By Michele Yeo
Dig out your vintage Zit Remedy band t-shirt because nearly 500 episodes of the Degrassi series are now streaming on Prime Video Canada including the original Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High from the late eighties and early nineties.
For Canadians of a certain age, the original Degrassi incarnations occupy a particularly special and nostalgic place in our hearts. We were first introduced to the franchise in 1979 with The Kids of Degrassi Street on CBC but it was the next installment, Degrassi Junior High, which premiered in 1987, where things really got iconic. Featuring an ethnically diverse cast of actors who, unlike many a teen drama, were actually in their teens, the show never shied away from weighty storylines. Degrassi Junior High ran for 42 episodes over three seasons and featured no shortage of drama. Whether it was Lucy living as a latchkey kid, Stephanie exploring her sexuality, Caitlyn experiencing romantic dreams about her teacher, Ms. Avery, Snake struggling with his brother’s homosexuality, Kathleen hiding her mother’s alcoholism, and Wheels losing his parents in a drunk driving accident, the show was never afraid to go there.
A particularly groundbreaking storyline saw Christine “Spike” Nelson become pregnant after her very first sexual encounter in grade eight at age 14 and deciding to keep the baby. Spike continues to attend Degrassi Junior High throughout her pregnancy despite protests from some parents. In a 2015 interview with filmmaker (and noted Degrassi superfan) Kevin Smith, Degrassi creator Linda Schuyler said she was inspired for the storyline by a teen pregnancy in her own family and her dismay about how teen moms were previously usually sent away out of sight.
The franchise’s next installment, Degrassi High, airing from 1989 to 1991, explored another teen pregnancy storyline when the character Erica Farrell (of identical twins Erica and Heather) discovers she’s pregnant after a summer fling with a camp counselor. This time, however, the character, despite pro-life protests and judgment from classmates, decides to have an abortion – an especially brave plot point for the time.
Degrassi High also dealt with the AIDS epidemic and the stigma surrounding it when it’s discovered the character Dwayne is HIV positive. The series also dealt with suicide when the character of Claude shoots himself in the school’s bathroom and is discovered by Snake. This was all uncharted territory for teen content at the time. It was gritty, it was real, and it was trailblazing.
And who can ever forget the Degrassi made-for-TV movie School’s Out in 1992? The film was positioned as the official conclusion of the franchise until it was revived with Degrassi: The Next Generation in 2001. Picking up after the Degrassi High students graduated, School’s Out (in SNL Stefon voice) had everything: sex, drugs, drinking, a deadly car accident, and a truly radical moment in Canadian television: an uncensored drop of the F bomb when Snake and Caitlin confront Joey for “fucking Tessa Campanelli” behind Caitlin’s back.
Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High found an audience outside our home and native land as well. The franchise developed a fanbase in the UK and in the US where it caught the eye of television super producer Aaron Spelling who used Degrassi High as the blueprint for the arguably more glossy and less realistic mega-hit Beverly Hills 90210.
There has been no shortage of teen TV dramas over the years, but for certain elder millennials and Gen Xers North of the border, there is nothing like early Degrassi, it was the ultimate piece of pop culture that continues to have a nostalgic stranglehold on us all these years later. As Joey, Snake, and Wheels once famously sang, “everybody wants something they’ll never give up,” and for some of us, that’s early Degrassi.
496 episodes Degrassi, including: The Kids of Degrassi Street (season 1); Degrassi Junior High (seasons 1-3); Degrassi High (seasons 1-2); Degrassi Talks (season 1); Degrassi High: School’s Out (film); Degrassi: The Next Generation (seasons 1-14); and Degrassi Unscripted (season 1), are streaming now on Prime Video in Canada.
– AmongMen: 20 Things You Probably Never Knew About The Degrassi Franchise