Photograph by: MTV/Bell , Postmedia News
Well, this is awkward.
As Degrassi hastily airs the last half of its 14th and final season on MTV – 12 episodes in two weeks – the Canadian teen drama is reveling in its fourth Emmy nomination for outstanding children’s program.
And while its lengthy run is a rare gift in Canadian TV, and the show will find new life on Family Channel next year, the phrase “no good deed goes unpunished” comes to mind.
But Degrassi co-creator Linda Schuyler is pragmatic.
“It’s been a 14-year run, and there aren’t many producers who can say that in this country, right? We’ve had just such a wonderful relationship with both our American and Canadian broadcasters, and it is what it is.”
Degrassi wraps up July 31 on MTV. A new version of the show for Family Channel, dubbed Degrassi: Next Class, is now in production and will air the first of 20 episodes in early 2016. In the U.S., the show moves from TeenNick to Netflix.
Truth is, like any 14-year-old, Degrassi was ready to explore new horizons.
“Even before we knew what was going to happen with Degrassi, creatively we had already come to the conclusion that because we were going to graduate such a big chunk of kids, we needed to take a hard look at where we were going to go from here,” Schuyler says.
“We realized that when the show started as Degrassi: The Next Generation 14 years ago, a lot of the current audience wasn’t even born, which led us to a lot of research on Generation Z. We had a different audience.”
For example, Gen Z teens tend to watch TV shows online, making Netflix an ideal fit. (At least internationally. Degrassi: Next Class won’t initially be available on the streaming service in Canada, Australia and France.)
Although working with Netflix allows producers more control, without the fear of being cancelled mid-season or being hassled by censors, Schuyler says the extra freedom won’t change the core of the show.
“We’re reassuring young people they aren’t alone, we’re celebrating diversity, and all of those basic themes and building blocks that have been there for years will continue to be there,” she says.
“But what will be fresher is (Degrassi’s take on) social media. It’s so important to this generation’s audience, and that’s going to have big play in our storylines.”
Fortunately, just as a kid who’s been shuffled from school to school is forced to adapt to new circumstances, Degrassi’s used to reinventing itself.
What began as The Kids of Degrassi Street in 1979 morphed into Degrassi Junior High in 1987, Degrassi High in 1989 and its current iteration, Degrassi: The Next Generation (eventually known as just Degrassi), in 2001.
Over the years, the Toronto-filmed franchise has aired on CBC, CTV, Much and MTV. It’s tackled teen pregnancy, drug abuse, eating disorders, sexting, school shootings, and gay and transgender teens, among other angsty storylines.
“I’m a great believer that our big stories are important, but our little stories are important too because that’s what the whole teenage experience is about,” says Schuyler, a former teacher.
The most recent season has focused on cheerleaders using the fictional social networking site OomfChat (similar to Snapchat) to sell topless pictures of themselves. The season finale will see many characters leaving Degrassi Community School.
“This chapter ends with graduation, and we graduated a whole bunch of fan-favourites: Clare and Drew, Becky, Alli, Jenna, Dallas, Imogen, Connor. And we also say goodbye to Eli, who graduated the year before,” Schuyler says.
Many other characters will move to Degrassi: Next Class, among them Winston, Tristan, Miles, Frankie, Tiny, Zig and Maya. And as a special treat for old-school fans, there might be some cameos with some of the Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High cast.
“We have a very special episode coming up. When we hit the 15th episode (of Degrassi: Next Class), that will be the 500th episode of Degrassi, and we’re hoping to include some special cameo performances in that,” says Schuyler, laughing.
“I will say no more at this point! You will have to wait till later.”
Also a possibility? An appearance from Degrassi superfan Lena Dunham, of Girls fame.
“When she was up here on her book tour, we actually had discussions with her agent seeing if we could make a cameo work, but unfortunately the timing didn’t. But doesn’t mean it’s a closed book for the future. Certainly the door’s open for discussion.”
So are, apparently, Schuyler’s prospects with the Degrassi franchise. While the bubbly 60-something-year-old says she and husband/producing partner Stephen Stohn are developing a new show, which could go to pilot by January, Degrassi’s still her favourite playground.
“My theory about life and retirement is that when work stops being fun, you should stop doing it, and I’m still having a lot of fun being the executive producer of Degrassi,” she says. “So I have no immediate plans to go anywhere.”
Season 14B of Degrassi airs weeknights on MTV