Degrassi is a wonderful anomaly among TV’s high school-set dramas, and not just because its stars apologize by saying “sore-y.” Most of its peers either transition to entirely new settings or die slow, painful deaths after their principal cast members graduate. But for 11 years and 12 seasons, Degrassi has stayed rooted in Toronto’s Degrassi Community School — an institute that’s seen more than its share of totally intense drama, from a traumatic shooting to a mini-outbreak of oral gonorrhea. (And that was just season 4!)
Even as the show has tackled issue after issue — drug use, date rape, teen pregnancy, what to do if your boyfriend’s a hoarder — it’s somehow managed to avoid pure sensationalism. Maybe that’s why Degrassi boasts celebrity fans including Kevin Smith (who got his own guest arc in seasons 4 and 5), Ellen Page, Sarah Silverman, and Quentin Tarantino. Either way, we were thrilled to discover that our favorite Canadian import airs its 300th episode on Friday — and even more excited when creator Linda Schuyler took half an hour to chat with us about the show’s legacy, its future, and its talented young cast (“such lovely, polite Canadian kids!”).
I have literally been watching this incarnation of Degrassi since it premiered — I’m the same age as Spinner and Ashley and everyone from the first cast, so we sort of went though high school together.
Oh my gosh, that’s so awesome! When we graduated that bunch of kids — Ashley, and Ellie, and Paige, and Marco — we actually thought,”This is going to be the end of our show.” And it’s been quite a learning curve to realize that our audience has stayed with us.
So what’s the secret to the show’s longevity?
The show set out to be an authentic — and I use the word authentic very carefully; I don’t use the word realistic –- an authentic portrayal of teenage years. And although we get a lot of character loyalty, our audience is fascinated by that high school experience. Strangely enough, it’s almost like the school itself is the centerpiece of the show. We have a few founding principles that we adhere to. We’re very strict [about] age appropriate casting. We’re very big on celebration of diversity — racial, sexual, economic — and creating an environment for young people that makes them feel like they’re not completely alone. Those principles have been with me right from the beginning, 30 odd years ago. [Schuyler created the Degrassi franchise, which also includes Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High, in the late '70s; the current show was known as Degrassi: The Next Generation until season 10.]
You made a point of saying that Degrassi is authentic rather than realistic. Can you explain?
Well, by authentic I mean emotionally authentic. We can’t lose sight of the fact that we’re creating a television show, a dramatic television show, and our number one priority is to entertain. Sometimes it’s not necessarily quite as realistic as if one was doing a documentary. But I’m hoping that at the end of the day, what is authentic is the emotional journey that we enjoy with our characters.
Have you felt the need to make story lines bigger or more sensational as the show got older?
Oh, I don’t think so. We started out 12 years ago with Emma being alone in a hotel room with a stalker that she met on the Internet. Paige got date raped, and Manny had an abortion — I think that we have to be very careful to keep abreast of the times, and be current with our issues. The world is constantly changing, and changing at a pace that none of us could have predicted even 10 years ago. So it really is important that our show keeps up with the changing social environment.
The show itself has also changed over the past 12 years — the kids have gotten a little more fashion conscious and glamorous, for example.
I don’t know if that’s the way the show has changed, or if that is just a reflection of where kids are at these days. You look at kids coming out of high school today, and my gosh, some of the things they’re wearing — it just wasn’t like that ten years ago.
In the summer of 2010, Degrassi began airing daily. How did the transition to this telenovela format come about?
That was an initiative from our broadcaster, TeenNick. They pitched us and said, “We think our young audience has more free time in the summer. What would you think about running off 20 episodes in a telenovela format over the summertime?” And we took this on as an incredibly exciting challenge. It certainly shook up our writing department in a very good way. Beforehand we were doing about 20-21 episodes a year, and we increased our output to 44 episodes. That did have some impact on our story. We tended to draw out our arcs a little bit more. We used to shoot in blocks of two half-hours at a time, and we had to revise that so we were shooting four half-hours at a time.
Over the years, which storylines have you been most proud of?
What I really like about what we do is, we do strike a balance. We’ll deal with some very heavy issues, but we’ll also deal with some wickedly silly issues as well. In terms of just social relevance — I was really proud of the one we kicked of the show with, which included a cyber stalker. In season 3 we did a gay bashing arc episode with Marco. We did the self-mutilation episode with Ellie, and then of course there’s the Jimmy shooting episode. And the storyline that’s going through right now is our whole transgender storyline, of which I’m very proud.
I’m not sure if any teen show has tackled this topic before.
I don’t think so. We had the word “transgender” on our whiteboards in the story room for a number of years, and we never seemed quite ready to take it on. Then something happened — season 10 was the year of the telenovela, and there seemed to be a little more awareness for transgender youth. It just seemed like the right year.
How did you cast Adam?
It was tricky. We had to keep some secrecy in the breakdowns that went out — we didn’t want the storyline to be revealed. When we saw Jordy [Todosey] do her audition, we just fell in love with her.
It was lucky that she has a unisex name.
I know! That was very helpful. But before we really, seriously offered her the part, I had to sit down with her and her mom and explain what the intention of the storyline was, and to find out if she was going to feel comfortable with this. Because I think it’s the most demanding role of all my years of producing this show. I’ll never forget that meeting. Jordy looked at her mom, and she turned and looked at me, and she said, “Bring it on.”
It’s a tough role, because she has to wear that compression vest. She has to have her hair shorter than she’d ideally like. She sees all the other girls getting pretty hair and makeup, and, you know, that’s not for her. But she’s embraced it, and I think she’s done an incredibly wonderful job.
Are there any issues you haven’t tackled yet that are on your wish list?
I can’t say at this moment there is. The final week in November, we’ll be gathering all our writers together again — and we have our big brainstorming, where everybody comes with their wish list of what they’d like to do. But I don’t really think we have any residual issues right now. I think we’re looking for a great, fresh start this November.
So season 13 is happening?
In our minds! [laughs] We have not had the official word from our broadcasters — even though we have tremendous longevity, we still do live a year-to-year existence.
Do you have writers who watched Degrassi when they were younger?
Yes! It’s really quite wonderful, because the longer the show stays in existence, the more we find that we have old fans coming to work for us.We burn up a lot of energy and passion around this place, and that’s what I look for in my young writers. They’re the ones who really deliver for us.
Are you looking to bring back more old characters as the show continues?
Well we do have our one character, Mr. Simpson, who’s been with us forever. And also as a producer — I couldn’t do my job without him. [Stefan Brogren starred in Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High; he plays a teacher-turned-principal on Degrassi, and also directs and produces the show.] From time to time, we have had characters back. But the emphasis really is on the current student body.
A lot of the cast is going to graduate this season, though.
Yes, that’s somewhat sobering for us. But it’s part of our ebb and flow. We’ve got Maya, and Tristan, and Tory, and Zig, and that younger gang coming up. And we will be holding back one or two from the graduating class.
The show has launched several careers — Drake with his infamous Drake shirt, Nina Dobrev, Shenae Grimes. Do cast members see Degrassi as a stepping stone?
I think they know that it can be a stepping stone, but there’s no guarantee. It’s a wonderful training ground. We were just looking at Munro Chambers [who plays Eli], who unfortunately will be graduating this year. He’s only been with the show for 3 years — but he’s been with us for 120 episodes. That’s a lot of work! They’re getting a lot of hours under their belts.
Over the years, the show has courted a lot of controversy. Have you had to fight to get any episodes on the air?
I wouldn’t say that we’ve had any real fights. I actually really applaud TeenNick — they’ve been very supportive. Way back in season 3, I think probably the abortion episode was the one that gave them the most pause. They eventually did air it, but they wanted to make sure that they put the right PSAs with it. They have a responsibility as a teen channel — parents have a certain expectation of what their children are going to be watching.
Has it gotten easier to get controversial material past the network?
Oh, no. [laughs] No, TeenNick is a responsible youth broadcaster, so whenever we deal with our issue shows, we do get notes from Standards. Our challenge is, how we can position our material so that we’re not sugar-coating what we’re talking about, but at the same time we’re not being exploitative? It’s a delicate balance. The Peabody Award, when we got that for our transgender show [in 2011], they gave us a citation which I’m really quite proud of — they talk about the fact that our show neither sensationalizes nor trivializes. We deal with what could be called sensational subject matter, but we’re really, genuinely not trying to sensationalize. At the same time, we’re not trying to just brush it under the carpet or trivialize it. And that, to me, is when Degrassi is at its best.
How long do you think Degrassi can last? Do you ever worry about running out of material?
Oh, no. As long as there are teenagers going to school in North America, there will be storylines for Degrassi.
So we’ll be talking again after the thousandth episode?
Well, let’s get to 500 first! We can make a date for then.