What is there to say about Degrassi that hasn’t been said already? When a show is on the air as long as Degrassi, it has a danger of becoming repetitive. What can a show like Degrassi do to stay fresh? Rip from the headlines of course. As Lisa J of No Pink Spandex noted, Degrassi is “the Law and Order of tween TV!” That hits it right on the nose, but does ripping from the headlines mean this season won’t be relevant in a few years? Of course not.
For one, the main subject of the season is racism and that’s been a topic people of color have had to face for generations. Not only that, the season gets into the ramifications of racism. It’s not just about replicating a certain protest or copying an exact racist act. It’s about showing racism through the eyes of the teen Degrassi characters. The season also explores numerous universal issues that will be just as relevant thirty years from now as the issues dealt with on Degrassi Junior High are today. It’s just that the clothes will be crazy out of date.
So now that I’ve just justified the need for a two thousand word review, let’s get into the meat of this, shall we? Unlike my review of season one, I’ll be breaking this up by plotline.
Warning: this article is spoiler-heavy, so if you haven’t watched it yet, go check out our spoiler free review if you haven’t seen it!
Degrassi and Racism
Degrassi has talked about racism before, but it’s almost always felt too much like an after school special. It would be talked about in an episode or two and then brushed off. Here it’s the focus of the whole season and we see it through two distinct viewpoints. On one side, Frankie, a white privileged girl who staunchly believes she isn’t a racist. On the other, Shay, a black girl who has to struggle to achieve her dreams with the world expected of her. If this were a one off episode, one of the more slime ball characters would have been the racist one, but by having it be the “good girl” of Frankie, we see her struggling with her own inherent racism.
When she draws the zoo picture of their opposing school, she doesn’t for a moment consider the implications. Even Shay isn’t quite aware of it at first. But slowly as the season progresses Shay realizes just how racist it was. She talks with her dad about it in one of the most frank and honest scenes I’ve ever seen on Degrassi (and I’ve watched it all). Shay makes it clear to all her friends that this is in fact racist. We don’t hear it from one of the white characters; this isn’t some white savior thing. It’s from Frankie and she brought it to light.
Frankie denies it. She tries to come up with every excuse she can. She brushes it off. She tries quick and easy solutions. She avoids the responsibility. “I’m not racist,” she says over and over. But slowly as the season goes on she digs herself deeper and deeper into the hole until she finally realizes that yes, it was racist. The very small moment in her car when she’s afraid of a stranger who happens to be black finally opened her eyes.
While watching I couldn’t help but wonder why so much time was given to Frankie’s revelation of being racist. Shouldn’t it have been more focused on Shay? Perhaps, but throughout the season there was no question that Frankie was in the wrong. Never were we asked to pardon her actions as all her friends, boyfriend, and parents turned against her. There wasn’t a moment where you felt bad for her because she was a racist. You only felt bad because she wouldn’t admit to it. Once she did? That’s when things began to come back together for her.
This plotline was a win for Degrassi, feeling stronger than even last season’s feminism arc. While that was pretty much squarely focused on Maya, here we had Tiny being unfairly suspended and Zoe and Winston’s presentation on Japanese history. Racism was shown to not have one magical cure all answer. It’s tough and it comes in many forms. It’s not just white people who do it. Degrassi proves with this plotline alone it still goes there and does it well.
Hunter and Yael
In Degrassi’s commitment to showing the consequences of actions, Hunter’s main arc is the fallout from last season’s climatic finale. With Miles unable to keep the secret, Hunter is sent to some serious therapy where he’s diagnosed with depression that manifests itself in anger. All of the therapy scenes with Hunter were portrayed with a sensitive care that, for anyone watching, will hopefully show therapy can have positive outcomes and isn’t solely for “crazy people”. It also wasn’t that Hunter’s anger was 100% cured. Much like the racism in this season, there’s no easy fix for depression, but Hunter is learning to deal with it. His main reason to get better? Yael.
At the outset I worried Yael would only be there to prop up Hunter’s character but nope, she gets quite a bit of screen time to herself. She struggles with the creation of her new app and being in the male dominated space of the tech industry, demonstrating that even if the main feminism arc of the series is done, it’s not an issue that goes away. The romance between her and Hunter was very cute and Hunter’s fear at hurting Yael was heartbreaking. I’m excited for more from these two.
Maya and Zig
Ah, classic Degrassi couple. I mean, these guys aren’t endgame or Claire/Eli level of flawless but they’re fun! Zig continues to be a dumb puppy dog of a person. I mean come on, that scene with him at the restaurant all alone? Thinking he’s going to marry Maya? Such a puppy! He’s an idiot, but that’s why we love him. Maya took more of a back seat this season after being the main star of season one, which is just fine. Her plotline mostly consisted of bad decisions and hanging out with Peter. This was your standard Degrassi romance entanglement. In fact, I’d call it a break from the more heavy topics in the racism and Hunter plots.
Miles and Tristan
Ugh. Okay, okay. It wasn’t THAT bad.
Ugh. Yeah, I did not care about these two at all. I haven’t cared about Tristan in years and while Miles was pretty solid last season he was only aggressively okay this time around. The whole sex history thing was alright and I’m always up for a little gay representation but… Okay, Degrassi. Do you not know that there exists a word for people who like men and women? Bisexual. Say it with me. Bisexual. Miles himself says he likes guys and girls. Why can’t they say it? Are they not allowed? Someone please explain this to me.
Zoe’s Self Harm and Sexuality
Rolling right off my last point, why wasn’t the word bisexual used in Zoe’s plot? Okay, I get that she’s apparently a lesbian now. That’s fine, but the fact not a single character mentions to her that liking both boys and girls is a thing is off putting when Degrassi usually explores the two sides of an issue so well. Tristan just decides she’s a lesbian, which is in character for him as a bitchy white gay man, but the show exacts like it’s the only possible option for her.
The bisexuality thing aside, Zoe struggling with self-harm was a topic I hope we haven’t seen the end of. Melding the self-harm with some of the social media elements from last season was a genius move. Access to the kind of communities that make self-harm seem okay are easier than ever and could make a great arc in of itself.
Let’s talk about the real crowning moment of this storyline though, Zoe’s breakdown with Winston in the final episode. Ana Golja knocked it out of the park, displaying just the right mixture of hurt, fear, and sadness. Brilliant. What will happen with Zoe now? Will she come out to her other friends? Will she even want to be around again Tristan after he gave her so much crap about being a lesbian?
One of the smaller arcs of the season was the love triangle between Lola, Tiny, and Shay although it was mostly centered on Lola and Tiny. I loved these two together, even if they weren’t right for each other. Look no further than the two giving conflicting advice to Zig at the restaurant. Lola is all for Zig not being at fault while Tiny desperately tries to be the voice of reason.
The relationship begins to spin off the tracks when Lola’s insecurities come out. This is accomplished in what might be one of the funniest scenes in all of Degrassi. Tiny discovers Lola is still using teendir (the most Degrassi name for an app ever) but Lola defenders herself.
I’m not interested in other guys. I just want pizza.
Yes, Lola flirts with dudes for free pizza. Girl, I get you. This of course is really because Lola wants an out for the relationship. She’s afraid of people leaving her, so she wants to leave Tiny before things get serious. They manage to work it out, getting involved in a protest when Tiny is unfairly kicked out of school, but it isn’t meant to be. Tiny’s got a thing for Shay. After that, it’s basically your standard “oh no my friend wants to date my ex” plot, but since Lola’s involved it’s great. Speaking of which.
Lola Is Amazing And The Best Thing To Happen To Degrassi In Ever And Amanda Arcuri Deserves An Emmy Or Gemini Award. ALL THE AWARDS.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Lola is my favorite Degrassi character in Next Class and quite possibly of all time. A lot of this has to do with Amanda Arcuri’s performance, who nails the humor of the character brilliantly. Lola is written almost as a kind of bimbo, but that would be doing her a disservice. She sees the world simply and plainly. She wants everything and everyone to be happy and doesn’t quite think about the consequences of her actions. Of course she would ask her phone, “how to prove my school isn’t racist”. That’s just how Lola sees the world. Brilliant. Flawless. Lola will make you laugh. Lola will make you cry (from laughter). Lola, as they say, is everything.
The Degrassi Reunion Episode
Ah, the biggest thing they’ve been hyping. The reunion. I’m of two minds about it. I’m glad they didn’t just stop the ongoing plot threads in Next Class in order to make it a big love fest for the old characters. I appreciate that. But if I’m being honest? The reunion itself was kind of a let down. Giving only one episode to cram in so many cameos just left me feeling unsatisfied. I’d hoped we’d get some kind of acknowledgement of Spinner and Emma’s sham of a marriage but nope, it’s all hunky dory! Ugh.
Look, it was great to see them. My man Sav is doing great and Holly J is still killing it. Mo is still existing, so rock on bro! I loved the little references to everyone who they couldn’t get, like Terri, Manny, and even Jimmy. It was fun and cute, but some of these scenes didn’t feel specific enough to the characters. I mean come on, Marco’s bit about listening to podcasts could have gone to anyone.
Paige and Spinner ended up the with best scene as they reflected on all their old mistakes and how Degrassi is the best perfect place to learn. That was nice and I wish we had more scenes like that. I know this is wacky to say, but I wish this had felt more like a superhero team up. Just go with me here. Imagine if we had a two part reunion episode where the characters they managed to get back all got involved in the current characters plotlines. Not as mentors, just in fun wacky ways. Really make it feel like the old generation and the new generation were coming together for a common goal. Even make some jokes about the middle generation!
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Peter coming into Maya’s plot made the most sense. While we didn’t learn a lot about what happened to him, we got enough that it felt satisfactory to any big Peter fans out there. I’m sure they exist. But come on, in your big reunion you give Peter the biggest part? Lame.
I’ll echo what I said in my spoiler free review once again and bemoan the lack of any Degrassi Junior Highor Degrassi High characters. This wasn’t a celebration of Degrassi: The Next Generation, this was supposed to be a celebration of five hundred episodes of the Degrassi franchise. No love for Joey? Spike? Come on, you could have at least tried to get Spike. Maybe they did, who knows! Of course Snake was there but come on, what about some BLT? I guess the mention a few seasons back of Snake finding a dead kid when he was in high school is the closest we’ll get to an old school reference. Oh well.
Honestly, if you’re interested in some real reunion goodness? Check out Degrassi’s social media pages. There’s an adorable promo with the returning cast members which features Adamo Ruggiero doing Marco’s trademark “turn to the camera” with the hoodie. The best of all is Adamo and Shane Kippel (Spinner) reenacting Marco’s coming out scene. It’s adorable and feels like a more fitting tribute then what the show itself gave us.
The Season As A Whole
While the main arcs of the season were fairly strong individually, they failed to come together at the end. Think of how everything really came to a head at the end of season one at the dance. Here? A bus crash. Okay, that’s really emotional but it’s not the result of anything in the plot. It just makes for an okay finale.
In fact the plotlines were all fairly separate this season and only significantly crossed a few times, the biggest example being Yael’s app being used to spread the knowledge that Frankie’s racist. After how well everything flowed in season one, it’s a shame this season didn’t keep things so tightly together. It’s tough to do with only so many episodes per season, but I hope in the next production block we can get a little bit more of a tighter focus.
Overall though, this season is still very strong. While a few of the plots are meh (Tristan and Miles) and a few of the characters (Esme) don’t get a lot to do, it still overall works. Degrassi continues to be, in the words of Stefan Brogren, painfully earnest. It feels real and continues to outdo much of its competition. I mean really, Game of Thrones wishes it had Lola.
If you’re a longtime Degrassi fan, this season will give you more of what you love. If you’re just tuning in for the reunion, you’ll be a little let down, but you may find some new characters to love if you give the season on a whole a chance.
Shamus Kelley really wants pizza now. Follow him on Twitter!