Degrassi: Next Class – A Look at the New Generation

A new generation of Degrassi begins, and we're taking an in-depth look at each of the characters...

In the lead up to this newest iteration of Degrassi, a lot of news outlets have focused on the shows legacy. It’s been on fifteen years and continues to “go there.” Drake was on it! Teenagers can see themselves reflected in the show. 

These are all valid points, but no one seems to be talking in depth about how Degrassi is just damn fine TV. I’d go so far to say that it’s one of the best shows currently airing on any network or streaming service. Yeah, what’s up House of Cards? You ain’t got nothing on Degrassi!

So I’m here to give Degrassi: Next Class the detailed attention it deserves. You’ve heard all about how this is a new generation of kids, you’ve heard it’s now on Netflix, but now it’s time to dig deep.

Warning: this article is spoiler-heavy, so if you haven’t watched it yet, go check out our spoiler free review if you’re on the fence. tl;dr? It’s worth it. So go, go watch!

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Since Degrassi is an ensemble character piece, I’ve decided to break this review down by giving my impressions of all the characters and then talking about plot points that caught my attention. I can’t talk about every single thing that happened, as much as I would love to turn in a fifteen thousand-word article to my editor.  

The Characters of Degrassi: Next Class

Maya: #NotOkay

Coming into this season, you knew Degrassi was going to try and make Maya the new Clare, in terms of screen time. This could have gone very badly; seeing as Maya was insufferable up to this point, but the writers did something smart. They finally made Maya a mature character who has goals and ambitions. Her devotion to music over Zig demonstrates this maturity; she’s moving beyond her old hang-ups and focusing on what’s really important.

That isn’t to say she doesn’t have flaws. Even in her own music she accidentally stumbled onto a powerful message that brings her nothing but problems. While the doxing plot was a “ripped from the headlines” story, it worked because it wasn’t focused so much on the issue, but more what it did to Maya. That’s one of the big strengths of this season. It isn’t about doing “issue” plots, its about having conflict that arises from the characters actions.

Now that Hunter has stopped the online harassment, I hope they focus more on Maya’s music. She’s in danger of becoming a one hit wonder and her determination to break out of that mold could alienate her from her new friends at the feminist club.

Zig: #ZigFaceForLife

Remember how Drew started all cool and serious in his early season 10 appearances and over time slowly turned into a wreck of an adorable person? Once he left the show, they needed the new Drew. Seizing on the male character with the most screen time, Zig inherited Drew’s puppy dog personality but turned up to an eleven.

He needs attention from Maya, badly. He’s completely defined by his relationship to her, and it’s unexpectedly one of the best plots of the season. His insecurity goes through the roof when she can’t spend time with him. He constantly checks his phone for any notification from her, which is a fun little commentary on how social media can amplify worry.

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Zig’s best moment of the season comes when Maya is out of town and he’s despondently wandering through the school. Desperate for any reassurance, he asks Zoe and Grace, “Am I hotter than Jonah? Be honest. Actually, don’t.” Zig, you precious baby. I died. Plus, needing girl time? Amazing. 

His lowest moment was cheating on Maya, but I’ll get into that in the plot section below.

Ricardo Hoyos is easily the strongest actor of the entire ensemble. His moment in the woods with Zoe before the kiss shows his incredible range as an actor and I predict that he’ll have a long career after his run on Degrassi is finished.

Miles: #Wreck

This season may as well be called, Degrassi: The Redemption of All The Old Characters. Miles was just a dick with daddy issues, but his drug plotline, while a little heavy handed at first, grew into a real character piece where he tries to get better. Degrassi of old would have spun their wheels on this one, but Miles finally starts to pull his life together.

Miles had to confront a lot of his demons. His addiction to drugs was a way of finally holding a mirror to everything he’s done. He no longer has his father to blame for his actions; it’s all on him. I adored the bit where he breaks into his father’s apartment to get some dirt, only to discover that his father is actually trying to get better.

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With Hunter, he began to see a reflection of the person he was, and he’s horrified by it. Horrified by that anger and that Hunter could turn out worse than he was. At the end of the day, Miles never wanted to kill anyone, he just wanted to hurt them emotionally. He’s now faced with a question that will wrack his guilt, should he reveal Hunter had the gun? Does Hunter need another chance, or is an intervention needed?

Frankie: #10thGradeDrama

Your standard Degrassi character with the “wahhh does a boy like me” plotline, but that’s intentional. From her first focus episode, Frankie is trying to figure herself out. The more she learns, the more she secretly realizes she might be outgrowing her two best friends. Try as she might, they aren’t budging, and are going to keep her stuck in that world of 10th grade drama.

Jonah is set to break her out of that. Now that Jonah and Frankie are more of an item, Jonah will come to blows with Lola and Shay. He won’t have time for their hashtags or boy trouble. Frankie will ultimately have to choose between the maturity of Jonah or the fun of her friends.

What I also like about Frankie this season is that Jonah is making her confront her own privilege. She has everything and worries about some pointless, in his eyes, drama. Through Jonah she’ll end up learning more about the world.

That’s why she chose Jonah over Winston. Winston would allow her to keep her old life, which is tempting, but ultimately unsatisfying. She wishes she could go back to her carefree days, but those are gone. Your actions have consequences and there are some things you can’t go back to.

Tristan: #BitchyWhiteGay 

Probably my least favorite of the main cast, character wise. The actor does fine with the material, but we’re given little reason to care about the guy. I think his ZOMG I HAVE AN STI plotline was supposed to be endearing, but it was way too “issue of the week” that screams all the way back to Degrassi High.

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For too long Tristan’s character relied on coming out or “I’m gay” drama to endear us to him, but without any of that? He’s kind of vapid.  I will give them points for not just making him “the gay one” but you’ve got to give us more. Heading up the student council was a nice start, but we’ve got see him make some real change in himself and the school for that to work.

A lot of fans have accused Degrassi of being biphobic, this being centered squarely on Tristan’s comments to Miles in the first episode during the election. On the surface I don’t have a problem with this. It’s extremely realistic for a gay man, especially a teenager, to be openly biphobic. As a pansexual man myself, I’ve been on the receiving end of some horribly bigoted comments. So I’m interested to see if this is something that will be paid off later. It could be rich storyline, tackling biphobia in the gay community. You could come at from both sides, with Zoe and Miles at the center of it.

This raises another issue. The fact Degrassi never used the word bisexual this season. What’s with that? This is a problem a lot of television has and I don’t get it. Why can’t you just say bisexual? I know Zoe is struggling with her sexuality so I can understand not labeling herself. But Miles is advertising it all over his campaign posters. They can say gay and lesbian fine, so why not bisexual? Come on Degrassi, you’re better than this.

Grace: #HackThePlanet

Grace was saddled with the, OH MAN GUYS REAL WORLD PROBLEM/ISSUE with her illness, but thankfully this was placed in the context of the relationship with Zoe. Grace is so desperate for someone who’s cool about her illness that’s she willing to try experimenting with Zoe just to see if it won’t totally destroy their friendship. When it doesn’t work out, her whole world is crushed. She still has friends, but she won’t be anywhere near as willing to bring up the illness again.

I applaud the writers for playing with stereotypes, making everyone assume Grace was a lesbian and then pulling the rug out from under us. Don’t ever assume someone’s sexuality just because of how they look, people! Great way of getting a lesson across without beating it over our heads.

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Zoe: #NetflixAndLadies?

Yeah, yeah. The cheating thing was dumb. Didn’t I say we’d get to that later? The plot about the guy from Gilmore Girls maybe being her dad was dumb. It seemed like a lame excuse to have a guest star and didn’t ultimately matter to her overall plot. Maybe it was set up for delving more into the relationship with her mom?

Some of the emotional stuff with Grace was over dramatic, even for Degrassi, but being conflicted over her newfound attraction to girls was well handled. When the first girl you’ve ever liked rejects your affections after sleeping with you? That hurts. Please do more with Zoe’s bisexuality, thanks!

Hunter: #MRA

Before this season started, my best friend and I hoped one thing would happen. That “Gamer Boy” and “Pink Hair Girl” would get together. While Hunter and Lola never crossed paths, Hunter did become the main antagonist of the season.

Hunter is a reflection of who Miles used to be, albeit his anger directed not at his father but at the feminist club. His fear comes out in anger; they’re trying to take away the one thing he’s good at. The one thing that’s his outlet for the frustrations of every day. In the real world, he’s weak. In the video game world, he’s strong.

This could actually end up being an amazing commentary in the next batch of episodes. By taking away his gaming, he’s lost his one coping mechanism. It wasn’t games that turned him so angry, the gaming itself is fine; he just took it too far. He needs something else to offset the anger.

The show could have easily delved into the “video games make you violent” theory, but it wisely stays away from that. It’s just that an ostracized group felt threatened and wanted to fight back. They did it the wrong way, but it wasn’t necessarily because they were gamers.

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Hunter is now set up for an amazing redemption arc, not just in the eyes of his friends, but the feminist club as well. He’ll have a long road to face in coming to grips with his anger but ultimately he’ll make it through, even if he does need to find a new group of friends. Perhaps a certain pink haired girl could be the exact friend he needs. Okay, I know that sounds like crazy shipping, but it could totally work! 

(To the tune of Sk8er Boi)

He was no n00b, she did some cheer, what more can I clear?

He wanted her, she’d never tell

Secretly she wanted him as well

But all of their friends, stuck up their nose

They had a problem with mages and rouges

He was a gamer boy, she said see ya later boy!

Think about it! Lola would totally see the good in Hunter. She’d give him a chance when no one else would, and Hunter could open her up to more of the world. They could both learn about the wider world together. Perfect ship! Lolter? Lolater? Hola? Make it happen, Degrassi!

(Big thanks to my buddy Ashley for those lyrics.)

Lola: #Blessed

Lola was my favorite minor character introduced last season and when I saw she was front and center in the Degrassi: Next Class advertising, I was pumped. We’d finally get to know more about her! While she ended up with the least amount of focus of anyone who got a main story, this girl stole every scene she was in. Amanda Arcuri has some serious comedy chops.

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Lola is not hard to the world. I can see her as that girl who recently came up from middle school and still hasn’t acclimated to the “serious” ways of high school. She hasn’t started growing up so she’s more happy go lucky.

Her main focus episode was sadly more issue based then character based, and thus we didn’t get to learn as much about her as we could have. Thankfully she was the main supporting character to Frankie’s plotline, so she still got a ton of screen time.

Shay: #ButtsButtsButts

Oh I wish we saw more of you, Shay. She busted onto the scene early in the season but faded into the background after the focus episode with her parents. It’s a shame, because Reiya Downs could be one of the best actresses on the show if they gave her more to do. Promote this girl to spotlight character status, Degrassi!

Her affection for Tiny was adorable and a nice change from many of the black girls on Degrassi being there solely as supporting characters for the white girls.

We are left with the awkwardness between Shay and Lola fully out in the open, but where will it lead? My hope is for Lola to propose a threesome. Not just in a sex sense, but in a relationship. It would just make sense for Lola to suggest that, being somewhat naïve, and Shay wouldn’t know what to do with herself. If her parents can’t accept her dating a boy, they certainly won’t accept a threesome!

Jonah: #SoFrankHeWantsToKissFrankie

New favorite. His advice is delightfully blunt and to the point. His annoyance with typical high school drama reads as a commentary on the way Degrassi characters have been forced to act in the past.

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He’s on the fringes of the school, not just because of his past drug use, but also his lack of social media. This is something that is only briefly touched on, but very important. Out of the entire main cast, he’s the only who is never shown to be using any social media site and it’s very telling. It could almost be read as an anti social media message, that if you don’t get sucked into the drama that social media can so readily supply, you’ll be happier.

Jonah is painted as the weird one, so I don’t think this was a lesson intended by the writers, but it could be fascinating to run with. Imagine Frankie wanting to connect with him more through social media and he refuses. “You’ll just have to get to know me the old fashioned way.”

Jonah is not going to like dealing with Frankie’s friends and the drama that will ensue over the whole Tiny situation. Frankie will constantly make excuses for them and Jonah will hate it. His “above it all” attitude may actually be a side effect of his battle with addiction.

When you’re recovering from drugs, you have to learn more about yourself then you otherwise would. Jonah has a deep insight into himself and those around him, more than any other character.

Tiny: #OceanIsTheNotion

Gone is the one note gang member/drug guy from last season. We get the new Tiny, who has an adorable new love of marine life. I really hope we get to see him at a zoo or something, just to watch him geek out over the animals. He’s so sweet and caring! He buys his friends condoms! What a guy.

Tiny is mostly relegated to “object of affection” for the girls, which is nice for a person of color, but “best friend” status to Zig, which is less interesting. Thankfully their interplay is so well done this can be forgiven, mostly. I hope we get some individual focus on the guy because he deserves it.

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Winston: #JustKindaHere

Out of all the returning characters, Winston is given the least interesting things to do. He mostly functions as supporting character to Miles and Frankie, which is problematic when his character is summed as “best friend to white guy.” At least, like Tiny, he gets to be seen as desirable, which is rare for people of color in media.  

His best scene was being confronted by Miles mom during the drug freak out. Oh yeah, he brought Frankie a goat, which is #adorbs, even if she didn’t really like Winston at that point.

Esme: #DrugLord

Esme has no one. She sees a weakness in Miles and exploits it for her own gain, that being to feel normal. Around Miles, she could pretend that taking all those drugs wasn’t a big deal. That she didn’t need to confront anything. When Miles rejects her, she spirals out of control. She needs people to validate her existence and without that, she’s nothing. Until Esme can face up to whatever trauma she’s trying to avoid, she’ll never be able to feel normal.

It’s a very subtle escalation but drawing people into her sphere only to validate her bad choices is a brilliant bit of storytelling. I wonder if she’ll try and prey on anyone else.

Baaz: #NewLeader?

Out of the five new characters, Baaz got the least to do. He was part of the gamer club and that’s about all I got. Seems to be interested in business? One telling moment for the future of his character could be when he told Hunter off for attacking Yael. He took charge and was assertive, which I think could be set up for leading the friend trio of himself, Vijay and Yael.

One side note, I’m very glad the gaming club wasn’t all white dudes. How easy would that have been? Bigotry is for more than just white people, guys!

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Goldi: #OverThis 

Goldi has ambitions and wants to change the world, but her narrow focus and unwillingness to compromise is going to be her downfall. It would have been far too easy, especially as the series’ first main character with a hijab, to make her super awesome and perfect. She’s not, she has layers, and is being set up to learn more about dealing with others who don’t agree with her. Her status as president of the feminist club gives the series a new angle to tackle, modern day feminism and how young people are affected by it.

Very interested to find out more about her back story.

Vijay: #DramaticRealationshipStatus

Vijay is another character we don’t learn much about, but that break up scene with Tristan was some cheesy goodness. He was so serious about that status change! That’s the big thing with kids these days; it isn’t real if it isn’t on Facebook. Boom. Roasted, Tristan. Very glad we get a gay character that isn’t instantly given the “ZOMG GAY ANGST” plotline.

Yael: #GamerGirl

I need to know more about her before I can form any kind of opinion about the character. Very smart to have a girl be part of the harassment of Maya. Even better that she was the first one to really crack under the pressure once she heard what Maya was going through. She’s demonstrated a slight superiority complex throughout the run, so I’d like to see more there.

Simpson: #SNAKKKKEEEEEEEE

Oh yes, Snake hasn’t gone anywhere. After last season I was afraid, but the living Degrassi legend still roams the halls. Sometimes he’s totally flustered by the kids and others he’s dead serious. When he confronted the gamer club about the trolling? Chills. When he tried to confront Miles only to find out it was a family issue? Hilarious.

Also, digging the beard Snake. I wonder what Spike thinks about that.

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Ms. Badger: #PunMaster 

I know next to nothing about her, so I’m going to make up a back story. After years and years in teacher school, Degrassi is her first real job and she’s over the moon. She wants to be friends with all the students! She thinks kids these days love puns. She is very sad to learn that isn’t the case. She has yet to discover the Degrassi curse, but when she does? Degrassi will never be the same.

I only make up this backstory because I want to see more of her. I’m very aware Degrassi should be focused on the kids, but give this woman something to do. At the very least, let her keep making awful puns. They give me life.

The Plot of Degrassi: Next Class

As I mentioned in my spoiler free review, social media dominates this season, and with good reason. It’s an integral part of everyone’s lives. Nothing like it existed ten years ago, certainly nothing as wide reaching. It’s a whole new set of challenges that the adults in the series have no idea about. The kids have to figure it out all on their own. 

These plots inform nearly every major story arc at one point or another. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, as if Degrassi just discovered what social media is. It’s like the people writing the show have actually logged onto snapchat before.

The show now operates on a strict A/B/C plot structure, although each plot is given fairly equal screen time across each episode. Even if a storyline isn’t the main focus of that episode, it’s still weaved into the fabric of the other stories. As I mentioned above, Lola and Shay’s plot found its way into most of Frankie’s stories. No storylines feel lost, which means the pacing is solid, especially if you’re binge watching.

The show builds and builds to the explosive climax at the school, with all the plotlines put into the pressure cooker of a lockdown. You’re on the edge of your seat, not sure what’s going to happen. Although really, Degrassi should just ban dances all together. Nothing good ever happens at a Degrassi dance. You should know this, Snake! It’s the curse!

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The show doubles down on feminist issues this season and it pays off. The issue of consent was especially well handled. An issue like that could have been heavy handed, but Zig and Tiny’s reactions to the whole thing made it work. When Grace called Zig a rapist, he couldn’t handle it. I’ve seen people react like this in my every day life, and Degrassi earns huge points for Zig and Tiny needing the whole thing spelled out for them.

The scene where Zig keeps asking Maya for consent for everything he does was not only sweet, but a contender for one of my favorite Degrassi scenes of all time. It serves the dual purpose of demonstrating consent is always needed and sets up the downfall of their relationship.

So… I guess we have to talk about this, right? Zig cheating on Maya with Zoe. This was far and away the weakest part of the season. It was the biggest leap of logic. It was the “okay, we need to have drama” moment. It doesn’t feel true to the character they built up throughout the first half of the season. Zig is smarter than this.

I wonder if it could have been played differently. Like Zoe makes a move on Zig first. He rejects it, but Zoe is smart. She knows how to screw with his head. She starts to play on his fears more and more. She shows him her phone; with all the pictures Jonah and Maya are taking together. She fills his head with doubt. Zig shatters another of the bottles, perhaps with his own hand. Zoe is there to comfort him with the make outs.

I know the idea vilifies Zoe a bit, but she does have that capability. She would be taking out all the hatred she had for Grace and turning it on Zig. By making him cheat on his own girlfriend, she would be sending Grace a clear message, “The guy you like is trash.” Whereas the way it was played in the actual episode, it came off more as, “I slept with the guy you like. Deal with it.”

It was one step away from working.

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Maya’s budding feminist status allows the show to address a lot of great issues, like bathrooms, micro aggressions, and online harassment. Oh sure, Degrassi has had some nasty facerange stories before, but this is a whole new level. This plotline was clearly inspired by Anita Sarkeesian and all the hate she received over her Feminist Frequency videos. 

This could have fallen flat. They could have wimped out or toned it down. But nope, Degrassi goes there. They nailed how these online comments not only look, but how they feel. Maya was terrified. It destroyed her life. They even acknowledged the police couldn’t do much of anything.

When Degrassi tackles an issue, they go all in.

Final Verdict on Degrassi: Next Class

Degrassi: Next Class is a triumph. It breathes new life into the franchise and brings it right up to modern day, surpassing most of its Netflix competition in its frank depiction of social media. In the next few years, you’ll be seeing social media integrated into your favorite TV shows plotlines more and more and Degrassi is ahead of that curve.

While the show did have a few stumbling blocks along the way, it’s still a massive accomplishment to balance 21 characters and give most of them at least a little time to shine in a run of ten episodes.

I can’t wait for more. Bring it on, Degrassi.

I should also note that all the behind the scenes material available on the Degrassi YouTube channel is the tops. “The Prinicpal’s Office” is a particular delight. Stefan Brogren comes off as the worlds coolest dad with his witty, self-deprecating humor. I want this guy to do recaps of every show ever. More of this, please! #StefanIsTheBest 

Extra Stuff

This is basically just little things that didn’t fit anywhere else that I wanted to mention.

-Hastygram is the most Degrassi name for a social media account.

-Tristan having a “Everyone’s gay best friend” poster is so terrible and yet hilarious.

-“I play for all teams.” BEST slogan ever?

-“You didn’t see Lola’s hastygram?”“I don’t follow her.”“What did you just say?????!!!!!!”

Lola is love. 

-Did anyone else notice in the scene where Miles gives his 2deep4me speech to the English class, there’s a background character who just starts clapping and his friend looks him like, “The hell, dude?”

-Zig’s faces are my favorite thing. When Tiny dumps out the bags of condoms? Flawless.

-I love that Jonah mentions Maya is smart and talented before he mentions her looks.

-If you’re watching through again, pay close attention to the announcements. There was one about the science fiction club making a major break through in time travel. WHAT IS GOING ON AT THIS SCHOOL?!

-“This is already better than your goat dream.”

“Once. I dreamt about goats once.”

Put that on a T-shirt.

Shamus Kelley is now remembering that time he tried to edit Power Rangers footage into a Degrassi episode. It was amazing. Follow him on Twitter!

Rating:

4.5 out of 5