Commentary: The Case For ‘Degrassi’

by | October 13, 2009 at 9:48 AM | 42-Inch Television

The Next Generation

Degrassi: The Next Generation

Spending five hours on a Saturday afternoon binge-watching ‘Degrassi: The Next Generation’ might not be your idea of a good time, but as the saying goes, “don’t knock it, till you try it.” Yours truly found himself in that position over the weekend, and can happily report that seeing the sordid lives of Canadian teens play out at 43 minutes at a time is about as much fun as you can have watching Teen Nick or anything else.

You might be wondering what place ‘Degrassi: The Next Generation’ holds in a world populated by Blair Waldorf and Naomi Clark. Can something as old fashioned as ‘Degrassi’—the series first premiered back in 1987, before the new incarnation hit television in 2001—be relevant for audiences today?

Here in 2009, television shows that center on the high school experience do their best to concentrate on everything but high school. Take ‘Gossip Girl,’ which has successfully made the transition to college this season by pretending that school doesn’t exist. Oh sure, there was some dorm room drama with Blair and Dan and Vanessa, but outside of buying some textbooks at the school book store and endlessly talking about Serena not going to Brown, no one has even mentioned school. They’re all too busy planning quickie weddings, dating movie stars and buying hotels to worry about core courses. (Fun fact: all of those things have actually happened during season three.)

Contrast that with ‘Degrassi: The Next Generation,’ a show that takes place almost exclusively inside the walls of a high school. During the quarter of the day I spent watching ‘Degrassi,’ the show covered a rape, testicular cancer, fistfights, single-motherhood, eating disorders and female body image issues. In the ninth season premiere, one of the characters even got addicted to crystal meth.

Notice anything about that litany of plotlines? They’re actually kinda serious! Moreover, they’re mostly ignored on network teen shows. Erin Silver might be bipolar and Marissa Cooper (R.I.P) was a drunk, but those issues were used and resolved only when the story deemed them necessary. And while I literally clap with delight whenever something ridiculous happens on ‘Gossip Girl,’ there are no real world consequences at stake. ‘Gossip Girl’ and her ilk are only there to entertain, and entertain they do.

Everything that happens on ‘Degrassi: The Next Generation,’ though, feels like a starting points for Afterschool School Special-ready dialogues. This is message television but wrapped in a brightly colored package that even connoisseurs of teen angst will enjoy. If ‘Degrassi’ has any function at all—other than acting as a farm team for Hollywood; catch a marathon and you’ll certainly notice ‘90210’ starlet Shenae Grimes and rapper Drake in previous seasons—it’s that in an era of superficial teen shows, it actually tries to make a difference. Or to steal the ‘Degrassi’ tagline: It goes there.

Three More Inches

The full season order that ABC gave to ‘FlashForward’ is good news not only because the series has gotten extremely entertaining over the past couple of episodes, but also because it means everyone can safely watch without worrying about cancellation midstream. Hooray!

NBC might be stretched thin with a lack of programming now that ‘Southland’ has been canceled, but bringing ‘Chuck’ back at the end of the month without any build-up or advertisement would be a huge mistake. And this is coming from someone who counts the series as one of their favorites. You’ve shown this much patience NBC, why not just stick with the plan of airing new episodes in March.

And finally… has there ever been a more perfect casting decision than putting Rachel Harris on ‘Cougar Town?’ On the list of people who should be more famous, Harris ranks in the top-10.