Degrassi: Next Class Showrunners Discuss The Bravest Teen Show On TV

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
Degrassi: Next Class is a bit of a rebel.

The latest iteration in the Degrassi franchise, which began as The Kids of Degrassi Street in 1979 (!!!), is unapologetic in its discussion of teen issues — even if they make older generations a tad uncomfortable. The first two seasons of Degrassi: Next Class discussed "accidental" racism, self-harm, and, yep, even masturbation. Season 3, which began streaming January 6 on Netflix, however, may be its bravest yet: in a world where abortion rights in the United States are more threatened than they have been in years, the show took its audience right into the procedure room. It also introduced two new students who are refugees from the war in Syria, and gave an unflinching look at depression.

Ripped-from-the-headlines programming? Not exactly. Degrassi works because it examines issues through the lens of teenagers: no patronizing, scolding, or Full House-style life lessons involved. Teenagers make mistakes. They make terrible decisions. And their issues don't always end when the episode does.

As someone who has watched every single episode of Degrassi ever made, I was thrilled to get a chance to talk to showrunners Linda Schuyler and Stephen Stohn about the latest season in the franchise. In 2017, Degrassi: Next Class feels braver than ever, but any Degrassi fan knows that's just this show's way.
The show talked a lot about safe spaces this season. Can you explain why that's something you wanted to explore?

Linda Schuyler: We're hearing a lot of talk about safe spaces at schools, at universities. So, we wanted to acknowledge [that], but I think what’s also interesting is no matter how much one tries to create safe spaces, they’re actually very hard to create, and just because you’re a safe space doesn’t mean that you can avoid conflict or, drama. I think we sort of came to the conclusion ultimately that the safest spaces are the ones that you find yourself.

Stephen Stohn: It’s interesting you ask that question because to me even though we may not have used the words "safe spaces" [it's] really a recurring [message] over the years. We think of Degrassi as being a 37-year anti-bullying message. So, maybe that isn’t what is on the posters or the advertising, but that’s what it is. It really is [about] being non-judgmental, being tolerant, being accepting of people; in other words creating a safe space that... people can feel that they can be themselves [in] without imposing on other people.
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"Degrassi’s strength lies in pulling back from the large political picture and bringing it down to the very personal and very intimate storytelling."

Linda Schuyler
Why was it important to explore the Syrian refugee crisis this season?

LS: One of the things that I’m very proud of Degrassi for is that every year, we begin our season with the writer’s room. We sort of look around and see what are the hot topics that were happening in the headlines and we say, ‘You know what we really want to deal with that,’ or ‘We want to touch on this.’ But the way that we tell stories on Degrassi is never to look at the big picture, never to look at it from a distance, at all the politics. Our job as storytellers for young people is to get right down there on the ground, and to come at the story from inside the head and the heart of an individual. So we wanted to stop the Syrian refugee crisis from being a ripped-from-the-headlines story, and we wanted to see it right from the inside, and what it would be like for two very distinct characters. That’s what we do, it doesn’t matter what storyline we’re talking, whether it’s abortion or whether it’s racism or whatever, Degrassi’s strength lies in pulling back from the large political picture and bringing it down to the very personal and very intimate storytelling.

SS:
Canada has accepted certainly more than 60,000 [refugees], which for our size is like bringing in 600,000 or a million per capita in the [United States.] Syrian refugees [are] a part of everyday life. I mean when you go to dinner party or to someone’s house and there’s a bunch of people, there’s bound to be one who’s saying ‘Oh yes, I just came back from downtown, we were helping [a Syrian refugee family], and I do a little teaching for them because the kids are learning English,’ or something like that... [I couldn't believe it] when governors and these other people in the [United States] were saying we have to shut our doors to these women and children who are escaping this horrible violence.

Where did the inspiration for new character Rasha — a Muslim refugee who is also a lesbian — come from?
LS: [We] knew we wanted to introduce some Syrian refugees, and we knew we wanted to have two very different types of characters... As we developed her character we wanted it to be from a very successful middle-class family who were quite liberal thinking. The interesting thing about [Rasha] is that she didn’t wear a hijab when she was in Syria. She’s got a line in the show somewhere that she used to even wear a bikini, and things changed for her and her family when ISIS came in. Whereas when we developed the character of Saad, we took a very different approach with him and we made him the eldest child of a bunch of siblings, both of his parents are working minimum wage jobs and they’re not home a lot, and he is by default the caregiver for his siblings, and he’s also seen a lot of the war as we find out on his camera. So, he gives a whole different take on Syria. We felt with those two characters that they were very different from one another, and yet both of them were very true to the Syrian experience.”
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
A major plot this season was Lola choosing to get an abortion. Why did you tell this story?
LS: [The] story that we tell through the Lola character is a very modern story. It’s about a young woman who knows enough about herself that for her there was no choice. From the moment she thought she might be pregnant... she just knew that in this point in her life it was just not in the cards for her to be a teenage mom. Degrassi is not about telling people how to live their lives, but it is about saying to people that you should be able to make your own choices, and that’s exactly what we saw the Lola character do. [She] ultimately didn’t even want it to be kept a dirty little secret for herself. She actually stood out and owned it for the world and that is a very fresh and interesting storyline that we haven’t seen on Degrassi before.

SS: The one scene where we go into the procedure room is my favorite scene of the season, and not because ‘Oh we’re going into the procedure room.’ It is the ordinariness of it, and that was what we were trying to get across... So, it’s extraordinarily ordinary and extraordinarily shot, and that is real life. My favorite line of the season, [is when] they just sort of bantered and she scooched down and goes, ‘Oh before we do it, I’ve got one question,’ and the question is not what you would think the question might [be]. You know, will it hurt — anything like that. She's thought about those things already, and she didn’t need to ask that. She says, ‘Am I the first sixteen-year-old you’ve ever done this with?’ And he says ‘You’re not the first today.'

[That] speaks to me as one of the core themes of Degrassi... it speaks to, 'You are not alone,' and it speaks to it very powerfully. If you are a 16-year-old or you are a young woman, and you’re facing this choice, you may feel like you’re the only person in the world, but it’s exactly what he says: You’re not the first today. Really, this was about not saying abortion [is] good or bad, right or wrong. [It was saying] it happens and it’s much simpler, safer and [a more] everyday experience then you might think of.
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
Were there any stories you chose not to tackle on Degrassi, or had a difficult time exploring?
LS: I’m hard pushed to come up with an example. There are some topics that we put on our boards at the beginning of the season, and might not necessarily make it that season... Some of the more difficult [topics] have been suicide, abortion, having a transgender character. [It's] not that we censored ourselves from telling it, it was that we knew these are... potentially divisive and very challenging topics, so we just always wait until we feel we’ve got the right characters, the right situation, the right climate for it.

SS: The topic that was the most difficult and took us years and years to deal with was [suicide]. [Teens] do commit suicide, it is a story that needs to be dealt with. How do you do it in the right way with the right character? Just making it a side character doesn’t help, that’s sort of copping out. So can you have a main character that people love ,and can you do it in a way that doesn’t glamorize [suicide] at all, that actually says ‘Not a good idea,’ without being preachy? It’s very difficult to get it into a story. It took an actor like Dylan [Everett, who played Cam] who was really, really good... I think it was 38 episodes he was in, and it was in the 38th episode [Cam] committed suicide. Of course, we never showed the actual suicide, we just showed Eli’s reaction.
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
Maya struggled with depression this season and attempts suicide. Her depression symptoms are different from what we've seen with previous characters, in that she claims to be numb, she's not sleeping, she's not eating. Why go this route with Maya this season?
LS: We felt that there was a residual effect from Cam’s suicide that we’d never really properly explored for the character. [Cam's suicide] was such a traumatic moment that she lived through... We wanted to explore real, genuine, deep depression. We’ve seen some depression before, we’ve seen some mental illness before, but we’ve never seen somebody go to quite the depths that we see Maya, and we felt that with the history this character has with show it would be very honest and realistic to portray this character. Also, because we know a lot of young people are struggling with depression, we wanted to show to our audience that it possible to be so depressed that it takes you to the brink of taking your own life, and yet it is possible to come out the other side.

SS: The Maya character is one of my favorite characters, because when you look at her she seems to have it all, just as Cam seemed to have it all. With Cam, when you look back on that story you can say, ‘Oh, yeah, now that I see that there was a hint of what was going on.’ Even then it was hidden, but not as hidden as it was with Maya. You’ve got a young girl who boys are attracted to... she's from a good family, she loves her mother... yet she has something in her that causes problems in relationships... Then the Cam thing happened and it was like she shut herself off from the world... A lot of the fans still to this day don’t like the character because she didn’t break down sobbing, she didn’t give a tremendous eulogy about what a wonderful person Cam was. She just sort of shut herself off... A lot of people are depressed and don’t have any idea that they’re depressed, and a lot of it is just cutting off your emotions. It’s easy to say ‘Oh, just talk to someone,’ but that’s harder to do.

How do you respond to viewers who say Degrassi: Next Class has a liberal, or some kind of political agenda?
LS: [Laughs] I would say 'Thank you.' Because they've noticed exactly what we're doing.
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