Sunday, January 31, 2016

Rekindling my relationship with Degrassi

Almost everybody in my generation has some sort of connection with the Canadian teen drama, Degrassi.  The constant "every episode ever" marathons that The N/TeenNick used to air pretty much ensured the show's cultural osmosis.  We all have shared reference points in the show's biggest moments like Paige's rape, the school shooting that gave us Wheelchair Jimmy, or JT dying in a pool of urine.  But you're likely to get a laugh of recognition from people in their 20s if you make a passing mention to smaller things like Cokehead Craig or that time Manny wore a thong too.  Degrassi: The Next Generation was for teens what General Hospital is for housewives and also my brother.  It wasn't always good, but its juicy soap operatics made it an easily digestible and oddly satisfying watching experience.

Most people I know drifted away from the show after JT's tragic death in season 6, which is actually when I really started getting into it.  Of course, I had seen every episode in scattered order from those aforementioned "every Degrassi episode ever" marathons, but post-JT-dying-in-a-urine-puddle was when I first remember watching the show in chronological order on a weekly basis.  It's a shame that many of my peers never experienced the handful of seasons that followed, because they actually have their own unique charm, to the point where I almost have more affection for them than the "golden years."  Primarily, the next era is notable for the introduction of Holly J Sinclair, the greatest character to ever attend Degrassi High School.  A majority of Holly J's greatness can be attributed to an entertaining and highly sympathetic performance from Charlotte Arnold, one of the only members of the cast who seemed like she had the skills to progress beyond teen soap operas.  In her hands, Holly J evolved from a blatant attempt to recreate Paige to the show's folk hero, the beating heart that gave life to every storyline she was involved in.

A show like Degrassi lives and dies on the strength of its ensemble, so its revolving door nature always makes things dicey.  Once Holly J left the show at the end of season 11, there were hardly any characters worth watching anymore.  And when you don't like any of the characters on Degrassi, you can get annoyed with the writing very quickly.  It didn't help that season 12 was a low point in that regard, full of storylines that were both over-the-top and incredibly boring.  So with the show at its worst and missing the character I cared about the most, I decided to quit somewhere near the end of that 12th season.  Occasionally I'd feel remorseful about leaving behind a series that had been a part of my life for so long, but never enough to put myself through the pain of popping back in on it.

After the show was cancelled by TeenNick at the end of its 14th season last year, it was picked up by Netflix, and the producers chose to use the revival as an opportunity to do some rebranding. Thus, Degrassi: Next Class was born.  And though the series mostly features characters that debuted in the last two seasons of its previous incarnation, the writers spoke about their desire to go back to basics and capture the spirit of the early years.  In that sense, Next Class functions both as season 15 and season one.  I saw a few tweets from TV critics I follow praising this new Netflix season, which was enough to finally convince me to watch.  Because I never watched seasons 13 and 14, I didn't really know the backstories of some of the characters, but the dialogue does a good job of giving you the gist, which makes it easy to jump back into.  And I recommend that you do so immediately, because the new season is absolutely incredible.

Talking about why Next Class is so great is difficult, because it's essentially the same old Degrassi.  Except it's not, in tiny, but extremely important ways.  The new season is proof that the show is built on a solid foundation, and all you really need to do is adjust the settings a little in order to make it good.  The writing staff consists of mainstays and fresh blood, and that mixture injects some previously unseen spark into the scripts.  These 10 episodes have dialogue that is genuinely funny and clever at times.  In fact, I chuckled at least five times during the season premiere.  Do you know how rare it is for Degrassi to have a laugh that's intentional?

Of course, the new series is still melodramatic every now and then, because melodrama is baked into the very core of the show.  But such was the case with My So-Called Life too, and that's the greatest high school drama of all time.  Next Class reminds audiences that melodrama doesn't have to be a bad thing.  Where previous seasons turned the dial all the way up to 11, the new one keeps things at around a five.  Breaking off the melodrama in smaller chunks and washing it down with stronger writing makes it much easier to swallow.

So far, Next Class is impressive simply for the amount of issues it has already tackled.  In just 10 episodes, the show has covered feminism, catcalling, the importance of consent even when you're in a long-term relationship, Gamergate, female masturbation, and anxiety disorders.  Again, this isn't actually new for Degrassi, which has always been an issue-oriented show.  (After all, for a long time the tagline was "It goes there.")  But it tended to be an ISSUE show, especially in its most recent years, where it presented the most sensational aspects of any given topic.  Episodes felt a little like a local news segment designed to instill fear in the parents of teens.  For the first time in ages, Degrassi now feels like it's truly engaging with these subjects in a real way that high schoolers can find value in.  The writers are interested in the characters themselves, not just in how they can drive the plot to the craziest place possible.  And what do you know, I'm much more interested in the characters as a result.

It's also easier to get invested in these people because the cast is slightly smaller, given that it only features characters from grades 10 and 11.  On the other hand, The Next Generation would often have grades 9 through 12 represented in its cast.  But not only does Next Class have a smaller ensemble, it also has a clearer sense of its focus characters: Zoe, Tristan, Maya, and the Hollingsworths.  The show still runs the risk of having entire storylines that are useless because they involve uninteresting characters -- feel free to doze off any time Miles shows up -- but there's less likelihood of that happening with a smaller pool to work with.  This allows for much more streamlined storytelling, where episodes feel like they flow between one another.  Serialized storytelling is not alien to Degrassi, but this season is much more successful at it since it isn't hopscotching between 87 characters.

Who knows, maybe it's useless getting so excited about the new series when it could fall back into being Bad Degrassi so easily.  The cast will have to expand so they can set up new characters to take over when the older ones graduate, the writers will run out of fresh ways to tell stories about everyone, and the show will try to reach higher dramatic heights in order to compensate.  And yet, the end of this 10-episode set makes me hopeful.  The midseason finale flirts with the idea of becoming Bad Degrassi by building towards a possible school shooting, a storyline the show is better off not touching for about 14 more seasons.  But it takes a sharp turn into something smaller and more personal, beautifully wrapping up two of the emotional arcs that dominated the half-season.  It's a stunning conclusion that gives me faith that the writers are aware of what makes this rebranding so special.

I've spoken at length on this blog about my love of high school dramas.  My biggest dream is for there to be a show like Deadwood or Orange is the New Black -- a billion characters, huge interlocking storylines, a setting that feels like an entire ecosystem of its own -- but set in high school.  Watching Next Class made me realize that Degrassi is the closest thing we currently have to that fantasy, which is probably why I'm so fond of it, even in its worst moments.  Thankfully, these new episodes are the opposite of its worst moments; they're some of the best material the series has ever produced.  Ever since I finished it a week ago, I can't stop thinking about how good this season was.  So I hope this convinces you lapsed Degrassi fans out there to dive back into it, because I want to keep the discussion going.

Favorite characters
1. Frankie: Nobody will ever top Holly J, but Frankie Hollingsworth may be my second favorite Degrassi character of all time.  Here's the thing about Frankie: she's kind of bland.  But the bland white girl is my favorite archetype (perhaps you've heard of Haddie Braverman...).  Even though some people may consider her boring, she doesn't consider herself to be, because she thinks that everything that happens to her is so dramatic.  From getting catfished to nobody "understanding" her, everything is a major crisis.  In one episode, somebody tells her "I think you're just addicted to the drama of being miserable."  In another, she says "I'm just so sick of being sad" and a friend says "Since we're being honest...we're sick of it too."  Wow, is Frankie me?

2. Lola: The Frankie-Lola-Shay trio is the heart and soul of the show, and I hope the writers know that.  It certainly seems like they know what an MVP they have in Lola.  She's clearly one of those characters, like Paige or Holly J or Fiona before her, whom the writing staff enjoys coming up with lines for.  Lola made me laugh three times as much as any other character this season.

3. Zoe: She thought her father was the actor who played Christopher on Gilmore Girls, simply because her mom was an extra on the show once.  Zoe rules.

(you'll notice that there aren't any male characters on this list.  That's because all the men on this show are extremely dull.)

Favorite storylines
1. Lola discovers masturbation: In the past, Degrassi has been more invested in the state of its male characters' genitalia -- who can forget about JT and his penis pump? -- but Lola's storyline in "#ButThatsNoneOfMyBusiness" finally addresses something that doesn't get talked about enough in teen dramas.  This was a fun and refreshing little storyline.

2. Zig and Maya learn about consent: Aside from Tristan, Zig and Maya are the only characters that were around when I was still watching, and I remember thinking they were so lame.  One of the greatest achievements of Next Class is that it made me care about these two, mostly due to this story about Zig learning that getting a "yes" from Maya once doesn't mean he automatically has consent for all future matters.  It's a valuable lesson told in a very smart way.

3. Frankie gets catfished: I do genuinely love this story because Lola and Shay only catfish Frankie due to the fact that they're worried about her and she won't open up to them.  I also love that the conflict gets wrapped up so quickly and without histrionics.  But who am I kidding?  It's all about this scene:

4. Grace has cystic fibrosis: Remember what I was saying about good melodrama?  This is it, right here.  I love that scene on the rooftop between her and Zoe near the end.  It's pure overwrought teen angst, but it's also deeply moving.  Compare that to the show's past attempts at tackling a character's illness (like Holly J's ridiculous kidney fiasco) and it only further emphasizes the importance of properly modulating drama.

5. Degrassi does Gamergate: I really enjoyed the undercurrent of feminism running throughout these 10 episodes, and the Gamergate storyline (which is the catalyst for some major plot points later on) was a really interesting and nuanced way to explore that theme.  Somebody needs to put all of the Hollingsworth kids in a psych ward though, starting with Hunter.

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