Sunday, July 24, 2016

Degrassi is back, baby!!!

There were high expectations for the second season of the new Netflix exclusive series Degrassi: Next Class, at least for me.  The first season was so special that it caused me to write over 2000 words about it, and returned me to full-on Degrassi obsession after not having watched it for 2.5 seasons.  (I've since gone back and watched the 60+ episodes I missed because Degrassi is my life now.)  Even in my glowing review of the first season, I voiced some concerns about whether the show could maintain its quality or if it would lapse into the same kind of over-the-top melodrama that caused me to stop watching a few years ago.  But it looks like I can put my worries to bed for now, because the 10-episode second season that dropped this weekend is just as excellent as the first.

Despite the fact that it airs in other formats internationally, Degrassi seems like it's more fine-tuned to the Netflix model this season.  Where episodes felt more self-contained before, even when they were a part of a larger arc, this season is paced like a bullet train driving towards a closing moment that makes you want to watch the next installment immediately.  This lends to a level of serialization in the series that's stronger than it has ever been.  As a result, season two has a narrative and character fidelity that's easier to trace than the show's pre-Next Class days, where the momentum was much more stop-and-go.

This season accomplishes that straightfoward storytelling by continuing last season's trend of incorporating an overarching theme for all of plotlines to pivot off of.  Where last season had an undercurrent of feminism running through its 10 episode, season two tackles racism.  With a show known to be as sensational as Degrassi has been in the past, their decision to touch upon such a hot-button issue could have been a real disaster.  But their handling of the whole situation is surprisingly nuanced and interesting.

It starts when a rival inner-city school pranks the girl's volleyball team, and Frankie decides to get revenge by painting the team as animals since their nickname is "The Zoo."  But she doesn't understand the racial implications of depicting women of color as gorillas and other animals, and when she receives heat for it, she gets defensive and apologizes in all the wrong ways.  It's an excellent, subtle story that shows how racism isn't always as overt and intentional as it gets depicted, and even somebody who considers themselves progressive can have blind spots about their privilege.  And it also bleeds into a later storyline that evokes Black Lives Matter, where Tiny gets wrongfully suspended after somebody attacked him, which causes the student body to protest the fact that a black student got punished harshly while the rich, white Frankie got off without consequences for her actions.

Not only does the season address current events deftly, but it also engages with social media better than any show I've ever seen.  Their versions of popular social media apps may have goofy names -- Instagram is Hastygram, Facebook is Facerange, Tinder is Teendr, Snapchat is Oomfchat -- but don't let that distract you from how well they're handled throughout these 10 episodes.  It never feels like an adult approximation of modern teen interaction in the way that so many other shows can; instead, it accurately depicts how young people use social media.  It's a constant part of their lives in small ways, but the show also tells smart, funny, and true-to-life stories directly involving social media too.  A minor plotline this season revolves around a misunderstanding caused by Maya accidentally liking one of her ex-boyfriend Zig's photos when she was stalking his Hastygram page.  Later, there's a hilarious Lola plot where she uses Teendr to get boys to do stuff for her (mostly, just buy her pizza).

Overall, season two features some of the strongest writing Degrassi has ever had.  The key to good high school drama is to maintain the proper balance of low- and high-stakes stories, a thing Next Class continues to do with aplomb.  This is the kind of show that will delightfully nest a serious storyline about race right alongside a goofy one where students battle over a class assignment to see whose app can get more downloads in a week.  All of this works partially because they manage to keep the low-stakes stories from getting boring and the high-stakes ones from getting too outrageous.  But it's also because they're filled with characters that are worth watching.  Though they may not always be likable, the characters on Next Class feel very real and engaging.

Most importantly, this season is super funny.  I laughed so much during these 10 episodes.  And they were from genuine, intentional moments of comedy, not "this is hilariously bad" laughs.

Of course, you can't talk about this season without discussing what will probably be the main draw for most fans.  This school year marks the 60th anniversary of Degrassi High's existence, so there's an alumni event that gives the show an opportunity to bring back many beloved characters from Degrassi: The Next Generation.  The reunion occurs right in the fifth episode, "#Throwback Thursday," which is one of the most purely enjoyable episodes of television I've seen all year.  I finally knew how people who were excited for Fuller House felt when I saw the return of Emma, Liberty, Spinner, Paige, Marco, Peter, Sav, and Holly J.  (I literally gasped when I saw Holly J.  I'm a 24 year old male.)  It's an episode that serves as a nice little nostalgia grab, but I also love how it uses these older characters as wiser, amused observers to the drama that the high schoolers are going through, painting the school as a battleground for the endless war between teenagers and their own burgeoning adolescence.  It's at once a love letter to Degrassi the educational institution and Degrassi the show.

Netflix decided to drop this new season on the exact same day as it released the third season of Bojack Horseman, so it's getting talked about even less than it otherwise would have.  In fact, I only saw two critics tweeting about it this weekend.  (Bless you, Margaret Lyons and Pilot Viruet.)  That's a shame too, because the high school drama is a weirdly underserved genre in this age of television, which alone makes Degrassi important.  But it also should be talked more about simply because it's been so good lately.  During season one I thought to myself in amusement, "What if I put this show on my top 20 at the end of the year"?  After watching the second season, I can't imagine not having it on there.  Forget about any pre-conceived notions you might have about the franchise as a whole, Degrassi: Next Class is, without a doubt, one of the best television shows of the year.

Character Power Rankings: Season Two
1. Zoe
Zoe is one of the most frustrating characters to watch because she's constantly making the same mistakes over and over again, but frustrating don't mean bad.  In fact, she's easily the most layered character on the show, and her complexities are what make her so frustrating.  The way she pushes people away and ruins things that are going good for her, it's clearly always come from a place of insecurity and low-self esteem.  So her struggles with self-harm this season seem like a natural progression of where they've been taking her character since she was introduced back in season 13 of The Next Generation.  Self-harm is not a new subject for Degrassi, nor is a character being confused about their sexuality, but Zoe's storyline is one of the best examples of both that the series has ever done.

2. Lola
I've been frequenting the show's Wikia page lately, as I do whenever I finish a season and can't stop thinking about it, and I was shocked to learn that there's a fierce hatred for Lola amongst the community there.  (In general, I don't recommend visiting that place.  It's a hate-filled cesspool.)  There is no hyperbole involved when I say that Lola Pacini is the funniest character in the entire history of Degrassi.  Nobody makes me laugh as frequently and consistently as she does, partly because of the lines they write for her and partly because Amanda Arcuri has some great comedic chops.  I think people who hate her are taking too much of a moralistic view of the show.  I mean, she used to Teendr to make boys buy pizza for her.  That's horrible, I guess, but it's also very funny!

3. Frankie
If you read my review of season 1, or if you know me at all, then you know how much I love Frankie Hollingsworth.  I'm a diehard Frankie fan, and just because she's not at number one on this list doesn't mean she isn't still my favorite character.  It's just that this semester was...unfortunate for her, to say the least.  It kind of bums me out that the racism storyline took up so much of her screen time, because the friendship between her, Lola, and Shay was the anchor of season one.  But still, it was interesting material.  Plus, we got to see her be a privileged dummy, which was alot of fun.  So Frankie is still wonderful, but let's hope she gets more variety in season three.

4. Baaz
Though he was introduced last season, Baaz wasn't given much to do, so this semester was his real opportunity to shine.  He made a farting app!  He tried to neg Grace!  He was reading a pickup artist book!  It seems like people find him annoying, but I think he's very entertaining.

5. Grace
I've never been a huge fan of Grace, or the tough goth girl archetype in general, but I can't deny how masterfully structured her arc was this season.  It's basically a series of mini-arcs (she briefly tries to dress more feminine, she continues to keep her cystic fibrosis a secret, she develops a crush on Zig) that you don't realize are all pushing towards the same idea until the very end.

6. Maya
All of the material Maya was given this season was slight compared to last season, where she was essentially the focal point.  But still all of it, from her accidentally liking one of Zig's pictures on Hastygram to befriending perennial sleazeball Peter, was fun to watch.

7. Vijay
He has a YouTube channel where he does covers of other people's songs.  This kid is going places.

8. Zig
One of the greatest feats Degrassi has pulled off over the years is that it slowly made me like Zig.  I thought he was such a boring little twerp when he was first introduced, but now I find him to be a charming oaf.  I think it's the sleeveless shirts.  And the fact that he inadvertently auditioned to be a stripper this season.

9. Shay
I have to put her higher than I otherwise would have because she was a part of some of the most integral and interesting material of the season, but I still find her incredibly boring.

10. Tiny
I don't like that he's going to cause another rift in the Frankie-Lola-Shay trio, but I've got to respect it.

11. Winston
He has dated Frankie and Zoe now, so maybe nerds are the new cool.  The kind, caring friend look is a much better one on him than the nerdy comic relief when he was first introduced.

12. Yael
If she loses the wig, she'll climb at least three spots.

13. Goldi
Buy alot of stock in Goldi.  I have a feeling she's going to become a top-tier character as soon as they figure out what to do with her.

14. Jonah
He's still riding off of the high of this moment from last season:

15. Tristan
He and Miles are Degrassi's most boring couple, but I'll give him the slight edge over his boyfriend for constantly being like "stop playing, you know you like girls" to Zoe.

16. Hunter
He spent the whole season in a psychiatric hospital, so there wasn't much for him to do this season except color.

17. Miles

18. Esme
Boy, what a horribly written character.  I thought they would shade her a little more this season, but now that she's been given more screen time she's just become even more lame and one-dimensional.  I guess you've got to have somebody to be an easy source of conflict, but the writers could try a little harder to make her anything other than a provocation machine.

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