What I’ve Learned From Watching 11 Seasons of Degrassi In Less Than 3 Months

-Yes, I, a grown ass man, have gotten hooked on watching various iterations of the Canadian media juggernaut Degrassi. And I took notes. These are not all of them.

-TV is more closely related to Victorian (re: serialized) literature than to feature film. They are serialized for money, ergo the best shows are frequently bloated (The Simpsons). And because of the enormous resources even a small TV production takes, it’s almost impossible to read a show in any depth without some idea of the finance and production side, as this is frequently the “invisible hand” that drives any TV program on for long enough to be at least a semi-improvised object.

-With very few exceptions, the underlying logic of “jumping the shark” is correct-once a show starts getting awful, it continues to grow more and more awful or pointless the longer it’s on. This isn’t always true, but it’s very often true. Degrassi avoids this, but does become increasingly garish and surreal as it goes on. Like Dr. Who or a snake, its strength lies in shedding its outer skin periodically. Like South Park, it has covered almost every subject its architecture can support, and now is a metatext that must perpetually acknowledge both the underlying reality or worldview it hopes to represent and the specter of knowing what its doing is an auto-remake. But then, Hitchcock and Ozu both did several auto-remakes.

-This isn’t a review, this is a series of notes about how TV works and has influenced society. But for formalities’ sake, the 11 seasons of Degrassi I watched while meditating on these subjects were Jr. High seasons 1 and 2 and The Next Generation seasons 1-9.

-The Jr. High episodes are uniformly excellent and Mike Leigh could’ve been proud to have directed them. They get excellent performances out of completely inexperienced young actors, it’s as frequently hilarious as it is dramatic while never being condescending. All on a budget of seemingly nothing. It manages to consistently wring unexpected depth and surprises out of seemingly rote or melodramatic topics. It’s better than Freaks and Geeks or My So-Called Life, the other two high points of high school based TV shows.

-The Next Generation episodes are generally compelling, though they become more and more cartoonish over the course of the 9 years worth I watched. However, in later seasons they go back to this (a kid becomes addicted to crystal meth and is totally over it in 2 episodes). However, despite its reputation for being incredibly melodramatic and frequently dipping into that well, it’s not even half as melodramatic as a lot of other stuff that’s been accepted into the TV canon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, cough cough). And it’s a lot less problematic than Buffy-while both shows featured lots of stories about issues that women and the LGBTQ+ community face, it also had a lot of “Vampires are just misunderstood rapists” stuff that, given what has since come to light about Joss Whedon’s offset behavior, makes me look at a lot of that stuff in a very different light.

In contrast, Degrassi‘s rape plotlines (that I’ve seen so far, I can’t watch everything) are always resolved with an affirmative message telling any effected kids, adults, etc watching that it’s not their fault, that despite it being difficult things will get better, and that they can reach out to the ones around them to get help, assert themselves, and seek justice. By contrast, Buffy is raped by Spike but then faces a plotline that revolves around forgiving and ultimately learning to love her rapist. Whedon’s obsession throughout the series with people having bifurcated good and bad sides mediated by supernatural forces weakens the follow-through on a lot of his feminist points because it perpetuates the notion there’s a way to separate the rapist part of a person, as if when a person assaults another person it’s an out-of-body experience. Degrassi, much more brutally, will portray its rapists as who rapists actually are-people that look like anybody, and frequently look like men in affluent settings with massive senses of entitlement.

-Kevin Smith directed one great film about working class nihilism (Clerks) and a lot of other films that are fun-enough-I-guess to unwatchable. Yet, in a weird way he’s achieved the sort of “fame for just being himself” that accrued to Adam Ward and William Shatner. All of his appearances on Degrassi were far funnier than any of the films he made in that period.  He pulls off the magic trick of seeming humble while talking incessantly. I’m always happy to see Kevin Smith randomly appear in things.

-It is, as far as I know, the longest running TV franchise created by a woman, ever, internationally, both by years on the air and episode total.

-The theme song for Next Generation kinda sucks, especially the versions in the later seasons. And while we’re talking “sprawling TV shows about institutions”, I don’t really like any of the opening themes for The Wire either.

-If we’re talking purely by episode count, it stayed watchable for longer than The Simpsons did.

-Canada 15 years ago is a nice place to go every once in a while when you’re scared and confused by the US in the now.

 

 

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