When US net TeenNick and Bell Media’s MTV Canada pulled the plug in 2015 on iconic teen series Degrassi after a 14-year run, it seemed unthinkable to the franchise’s multi-generational fan base that the show known for tackling hot-button issues was actually over for good. And they were right.
The Epitome Pictures-produced show did what it’s always done since Degrassi Junior High became a worldwide hit 28 years earlier—it adapted for a new generation.
With original Degrassi co-creator Linda Schuyler and Degrassi: The Next Generation executive producer Steven Stohn at the helm, along with additional executive producers Sarah Glinski, Brendon Yorke and Matt Huether, the newest 20-episode iteration of the franchise, Degrassi: Next Class, launched in January 2016 on DHX Media-owned Family Channel in Canada. A global rollout on SVOD giant Netflix followed.
Featuring several returning cast members and a diverse group of new additions, including the series’ first Syrian-Canadian characters, Next Class also marked the return of the franchise’s longest-serving actor, Toronto’s Stefan Brogren, as the school’s principal, Archie “Snake” Simpson.
Brogren, who also has a decade’s worth of experience as a producer and director on the show, spoke with Kidscreen about Degrassi‘s longevity, its current relevance for today’s social media-savvy Gen Z and how former Degrassi star Pat “Joey Jeremiah” Mastroianni convinced him to participate in the franchise’s first-ever ComiCon event, happening this weekend in Toronto.
It’s been 30 years since Degrassi High. What does it mean that the franchise is still beloved, and how has the production changed since Netflix and Family came on board?
For the years that I’ve been involved as a producer and director, Degrassi has constantly evolved. And everyone has their favorite generation. There are people who have the Joey and Snake time in their lives, or people who have the Drake time, and then there’s a brand-new audience that has found the Next Class version. I remember the first year we were editing Next Class, Linda came in and said, ‘This is old-school Degrassi, this is Junior High.’ With Netflix and Family, it’s so nice that they’ve allowed us to go back to our roots—like the scarier stories and the grosser parts of being a teenager that have always been Degrassi. Sometimes, in the past, we’ve been asked to be a little safer, which is never fun for a show like ours that’s always been about going as far as we can and being truthful to what teens are going through today.
The new series is particularly relevant given the current socio-political climate. Has this created any new challenges from a storytelling perspective?
The biggest challenge is that we are a show that likes to push boundaries, but now we have a lot more allowance about where we can go with story. So we are kind of policing ourselves. Like, you don’t want to swear just because you can swear now. Words have to mean something. We find ourselves in a place today where we are allowed to tell stories that we think are important. This past year, for example, was the craziest. It was just prior to the US election and in 10 episodes we were talking about topics like the fears of refugees and abortion in the LGBTQ community. Every story we told was like every group that has been told they should be scared in the US. We’re very proud that we’re still addressing who we think are the people that are sometimes left on the sidelines of growing up.
How have changes in teens’ use of technology and social media affected the show’s storylines?
When we started Next Generation, the first episode we did was Emma being cyber-stalked by a creepy old dude. We treated the internet as very much something to be fearful of. Years later, we had Manny lift her shirt at a party and it ended up online and it was scandalous. But when you’re dealing with how fast things are moving, we realize we can’t talk to our fans as if social media is the villain. As far as they’re concerned, it is definitely a part of their lives that they care about and have to manage.
Are teen dramas more empathetic now?
There is a lot more empathy in teen television. But as much as times change, the emotions are still the same. The audience is hungry for characters to be as sensitive or as hardcore as they are feeling about things. At the same time, we still have to push hard enough that they might hate one of our characters in the end because of a choice they made. As much as we want there to be empathy and an understanding that we’re not all the same, we get a lot of fans saying, ‘I don’t agree with what that character did.’ We have long conversations with the fans sometimes about how it’s hard to tell a story about everyone going to the movies and being best friends because life isn’t like that.
Looking back, what’s your best memory from the first season of Degrassi High?
It was such a long time ago, but I just remember thinking that I had the coolest summer job ever. I made all these new friends and we had no makeup or hair department or anything like that. After the summer, the show came out and it was an actual hit. We became celebrities as much as you can in Canada back in the ’80s, and it did change our lives. A part of me thought we would do it for five years and maybe get recognized for a couple of years afterwards and then that would be it. I had no idea it would turn out to be such an important thing in so many people’s lives and not just in Canada, but around the world.
This weekend, you’ll be part of a special original cast reunion with Mastroianni, Dan Woods (Mr. Raditch), Stacie Mistysyn (Caitlin) and Kirsten Bourne (Tessa) at Toronto ComiCon. Whose idea was it to attend?
I didn’t know that much about ComiCon, but when Pat approached me and explained how much we could reach out to the fans, I was in. Plus we’d never done this type of event before so it made a lot of sense. It will be nice to see the fans who still remember how the show maybe helped them through something.
You may see cosplay versions of Snake. Thoughts?
I hope they dress up, it would be hysterical. But is it going to be so boring compared to the person that’s dressed up like a Transformer?
Degrassi: Next Class is currently on hiatus, but according to Brogren, the show is on the lookout for new cast members. After an additional 20-episode order last April, Netflix and Family launched season three in January. An airdate for season four has not yet been announced.