19 Years of Degrassi: How Canada’s Popular Soap Opera Paved the Way for Teen Drama
By: Lauryn Jiles
19 years ago, on October 14, 2001, Degrassi: The Next Generation premiered on television. The Canadian teen drama television series created by Linda Schuyler is a spinoff of the series’ Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High, which follows the children of fan-favorite characters from the ‘80s television shows. Degrassi: The Next Generation aired for 14 seasons with nearly 400 episodes and was so popular that producers created another spinoff, Degrassi: Next Class, which aired on Netflix for four seasons.
Degrassi: The Next Generation follows a group of teenagers navigating the world as young adults in high school and covered taboo subjects such as abortion, sex, addiction, school shootings, suicide, rape, mental health, and more. Known as a soap opera for teenagers, Degrassi became one of the most-watched dramas in Canada and one of the highest-rated shows on TeenNick in the U.S.
This popular series has some of our favorite well-known actors and entertainment artists who found incredible success after being on the show. Drake, aka our favorite Rapper and Executive Producer of HBO’s Euphoria, starred in Degrassi as the fan-favorite character, Jimmy Brooks. Nina Dobrev of the CW’s The Vampire Diaries and Shenae Grimes of 90210 starred as Mia Jones and Darcy Edwards in the series as well. Many of the actors from the show also appeared in Drake’s music video for ‘I’m Upset’ in 2018, which was the ultimate cast reunion.
In honor of the show’s 19th anniversary, we’re taking a look at some of our favorite storylines and characters, discussing the importance of Degrassi: TNG and how it has paved the way for other teen dramas on television and doing a fashion analysis of the show.
As one of the most progressive television dramas of the early 2000s, Degrassi has hundreds of incredible storylines, although some are more memorable than others. A few of our favorite storylines feature fan-favorite character, Manny Santos (played by Cassie Steele). Manny went through several ups and downs, from her new look in season three to her pregnancy and abortion, and her dreams of getting plastic surgery and becoming an actress.
Another fan-favorite character is Emma Nelson (played by Miriam McDonald), who is considered the show’s main protagonist. In the first episode of the series, Emma plans to meet her “online boyfriend,” even after her friends warn her about the dangers of meeting strangers. Convinced that her boyfriend is a normal guy, Emma is shocked to learn that he is a predator. Emma’s other storylines that resonated with fans included meeting her biological dad, struggling with an eating disorder, and contracting a sexually transmitted disease.
The producers and writers of Degrassi were not afraid to tackle topics like abortion, sex, and drug use. They even pushed to create storylines dealing with rape and sexual assault. Paige’s rape storyline was something that resonated with viewers because the episode aired during a time when people just started speaking up about rape and consent. In an interview with MTV a few years ago, Schuyler and actress Lauren Collins, who portrayed Paige, spoke about the importance of the storyline.
“When we did that storyline, that was very much at a time when we were talking about ‘no means no. It’s very interesting now what’s happening, it’s not even ‘no means no’ now — there’s this whole movement for consensual sex and it’s ‘yes means yes and if you don’t have a yes, it’s a no. However, it’s Paige’s story that still resonates with the Millennial viewers who grew up watching Degrassi,” said Schuyler in an interview with MTV.
“They wanted to expand beyond Paige’s season one persona and have something kind of traumatic happen to her to see how that would affect her whole mean girl, super-confident persona. They wanted to do a rape storyline, and so Schuyler asked me how I felt about it, and if I felt like I was prepared to take that on. I was 14, maybe 15, so it was definitely overwhelming, but I was certainly ready for the challenge. We got to see how much it affected Paige over the years as well. It bled into so many of her other relationships and storylines, which I think is very accurate too,” Collins said in an interview with MTV.
Paving the way for TV dramas
It’s undeniable that Degrassi paved the way for television dramas after its air in 2001. While a few other shows talked about topics like sex, growing up, etc., Degrassi was one of the first to include then-controversial storylines regarding suicide, transgender teens, toxic relationships, and more.
While Degrassi is named after the school the students attend, it also focuses on their lives at home, as many of the characters dealt with struggles in their personal lives. Because Degrassi influenced television, shows like Euphoria, The Fosters, Skins, Sex Education, and Gossip Girl were able to follow suit in airing controversial storylines.
Another reason Degrassi was so popular is that the show cast actual pre-teens and teenagers who fit the age of their characters. This was important to teen viewers, as they were able to see themselves in the characters and relate to them more because of their age. Many television shows cast people well into their 20s and 30s to play teenagers, which holds an unrealistic beauty standard to actual teenagers watching the show, as they feel like they’re supposed to look like these developed actors.
Unlike Gossip Girl, fashion does not take center stage on Degrassi. However, there were still some memorable fashion moments throughout the show. Aired in the early 2000s, Degrassi featured 90s and y2k fashion trends in each episode. Arguably Degrassi’s best-dressed character, Manny Santos sported y2K looks throughout her tenure on the show wearing tracksuits and bucket hats in the earlier seasons. Other fashion-forward characters in the earlier seasons are Paige and Hazel, who usually wore crop tops with jeans or skirts. In later seasons, characters like Alli, Fiona, Jenna, and Bianca were more fashion-focused than other characters, wearing dresses and cropped shirts.
Have you watched Degrassi? Let us know who your favorite characters are and what your favorite storylines are in the comments below!