Movies + TV

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Degrassi

This is why we watch TV: to learn.

Above: popular student Stephanie Kaye, by Kelly Smith. Below: the Degrassi kids coming out of a JEANS POCKET.

Why is Degrassi literally the best thing ever? Where do I even begin? It feels impossible to explain the phenomenon of Degrassi to the uninitiated.

Full disclosure: as a Canadian teenager, I watched this show in its first run. Fresh. Basically, I grew up alongside these kids. I probably should have been on the show (I was in drama club). This is why it’s so hard for me to explain the phenom in language. Degrassi is like a sacred tome. Metaphor is out of the question. I’m going to feel my way through this.

When I say Degrassi, I’m talking about CLASSIC DEGRASSI that aired between 1987 and 1991. It was an award-winning program for teenagers that was filmed in and around the multi-cultural city of Toronto and aired on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s TV station. Degrassi is a World Happiness Dance that was shown in 40 countries by the late ’80s. Over time the stars got older, of course (that’s the thing with time), so the title morphed from Degrassi Junior High to Degrassi High. The series was acclaimed for its sensitive and realistic portrayal of teenage life. No teen-related topic was left untouched. And I mean NONE: shoplifting, homophobia, child abuse, drugs and alcohol, teen pregnancy (Spike was a 14-year-old mom), adoption, abortion (the twins!), divorce, depression, learning disabilities, bullying, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, death (BOTH of Wheels’s parents were killed by a drunk driver) eating disorders, environmental issues (ACID RAIN!), sexism (always), suicide (in the boys’ bathroom!), terminal illness, and so forth.

HAIL HAIL! Some of the gang is all here! Wave back!

Degrassi is REAL. The actors were nonprofessionals. One of the creators was a real-life teacher. These kids weren’t really acting—they were just growing up, zits and all. And the zits were a-plenty for all the world to see (some of the kids were even in a band called Zit Remedy).

Degrassi can be used as an adjective. If you say, “That’s SO DEGRASSI!” it can mean many things. For me, it means something that is earnest, innocent, and lame rolled into one big ball.

Speaking of speak, I love how the kids talk with a special tone of voice reserved especially for When Standing Up For Oneself—which they do always and often. The tone is a blend of contempt, anger, victim, and “screw you,” spoken from the heart. It’s pretty much the entire show. (But Spike is the master of it.) It’s safe to say that possibly these Learning Lesson Moments inspired every one of Jerri Blank’s realizations. This is why we watch TV: to learn.

Degrassi is EDUCATIONAL. I can’t believe what they were able to pull off. In 1990, the show really stepped it up and did a two-part episode on HIV/AIDS titled “BAD BLOOD” (of course). You know, I’ve been watching the show for half my life and I’m still learning from it.

Degrassi HAMMERS IT HOME. Sample plotlines, lifted straight from Wikipedia’s article on the show:

  • “Voula is aghast when her best friend, Stephanie, begins campaigning for president on kiss and wild promises [sic]. Meanwhile, Stephanie’s kid brother, Arthur, joins forces with Yick to avoid Joey’s bullying.”
  • “Voula disagrees with her father that she is too young to go to the dance and slips out anways. Her plan goes awry when she is asked to make the speech that Stephanie, the school president, is too drunk to make.”
  • “Rick joins the environmental action committee to impress Caitlin. Meanwhile, Yick would rather make up a family history for a project than tell the class he is a boat person.” (YES IT SAYS “BOAT PERSON” ON WIKIPEDIA!! That is Wikipedia’s racist way of saying that Yick’s family was Laotian.)
  • “Joey finds himself in hot water when Kathleen and Melanie find out the drugs he has sold them are vitamin pills.”
  • “Many of Ms. Avery’s students think that she is a lesbian. Caitlin insists that her teacher isn’t gay. After dreaming that her classmates think that she is also gay, Caitlin begins to act self-conscious at school.”
  • “Wheels is surprised by a visit from his birth father and has to deal with his feelings about being adopted. A search party is organized for the school snake.”

Your head might be spinning off its axis after several back-to-back episodes, but that’s just…life at DEGRASSI! If the A plot ever gets too heavy-handed (and does it ever), plot B or plot C will have a ridiculous situation comedy being acted out by lovable dorks and nerds (e.g., toilet-papering Mr. Raditch’s front yard) to cheer you right back up.

Above all, Degrassi practices FEMINISM. In 1990, Lucy made an early feminist horror film on her video camera. She was sick and tired of women being the victims, so she made her killer a lady (played by Caitlin). It is quite possible that it is the first feminist horror video made by a TV teenager in the history of the world.

“EVERYBODY CAN SUCCEED, ALL YOU NEED IS TO BELIEVE, BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF, FORGET YOUR FEARS AND DOUBTS. COME ON, GIVE US A TRY, AT DEGRASSI JUNIOR HIGH!” See? The whole message is right there in the theme song.

Caitlin! Spike and her amazing hair! Liz and her amazing hair! "THIS IS TORTURE!"

Degrassi wears a mood ring. It is like life itself: everything, all the time. It is bad, good, amazing, dorky, embarrassing, hilarious, poignant, bleak, and sometimes shocking. Degrassi is a universe unto itself, an institution. I hold this institution near and dear to my heart, and, like all great art, you just have to experience it.

P.S. Melanie was my favorite character. She’s like the dorky version of Molly Ringwald from the first season of The Facts of Life. If you don’t already know, then you need to figure out your favorite Degrassi character. Your answer will unlock the secrets of the universe…and YOURSELF (because Degrassi TEACHES).

P.P.S. Stephanie Kaye pretty much ruled the show. Unfortunately she quit after the first two seasons.

Stephanie Kaye and Joey Jeremiah! At your service!

P.P.P.S. JOEY JEREMIAH

43 Comments

  • benji February 8th, 2012 11:12 PM

    I’ve been waiting in anticipation for this article since I saw the picture this morning and I am not disappointed! I am also Canadian and I remember a few Degrassi episodes from when I was reaaally young and I’m pretty sure they are why I will never hitchhike. I watched the whole series last year and again a couple weeks ago on Netflix and it’s AMAZING! It still teaches me lessons and I’m 25. Also Melanie is totes the best character.

  • sabona February 8th, 2012 11:18 PM

    I LOVE ORIGINAL DEGRASSI, OH MY GOD. I was so excited when I saw this article on Rookie because seriously I’ve watched every episode twice now and I’m so sad it’s over. The next generation just doesn’t compare.
    I love all of the characters (except Kathleen, oh my goodness) and their outfits and ahhh it’s just the best thing ever.

  • cherrycola27 February 8th, 2012 11:20 PM

    Oh man, Degrassi!
    I was too young to watch this when it originally aired, but I watched it when Degrassi: The Next Generation was on because I wanted to understand the parents better. I was a dedicated Degrassi: TNG fan. I had all their pictures in my binder (Oh, Craig) and made iron-on T-shirts of all the characters. Degrassi, both TNG and the original just GOT IT. “It goes there”. Was there any tough topic that they didn’t touch on? I stopped watching when it got ridiculously dramatic, but there will always be a soft spot in my heart for Degrassi.

  • Laia February 8th, 2012 11:36 PM

    i was OBSESSED with Spike. I think my mom watched this show cause I was too little to watch it when it was on but I remember Spike being pregnant and being all OMG. but mostly i wanted Spike’s hair because HOW COULD IT BE REAL?

    in conclusion: SPIKE SPIKE SPIKE.

    ALSO A GIRL NAMED SPIKE.
    I CANT.

    • tellyawhat February 9th, 2012 9:16 PM

      YES, OMG, S P I K E

      &

      CAITLIN

      &

      LUCY

      They are all so cool.

  • Maggie February 8th, 2012 11:43 PM

    Why was the Degrassi summer movie such a downer? So much maiming and betrayal, and practically zero Yick.

    THEY’LL TAKE YA MONAY
    AND NEVER GIVE UP

    -M
    http://www.lonercomics.com/

  • Jamie February 8th, 2012 11:53 PM

    why does this not have more comments? DEGRASSI. i’m a generation younger, so obv i watched TNG, but STILL

  • Sonja February 9th, 2012 12:02 AM

    Spike is basically unreal. BTW, in present day she does a GUEST DJ 80s night with CAITLIN in the city of Toronto on occasion (you can be friends with her on the Facebook). my friend Lisa pointed out that it was cool/interesting that Spike made out with a ‘non-punk’ and got preggz.

    i agree. SCHOOL’S OUT (degrassi movie) is totally depressing. i just re-watched it. it’s still a downer but there are some very choice moments namely 1990s fashion… alot of ‘body glove’ style attire. Alot of hilarious soft focus fun-in-the-sun magic hour light of joey jeremiah and his two-timing ill ways.

    you can watch 80s DEGRASSI on NETFLIX. it’s fun to watch while you do arts and crafts simultaneously.

    • truepenny February 10th, 2012 10:10 PM

      I NEED to go to the 80s night…do you know where it is/where I can find information on it?

  • meltayser February 9th, 2012 12:15 AM

    Major props to you for taking on the monumental task of attempting to explain the Degrassi phenomenon. I mean, how do you explain MAGIC!?! Yet, somehow you managed it.

    I remember hating Arthur and Yick back in the day. In retrospect, I think it was probably because my friend and I basically WERE (the female versions of) Arthur and Yick which made them painful and awkward to watch. But now, 20 years later (yikes), I find I have a genuine fondness for them. Awww! Lovable nerds!

    When DJH and DH showed up on Netflix I was SO STOKED. Currently working my way through Season 2 of DJH. Lucy just got hit on by the pervy substitute. GAH.

  • blog full of jelly February 9th, 2012 12:21 AM

    When I was in the 7th grade they made us watch Degrassi Jr. High (the original series) on the school’s closed circuit TV every Wednesday. This was maybe 1988.

    • rhubarbish February 9th, 2012 1:06 AM

      I NEED TO KNOW what school you went to that showed you Degrassi on their TV system. My school did this (Boston Middle School in La Porte, IN) when I was in 7th grade there in 1997! It was the best. Everyone pretended to hate the weekly Degrassi episodes, but we all actually loved it. We also got to watch some Kids of Degrassi episodes in 6th grade, as well as the Wonder Years!

  • Sonja February 9th, 2012 12:25 AM

    i love you, Mel. & thank you for the YICK YU
    typo tip-off. Game respect game xo

  • meltayser February 9th, 2012 12:32 AM

    PS. Didn’t the actress who plays Lucy win a contest to be the “Sassiest Girl in America” in Sassy mag at some point? Or something like that?

  • kalika_ma February 9th, 2012 12:39 AM

    Just when I think you’ve posted THE BEST THING EVER EVER…it gets better. Love every Rookie on the team <3

  • christinachristina February 9th, 2012 2:01 AM

    YES. a local portlander makes a zine called “degrassi digest” and it’s amazing and you can download copies of it here (http://degrassidigest.com/zines.html). it combines new degrassi with old, and it’s basically awesome.

    it’s funny that that the “literally the best thing ever – golden girls” is the first in the “related” link section, because he makes a golden girls zine as well. (http://miamiyouvegotstyle.com/)

  • Billy February 9th, 2012 2:02 AM

    Omg I LOVE YOU FOR WRITING THIS!!! Original Degrassi is a dorky obsession of mine but the show is just so perfect!!

  • Gloria February 9th, 2012 4:57 AM

    Haha, go dorky Canadian shows. There’s just a flavour to old Canadian show, something genuine and so utterly Canadian. It’s a brand all of our own! I kinda loved the style. Also loved the Zits, tons. Truely showcases how true and awesome Canadians are. It’s great that the city hasn’t really changed since either, so much of Toronto is still the same.

  • Emma S. February 9th, 2012 8:51 AM

    I cannot believe how young the actors look. When I watched, they seemed like adults. Amazing.

  • Bean February 9th, 2012 9:33 AM

    Oh man! I absolutely love Degrassi. It is my favorite TV show, hands down. Nothing compares to it. I actually have Juinor High, High, and about eight season or some of The Next Generation on dvd. That was my christmas a few years ago. Get way too many degrassi boxsets and be happy forever. Such a fantastic show.
    PS: My favorite character is probably Spike. And it always made me happy that her and Snake ended up being in the next generation. As well as Mr. Ratich!!

  • blog full of jelly February 9th, 2012 9:56 AM

    Rhubarbish – Brookside Middle School, Sarasota, FL

    I remember more that I learned from DJH than they bothered to try teach us in class.

  • appledarling February 9th, 2012 11:05 AM

    BEST Toronto middle school staple. EVER. <3

  • garconniere February 9th, 2012 11:16 AM

    I WHOLEHEARTEDLY ENDORSE ALL OF THIS. stephanie kay WAS totally the best. she definitely helped end some of my bad slut-shaming habits as a teen.

    THIS IS THE BEST POST ON ROOKIE EVER.

    now i’m gonna have the zit remedy’s 1 hit in my head all day…

  • WitchesRave February 9th, 2012 12:52 PM

    Literally the best thing ever: Skins (UK of COURSE)

  • insteadofanelephant February 9th, 2012 1:19 PM

    this show is amazing. this article is amazing. thank you for pointing out one of the best things in life.

    XX
    instead of an elephant

  • MissKnowItAll February 9th, 2012 4:25 PM

    Gah, I never watched this show and now I feel like a total loser. What else have I been missing out in life?

  • vadergurl February 9th, 2012 4:47 PM

    I love Degrassi! In my grade ten and twelve family living classes we watched lots of episodes of it!

  • Stephanie February 9th, 2012 5:03 PM

    Degrassi is definitely the best thing ever. I also grew up with it (though in the States and I was a bit young, but since it was on PBS my mom let me watch it). Spike, Liz and Caitlyn were my heroines. I wanted to bleach my hair when I was ten because of Spike. She definitely was a source of style inspiration for me for the rest of my life and I admired her strength in general. My mom, who is a NICU nurse and has cared for lots of babies like Emma born to teen moms, actually loved that storyline, found it realistic and was happy that I was learning from Spike. Caitlyn is the one who taught me about animal testing. I was calling cosmetic companies and shaming them for testing on animals at ten. I’m vegan now and can attribute that to Degrassi. So yeah, totally shaped me. Loved that show soooooooooooooooo much!!!!

  • stephanoosk February 9th, 2012 6:23 PM

    i’d just like to point out that you can watch entire episodes from the first season or two on youtube (starting here http://youtu.be/Nu5gsOonoQo) and that rick was, for the longest time (and also still a little bit now), the love of my life.

  • Annie February 9th, 2012 8:00 PM

    aaahhhhh I grew up watching TNG but my dad watched the original series when it was on. Luckily, we’ve never had to have “The Talk” because my parents know I’ve basically learned everything I need to know from Degrassi. So that’s nice.

    PS: How could you not mention anything about “broomhead”?!?! That’s one of my fondest memories from the show.

  • Sonja February 9th, 2012 9:47 PM

    BROOMHEAD!!!
    Stephanie: you are so, so SPIKE-like.
    and Laia loves Spike, too.

    Sigh, Spike.

    i also wanted to point out that Beverly Hills, 90210 modelled its show on early DEGRASSI.

    not sure about Lucy/Sassiest Girl ..but it would’ve been a good call.

    we should talk about the one and only Sassiest Boy in America: IAN SVENONIUS. my hero.

    Every human who loves Degrassi is a very special human being.

    thank you for reading! we love you

  • georgia f. February 9th, 2012 10:13 PM

    Love seeing sane minded people like myself ready to talk about degrassi at any time. OG really delivered in way that next gen. doesn’t have the courage to do.
    Also, I recently died when I found this band.
    http://www.myspace.com/arthurandyu
    Obvi the name is a degrassi reference guys!

  • Simone February 9th, 2012 10:38 PM

    I have been a huge fan of Degrassi Junior High & Degrassi High since forever! It is so relatable and wonderful, and I know this is cheesy but I actually learned a lot from it (I first caught it when it aired on PBS in the US while I was an impressionable tween). I must admit, I also love Degrassi: The Next Generation but I am fully aware that it’s like a totally different animal.

    This article is great–I’m so excited for the people commenting here who are like, “I’ve never watched it!” because they are in for such a treat–but I wanted to point out something in Sonja’s talk about Wikipedia that’s a little off. Yes, calling someone a “boat person” is sooooo racist (augh, I’m cringing at the thought), but I think it was used on Wikipedia not because people were being ignorant and insensitive but because Yick actually states that he doesn’t want to talk about his family because no one cares about “boat people.” But then it turns out that everyone in the class is completely rapt with his story about how his family came to Canada in a daring and dangerous fashion on a boat! (But yeah, everyone–don’t say “boat people” because it is cruel and dismissive and racist.)

    Also, I’m heartened to see all the Melanie love! She was my favorite too.

  • Pocket Cow February 10th, 2012 12:35 AM

    My friends and I had a party where we dressed up as Degrassi characters, ate Chinese food, and watched the Melanie Buys a Bra and Steph Runs for President episodes, which are my favorites.
    It was lovely, and I make a really great Steph if I do say so myself…

    PS: you forgot cancer! I was so sad when I heard about LD…

  • T-rex February 10th, 2012 7:35 PM

    OMG Yes!! I watched the original Degrassi in early high school. That – and the other tween must-see show – Press Gang, featuring ANOTHER character named Spike who I wad totally in love with. Both series ran on a daily basis after school in Australia – it was the best.

    SO hard to pick a Degrassi fave. I think I loved
    Caitlyn and Stephanie in equal parts. They are like ying and yang. Such a shame Stephanie didn’t stay on, but the show still rocked without her.

  • truepenny February 10th, 2012 9:59 PM

    Yes! Degrassi IS literally the best thing ever. The ACID RAIN made me laugh. They are always on about acid rain.

    I’m currently making my way through them on Netflix and I just watched the HIV/AIDS two-parter….so intense! I’m in 2012 and I’m still thinking…Degrassi really goes there!

    I always wondered, was “broomhead” just a Degrassi thing, or did people really use that expression at the time? I definitely need to bring it back.

    I think maybe Snake is my favourite. Can’t tell you why…maybe growing up with TNG has had some to do with it. And also Spike. And all the feminism!

    Okay, I’m going to go watch Degrassi right now.

  • craftyweetzie February 11th, 2012 1:58 AM

    Degrassi is by far, the thing ever. well, along with My-So Called Life and Freaks and Geeks…

  • Ellie February 11th, 2012 2:30 AM

    I need to watch Degrassi now.
    *adds to list already containing Sherlock, Firefly, and Big Bang Theory*

    • April 6th, 2012 10:46 PM

      OMG!!! The big bang theory and sherlock are literally my favorite tv shows ever!!!

  • Jennifer February 16th, 2012 10:01 PM

    I just wanted to mention that today it was announced that Neil Hope, the man who played Wheels, died 5 years ago. :(

  • Sonja February 18th, 2012 5:18 AM

    oh dear lord. it is so sad and soooooo prescient. the timing is UNCANNY. also so weird: Neil Hope and i shared the same birthday.
    (there’s some weird typos in this article but ? yes)
    http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/article/1132769–degrassi-star-neil-hope-died-in-2007-family-only-learned-news-last-month