In Defense of “Degrassi”

I’m going to say something here, and you might be more than a little surprised.  I have to come out and say it, though: I’m an addict.  I’m addicted to “Degrassi,” the Canadian show geared to teenagers.  Yes, I know I’m 28. Yes, I know that as a film scholar I’m supposed to be writing about well-respected works like Citizen Kane and using words like ‘phenomenology’ and ‘ontology’ in every sentence.  But, well, screw that: I love “Degrassi.”  Why do I love this teen drama?

I’ll go ahead and admit that part of it is the melodrama–I love the soap opera relationships, the I’m-sixteen-and-the-world-is-going-to-end-OMG! attitude of the characters.  Despite leaving my OMGs and school dances back in the ’90s, I can still relate–after all, high school relationships are just as awkward now as they were when I was a brace-faced teen in 1999.  “Degrassi” (formerly “Degrassi: The Next Generation”) wouldn’t be in its eleventh season if there wasn’t something universal and timeless about its characters.  (In fact, “Degrassi” is the latest iteration of a series of television shows; the concept originated with “The Kids of Degrassi Street,” which aired from 1979 to 1986.)

The biggest reason I love this show, though, is that it does something that few American shows geared to teenagers do: it confronts the real, gut-wrenching awfulness of growing up and figuring out who you are without dumbing it down.  And what’s more, it doesn’t shy away from controversy and those hard-to-explain gray areas in life.  Admittedly, I can think of a few American shows that have done the same, but they didn’t last long on television. With the notable exception of “The Wonder Years”, most shows that are this honest about the lives of teenagers are pulled from American television after one season (I’m thinking of “My So-Called Life” and “Freaks and Geeks” here.)

Since I started watching “Degrassi” I’ve seen episodes concerned with the dangers of drug abuse, alcoholism, eating disorders, bullying, and so on.  There’s even a multiple episode arc about a school shooting and the damage (psychological and otherwise) caused by acts of violence.  The sensitivity with which the topic was handled is unimaginable in American television, where gun violence is used as a plot device and the aftermath is rarely considered. What makes “Degrassi” special is its focus on showing an issue from multiple viewpoints–particularly the complicated, controversial ones. I don’t know many shows that would feature a character expressing sympathy to the mother of a school shooter, showing up to the wake because “It doesn’t matter what I thought of him–it still shouldn’t have happened.”  The writers don’t take the easy way out, but instead embrace and explore the complicated.

Jordan Todosey as "Adam Torres"

I am particularly impressed with this seasons’ inclusion of a transgender character named Adam, played by Jordan Todosey. Adam is arguably the first transgender teen character to feature in a scripted television program.  An FTM (or female-to-male) transgender youth, Adam is a strong, funny character with a family that is at times both supportive and struggling to support his transition.  I can’t think of another show on television that features a transgender character consistently, and certainly not one marketed to a teen audience.  The show provides a well-rounded examination of the transitioning process, as Adam moves from binding his breasts, to discussions with therapists, to attempting to gain access to the men’s room of the high school, and navigating the dating world.  Gay characters on television are often gay first and people later–they are defined in relation to their gayness; “Degrassi” eschews this for a more nuanced portrayal and a complete character.  Adam is, yes, a transgender youth, but he is also all those things that real people (gay or straight) are: he’s a comic, a radio jockey, a flirt, and so on.

It is the show’s unflinching honesty, complexity, and bravery that I love.  For all its salacious teenage hook-up drama, the show is at heart an exploration of what it means to be yourself and to grow up.  It’s about the choices we make and the gray areas between right and wrong.  And that’s why I keep tuning in to “Degrassi.”