After 25 years, Degrassi remains popular culture’s most honest depiction of teen life

From The Walrus Magazine:

WHEN I WAS SEVEN, I committed one of my first conscious acts of rebellion: I snuck down to the basement to watch Beverly Hills, 90210. In the first episode I saw, teenagers Kelly Taylor, a sultry blonde, and taciturn, James Dean–lite bad boy Dylan McKay gave in to their lust while Brenda Walsh, Dylan’s girlfriend and Kelly’s best friend, studied in Paris for a semester. Rapt and slightly scandalized, I watched the couple make out in a pool, surrounded by tendrils of steam and accompanied by insistent, sexy synthesizer bleats. This watershed moment in my nascent televisual education sparked a decade-long obsession with teen TV.

As a child, I thought of my fixation on ’90s high school soaps such as Beverly Hills, 90210 and Dawson ‘s Creek as a utilitarian exercise, prep work for my future. I watched them dutifully and dispassionately, certain that this was how my own high school experience would play out: angst filled, conflict heavy, and full of salacious encounters. Clandestine viewing sessions, however, turned out to be among my few transgressive acts. I was a nauseatingly boring teen, not unlike the nauseatingly boring adult I have become: bookish, bespectacled, awkward, responsible. In teen soap terms, I was Andrea Zuckerman, Beverly Hills, 90210 ’s bookish, bespectacled buzz kill. Television’s muscled quarterbacks and willowy cheerleaders led lives propelled by sex, betrayal, and quippy bons mots, not at all like the cud-chewing monotony of my own contentedly dull existence. These characters were foreign to me — and magnetic. Although now a respectable adult, I religiously follow the genre’s latest iterations, Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars.

Predating these glamorous modern-day Douglas Sirk melodramas (minus the Sirkian irony) was Degrassi. The humble teen series, which began as Degrassi Junior High and followed its characters into Degrassi High, ran on CBC from 1987 to 1991 (another sequel, Degrassi: The Next Generation, began in 2001 and is in its twelfth season). By the time I got to it in middle school, it had run its course; its only pop currency was as a nostalgic cult classic. A new era of teens watched it in reruns and memorized the lyrics from Zit Remedy’s sole hit, “Everybody Wants Something.”

Degrassi ‘s camp value has often overshadowed its cultural significance. Twenty-five years after it debuted, its DNA lives on in every subsequent teen drama; in fact, it inspired Aaron Spelling’s Beverly Hills, 90210. However, Degrassi ‘s gritty vérité approach (working-class characters, untrained actors) had more in common with the social realist films of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh than with the brassy designing women and idyllic nuclear families of ’80s television. Degrassi treated such issues as teen pregnancy, abortion, and suicide with gravitas. It was the only place on television where kids could see themselves depicted honestly. There has never been anything else like it.

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