The Accidental Origins of Degrassi

The creator of Degrassi shares how this iconic Canadian TV franchise evolved from its first season in the 1980s to its newest instalment launched on Netflix in 2016.

“If I hadn’t been in that car crash, I don’t know this is the path I would have been on,” says Linda Schuyler, creator of the Degrassi television franchise, a series that is followed in over 100 countries, is translated into over a dozen languages and has received international awards, including several Emmys and a Peabody.

Speaking recently at her alma mater, Innis College (University of Toronto), Schuyler told the story of a serious motor vehicle accident she was in while travelling in Europe in the late 1960s. It was one of those typical transatlantic jaunts people would embark upon, either after graduating or—as in Schuyler’s case—after a couple of years attending university and not being confident she was in the right program.

Schuyler did end up finding a new direction in life, but not for the reasons one might assume. She was the sole survivor of the crash and, after returning home and recovering from the accident, the only program accepting new students when she was ready to resume her studies was teaching.

A few years later, she landed a job as a junior high school teacher in Toronto’s East End. “At first I felt like I was slumming it,” says Schuyler. “I thought I was better than being a high school teacher. But I had no idea I’d go on to fall in love with those kids.”

However, when it came time to find teaching material that reflected the kinds of issues students were facing in their lives, she kept coming up empty-handed.

And then came her light bulb moment: Schuyler would start her own production company and create a show that told stories that accurately reflected the lives of the pre-teens and teens with whom she had become so enamoured.

Adapting Degrassi to ever-changing cultural norms

The year was 1980. “Crazy as it sounds,” says Schuyler, “I left my steady teaching job after eight years. Sometimes it’s a case of right place, right time. There were no shows like Degrassi when I started out, and my timing just happened to coincide with the birth of independent production in Canada.”

And so began a 37-year production odyssey for Schuyler and her collaborators, bringing difficult youth-focused themes such as drugs, domestic violence, mental illness, teen pregnancy and racism to television screens around the world—often for the first time.

The first iteration of the Degrassi franchise was The Kids of Degrassi Street, which ran until 1986, followed by Degrassi Junior High (1987–1989), Degrassi High (1989–1991), Degrassi: The Next Generation(2001–2015) and, most recently, Degrassi: Next Class, which came to screens in 2016.

In parallel to Degrassi’s development across its five franchises has been the show’s migration from public broadcasting in Canada and the US, then to cable channels around the world and most recently to Netflix, which has been home to the newest instalment, Degrassi: Next Class, since 2016.

But it hasn’t simply been a case of coming up with a new cast, a new setting for the show and signing new contracts with broadcasters. Over time, Schuyler and the Degrassi team have had to confront evolving social and cultural norms as well as changes in the media industry.

Schuyler points to a particularly telling example: How the controversial issue of unwanted teenage pregnancy has been handled by Degrassi over the course of several decades.

In the 1980s, the tense scene was located outside of an abortion clinic, with protesters expressing anger at the young protagonist who was about to enter the facility with only her sister at her side. In the 1990s, the narrative had a sombre but matter-of-fact tone, with the teen’s mother in the consultation room along with her and the physician. In the most recent depiction, the camera takes viewers directly into the procedure room for a sensitive but stark portrayal of a difficult medical decision.

Across these characterizations, broadcasters around the world had a variety of reactions. Some changed the edit so that, for example, a protestor holding up a miniature fetus doll was not seen. In the case of the scene of the mother and daughter in the consultation room, Viacom-owned Teen Nick opted not to air the episode as it was concerned that the character did not show enough remorse.

From one episode a week to binge watching

Changes in technology have also affected how the stories on Degrassi are told. In the case of the latest iteration, Degrassi: Next Class, what was once a series of stories separated by a week on television schedules is now available around the world on demand on Netflix, and viewers are getting comfortable on the couch and taking in several episodes in a single sitting.

“We’re as bold as ever,” says Schuyler, “but it has affected our craft.” After the first batch of shows went to Netflix in 2016, the feedback received from viewers was that the on again/off again relationships that have been part and parcel of Degrassi fare for decades seemed unrealistic to viewers.

Like a favourite teacher who knows how to keep kids engaged in the classroom, Schuyler and the creative team have tweaked their approach for these new binge-watching behaviours. For example, the turbulent teenage relationships that had time to resolve in viewers’ minds when there was a week in between viewings are now portrayed on screen with the understanding that people will be watching episodes back to back.

In the words of one blogger reviewing the latest incarnation of the show, “Whenever I start a new season of Degrassi, it’s like sitting down with an old friend. Catching up on all the embarrassing stories, working through the traumas and toasting to the triumphs.”

In addition, Degrassi: Next Class being available on Netflix, you can now relive full episodes of the classic Degrassi Junior High of the 1980s, featuring much loved characters such as Spike, Joey, Lucy, Caitlin, and Wheels, thanks to the YouTube channel Encore+, a partnership between the Canada Media Fund, Google Canada, Deluxe Toronto, Telefilm Canada and Bell Media.

Leora Kornfeld
So far in life, Leora has been a record store clerk, a CBC radio host, a Harvard Business School case writer, a blogger and a crossword puzzle clue. Currently she’s a media and technology consultant, working with clients in the US and Canada.
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