, K.C., a gifted student with a troubled past, is moving away; his father’s out of jail, and skipping town is the only way to keep him and his newly sober mother safe. He’s in a hurry, but he’s sent a text to Jenna, his ex, to meet him one last time. He needs to tell her he’s leaving so he can ask her to promise to keep visiting the baby they had together and raised for a few miserable months before realizing that their lives were collapsing under the weight of it and deciding to place him for adoption. He brings her up to speed; she protests the unfairness of what he has to do; he tells her that he’s looking on the bright side. The bell rings. Jenna laughs, awkwardly, sadly, and says, “And now I have algebra.” K.C. returns, “And I have to clean out my locker.” She puts on a smile: “Life goes on, huh?”

K.C. and Jenna are solid B-list for me at best, but this scene makes me cry. It’s not sad, exactly; it’s just very true—the bluntest articulation, maybe, of the real animating spirit of Degrassi, the wisdom that its ungainly form manages to express. You’re going to algebra class, and somewhere down the hall, someone is having the worst day of their life. Your world is crumbling, and the rest of the class is worrying about prom. And it never stops, this disjointedness, the refusal of the universe to confine itself to a single genre, even in a single lifetime. Walk into any classroom, ride any city bus, and you’ll surround yourself with tragedy and farce, secret miracles and private mourning happening behind the faces of strangers who still need to do their homework, make dinner, do their jobs. The best that time can offer us is perspective—the ability, as we age, to save the dramatics for the times we really need them. What the graceless anti-poetry of Degrassi captures with such peculiar effectiveness is that most people don’t have that at 16. It takes a few more years of surviving before you’ve lived long enough to figure that out.


My favorite episode of Degrassi comes halfway through season six. The first cohort of characters old enough to graduate reached that point at the end of season five; before eventually committing to high school as its specific purview, the show experimented for a few years with following some of its alumni a little longer. We catch up with Paige in college—specifically the fictional Banting University, repeatedly described as “the Harvard of the North,” where she wound up after overcoming the trauma of blowing an interview with an admissions officer because she did drugs. In reality, her dream school is turning out more like a nightmare. She’s struggling to keep up with the notes in her lectures; she’s behind on her assignments, and doing poorly enough that she’s in danger of flunking out. It’s not a matter of struggling with the balance between work and play. On the contrary, the former queen bee has made—as far as we see—not a single campus friend. She’s trying to do the work, but when she sits down to it she can’t focus; she gets distracted; she has a panic attack and runs out in the middle of an exam.

I didn’t watch this episode when it first aired. I graduated high school the same year Paige did, and in 2006 streaming video was not yet at a level where I could bother to keep up from my dorm. I don’t remember when I decided to catch up—maybe that summer, maybe a few years later, bored and looking for something to do. I know that whatever I tuned back into Degrassi to see, I wasn’t expecting what I’d find: my story, reflected back at me. Like Paige, I’d wound up at my dream school, a place that felt like proof of some kind of victory to attend; like Paige, I had crashed and burned spectacularly, spending my nights friendless and desperately trying to wrestle with papers that felt impossible, barely eking out a GPA too low to transfer anywhere I might be less miserable. I felt so stupid; I felt so alone. And then there was Paige.

I mean, it’s still Degrassi: I didn’t almost burn down my dorm in a failed attempt to get an extension, get caught plagiarizing an essay off a sketchy site, or blow up a turkey in front of my family and my ex-girlfriend’s date in a doomed attempt to prove that I still had some shred of competence left. But none of that felt absurd, or over-the-top. It felt like a story about being a disaster, and being a disaster was about the only thing I still felt like I understood.

When the peppy theme song fades out, we get a glimpse of dorm life, the hallway packed with college kids talking, laughing, holding drinks, and amiably jostling each other in transit as music blasts. Then, we move into a room, and the music is subdued but still pounding. The camera pans past textbooks flagged with Post-its and a university-branded notebook, a flip phone and a half-eaten banana lying on top of a pile of unfinished crossword puzzles, before we see Paige, lying on the floor. The former fashionista is clad in black leggings and a drab college sweatshirt. She’s staring unhappily at the ceiling with her feet propped on a chair and her arms folded tensely over her chest. Surrounding her is the detritus of her current life: a barely-eaten peach, an open CD case, an untouched binder, a handbag with her keys spilled out beside it. By her head sits her laptop, open, screen on; there’s a word processor open, but we can’t see what the document says because it’s blocked by a window displaying the familiar astroturf-green of computer solitaire.

Degrassi is goofy; it’s corny; it’s funny and nonsensical and sometimes extremely dumb. But I’m dead serious when I say that I’ve never encountered a work of art or piece of media that captures my particular experience of depression more poignantly and precisely than that. I’ve never found one that came close—that conveyed both the tragic grandiosity of my emotional landscape and the humiliating details that textured my life. The melodrama and the mundanity. How huge every little crisis loomed, and also how fucking stupid it felt, day after day. It was a mirror: a girl like me, a problem I knew. And it was a message: I wasn’t too cool for Degrassi anymore. I never had been.