Sunday, January 8, 2017

Degrassi: Next Class tackles the Syrian refugee crisis and surprise boners in its terrific 3rd season



The expectations just keep getting higher and higher for Degrassi: Next Class, Netflix's soft reboot of the long running Canadian teen drama.  Its first season took me by surprise at the beginning of last year, establishing itself as a better and snappier version of the show I spent so much of my teen years watching.  Then in the summer, its second season came along and proved that the first was no fluke, delivering the same high quality and fun quotient.  The cumulative power of those two seasons landed the show on my Top 20 of 2016 list last week, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Rectify, Orange is the New Black, and The Americans.  Degrassi: Next Class is clearly in the big leagues now.  Would it hold up to the pressure or make me look like a fool for ever regarding it so highly?  Well the show's third season, which dropped in its entirety this past Friday, is another set of delightful and thoughtful episodes of pure Canadian drama.

Last season ended on a cliffhanger, as many of the characters were involved in a severe bus crash, and we were left wondering if anyone died or was severely injured.  I wasn't crazy about that development -- it felt too much like a daytime soap event that gets accompanied with a "One of these characters...will DIE" promo.  But season three handles the aftermath very well, picking up a few months after the crash, at the beginning of the new school year.  Instead of having the fallout dominate everything in the season, the writers go the smarter route, choosing to have the event trickle into the stories in more subtle ways.  Some characters are affected more directly -- one main character is in a coma for most of the season, another is dealing with some major PTSD -- while others process their grief indirectly, whether it's writing a self-indulgent school play about it or trying to move past the tragedy by sweeping it under the rug.

The other main storyline of season three is the school taking in a group of Syrian refugees.  Not only is it an odd choice -- but fitting, given Next Class' penchant for exploring any hot-button issue under the sun -- it's a risky move for a bunch of white Canadian writers to tell a story about the Syrian refugee crisis.  Despite that, the season ends up pulling it off.  Though only two refugees get main character treatment, they still are thoughtfully handled and lead to some nuanced stories about identity and safe spaces.  Season three uses its two main narratives as a mirror of shared trauma, the students of Degrassi dealing with the pain of the bus crash and the refugees adapting to a new environment, and it's a hail mary that somehow works.

However, the show begins to run into problems endemic to issue-oriented storytelling in this season as well.  In its first two seasons, Next Class skillfully carried the Degrassi torch of telling stories about real topics in the world and adolescent life, doing so by always putting its characters before the issues they faced.  There are times, particularly in the first few episodes, where the show seems to abandon character simply to facilitate the point it's making -- for instance, having people adopt antagonistic views just so the school can seem insensitive to the plight of the Syrian students or Miles wanting to grieve what happened in the bus crash.

The other small problem that season three runs into is that it's finally starting to exhibit some of the character bloat that plagued the late seasons of Next Generation.  The first two seasons of Next Class did a good job of making the cast feel streamlined, balancing things so that almost everyone got something interesting to do.  With the introduction of two more main characters and extra weight placed on the larger arc they're involved in, things feel a little more stretched out, and the time spent on less gripping plots are more annoying than it otherwise would be.  Season three still spends ample time with its best characters -- there's lots of material for Frankie, Lola, and Zoe -- but you'll find yourself checking your watch when you're stuck with a plotline about, say, Zig and Esme.

Still, those are minor blemishes in an otherwise wonderful season that displays all of the show's strengths. It's still got storytelling chops, ably spinning great little standalone tales in the midst of its larger narrative arcs.  It's still the most woke show on television (there's even an episode called "#Woke") as it examines periods, trigger warnings, censorship, slut-shaming, and many other Tumblr-ready discussion points.  There's still an excellent balance of tones too -- the events that occur may not be an exact representation of what happens in adolescence, but it accurately captures what high school often feels like.  Even though things were slightly heavier on the drama side of the scale this semester, they still found a way to have some fun, like in the fifth episode, which is a bottle story contained entirely in the Hollingworth house while their mom is away on vacation.

So the newness of Degrassi: Next Class has worn off and it no longer can get by on people being impressed with it just for being better than what one would assume.  I'm happy that what's left behind is still the finest teen drama on right now, not just because there isn't much competition but because it also delivers genuine quality. This will always be a show I worry about, but for now at least, it's not showing any signs of slowing down.


Character Power Rankings: Season Three
1. Frankie
After sliding down a few spots last season, Frankie Hollingsworth returns to her rightful place on the throne.  I feel like at one point in season 13/14 of Degrassi: The Next Generation, Frankie was a smart and relatively level-headed character, but it seems like the Next Class writers have leaned into how much of a goofball Sara Waisglass is in real life and turned Frankie into more and more of a neurotic, silly person.  Frankie is just such a fun character -- the more dumb decisions she makes, the more I love her.  From failing her drivers' license test to hacking into her boyfriend's Facerange page, this was a gem of a season for her.

2. Lola
Lola may have reached her peak comedy quotient last season when she used Teendr to get boys to buy her pizza, but there was still alot of good stuff from her this year.  She hilariously thought it was okay to post a picture on social media of her and Tiny, who's now dating Shay, and then she subtweeted Shay while she was two seats away in class.  Basically, Lola owns.  They also gave her some more serious material this year, and while I would've liked her and Miles to just stay friends, I have to admit that they were awfully cute together.

3. Zoe
My top three has been the same people every season, and this order is exactly the same as the one in my first season review, but what can I say?  These are the clear MVPs of the show.  Zoe didn't have as meaty of material this semester as she did in the last one, but what she did have was still great.  The "queen bee with a heart of gold" archetype has always worked well for Degrassi, and her plots as student council president are alot of fun.  Also there's a moment in the season premiere where she says "most of the school still doesn't know I'm gay."  Girl, you are wearing a denim shirt...

4. Miles
In last year's power rankings, I had Miles close to the bottom and my only comment was "Zzzzzzzz..."  But this season, Miles had a heat check semester like we've never seen before.  Let's break it down: He cheated on his boyfriend in a coma with his sister's best friend.  Then he co-opted the school play that was supposed to be about the bus crash to write a self-indulgent story that was clearly about how he cheated on his boyfriend in a coma with his sister's best friend.  To make things more obvious, he cast his sister's best friend to play the character that's based on her.  THEN he made his mute boyfriend who just woke up from a coma watch this play.  What an icon.

5. Goldi
I correctly predicted last season that Goldi had the potential to become a top-tier character.  She got this season's best standalone story in episode three, where she wrestled with whether or not she should stop wearing her hijab.

6. Baaz
Baaz is a very efficient character, making the most out of the little he's given.  I like the new wrinkle this season gave him, where he's always worried about messing up the ironing job he did on his clothes.

7. Grace
She could die at any moment.  Let's give her this win.

8. Hunter

9. Jonah
Jonah is straight-edge, which is just inherently funny.  Also he had to put up with Frankie's antics this season, and I liked his friendship with Grace.

10. Maya
On paper, you'd think Maya would be much higher on this list.  I like most of the Emo Maya storyline from a writing standpoint (with the best failed pill-related suicide attempt since this iconic scene in Cyberbully), but I don't think it was particularly well-played, so I have to dock some points.

11. Zig
Zig is my boy, but unfortunately he was saddled with storykiller Esme all season.  Still, he got a blowjob in the parking lot.  You my boy, Zig!!

12. Saad
His main function this season was to wear a Middle Eastern scarf (I learned from a Vampire Weekend song that it's called a keffiyeh) and take edgy pictures of Maya.  Degrassi isn't afraid to take a bold stance and say that Syrian refugees can be hot too.  Also his name is Saad which sounds like sad which is what Maya is.  #Deep.

13. Tristan
This season is most likely Tristan's second-to-last one on the show and he had to spend most of it in a coma.  That's like "Holly J missing prom due to kidney failure" levels of messed up, Degrassi.  But unlike Holly J, Tristan is kind of annoying, so spending most of the season comatose or staring blankly was a good look for him.

14. Yael
Yael is a wet blanket, but she's an entertaining wet blanket.  She still needs to ditch that wig though.

15. Vijay
Vijay was a victim of this season's character bloat, as he didn't get much to do compared to him getting gonorrhea in season one and being a Youtube star in season two.

16. Rasha
This was a fine debut season for Rasha, but most her story was more about her fueling conflict for more important characters.

17. Tiny
It's time to lose the blond-streaked frohawk, buddy...

18. Winston
I bet you forgot he was a character.

19. Shay
Shay is a wet blanket and she's not entertaining.  Let's face it: Shay sucks.  I've always hated this type of character.  I hated Liberty, I hated early Clare, and I think I might dislike Shay the most.  She's just super boring.  The storyline where she gets period blood on Tiny's pants was great!  But imagine how much better it would be if it happened to Frankie or Lola.

20. Esme
Oof.  I think Esme might just be an unsalveagable character.  She's a lame, needlessly antagonistic conflict machine.  They tried to give her some depth by providing a tragic backstory that's supposed to make us understand why she acts the way she does, but it was a real swing and a miss.  Plus, every character is always like "omg she's so crazy!!!" but she's not even that crazy.  I think uninteresting is the word they're looking for.

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