‘It paved the way for Euphoria!’ Degrassi, the show that taught teens about the world

Before Euphoria and Heartbreak High there were the Degrassi kids, from Junior High to Next Generation. We speak to some of the original stars about why it is still so loved

  • Degrassi Junior High and High are streaming on 9Now and YouTube; The Next Generation is on Stan. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here

From the late 80s to the early 90s, a generation of impressionable youngsters watched a bunch of kids at a fictional school in Toronto. They had fights, got bullied, hooked up, broke up, got pregnant, had abortions, overdosed, had breakdowns, and died by suicide. They endured the unimaginable and the breathtakingly feasible. They were the first teenagers many of us saw who lived the way we lived, endured what we endured. And they never talked down to us.

But you probably had a hell of a time explaining Degrassi to your parents.

Stacie Mistysyn, who played Caitlin Ryan on the show, is effusive about Degrassi. “It paved the way for all the other shows which followed – like Euphoria – because I think we really were the first show to go there,” she says. “We didn’t solve everything, or wrap everything at the end of each episode. It was ongoing, because these aren’t issues that just go away. And it was predominantly told through the students’ eyes, which I think really did set it apart.”

Every lumpy, awkward, imperfect iteration of the teenager reared its head in Degrassi, starting from Junior High. There were Joey and Caitlin, the class clown and the teacher’s pet, who kept falling into each other’s orbit. Or Joey’s best mates, Snake and Wheels, with whom he formed an objectively terrible band, the Zit Remedy. There was Spike, the teenager who got pregnant and had to bring her baby to school. Lucy, the rebellious rich kid. The Farrell twins. The geeks Yick Yu and Arthur.

But after three seasons of Degrassi Junior High, the show did something bold: it was renamed Degrassi High and it kept going. All the characters we loved were back, but older, and suddenly small fish in a very big pond.

When I was 11, my parents abruptly sent me to a new school, an experience I found profoundly jarring. But these characters who had been attending school alongside me on the TV were enduring that same seismic shift. Degrassi’s evolution from Junior High to High was an incredibly accurate depiction of what happens when you’re forced to move schools; everything you worked so hard to build is gone. When the Degrassi kids struggled, it made it OK for kids like me to admit that they were struggling too.

Years after Degrassi High ended, the show was revived as Degrassi: The Next Generation. Many of the original characters returned, now as parents or teachers; a young Drake (yes, that Drake) played a promising basketball student. But the common thread between both shows? Educating teens by speaking to them on their level. Degrassi never moralised. Somehow, it conveyed a wealth of vital information about life without ever feeling preachy.

“It’s possible that if The Next Generation didn’t happen, maybe our version of the show might have just disappeared,” says Pat Mastroianni, who played Joey Jeremiah on the original Degrassi. “But kids who grew up on our version of the show say to their kids, ‘Oh, we had our own version of Degrassi, too!’ I love the fact that it’s been relevant for so many decades. It’s just great storytelling on the part of the writers – they never talk down to the kids!”

I ask Mastroianni whether he and Joey share any DNA and he laughs. “Look, it depends on which version of Joey we’re talking about,” he says. “If you think he’s the confident, cool, popular character, then no, I was nothing like Joey – I was the shy, closed-off kid who just wanted to be liked by everybody. So I played him as someone who wanted to be cool – and the audience saw right through that, and saw a shy kid who needed to be liked. So hey, maybe the audience did see a little bit of Pat in Joey!”

Mistysyn has similar feelings about Caitlin. “There’s a lot of me in there, but there are things she did that I would never do. Her heart was always in the right place, but she always jumped right in without all the facts – I do that sometimes, but I’m not as bold as Caitlin was. She always went with her heart – I’m a lot more jaded!”

Stacie Mistysyn and Pat Mastroianni as Caitlin and Joey
Stacie Mistysyn and Pat Mastroianni as Caitlin and Joey. Photograph: CBC

Joey and Caitlin’s will-they-won’t-they romance was the heart of the original Degrassi, but their love was brutally scuppered in School’s Out!, the 1992 Degrassi feature film that saw Joey cheat on Caitlin (with Tessa Campanelli, an act for which I will never truly forgive him). Next Generation brought back Joey and Caitlin but then Kevin Smith appeared, playing himself, and snatched Caitlin away from Joey again.

Mastroianni felt so dissatisfied with the show’s treatment of its legacy characters that he left Next Generation after several seasons. I ask him and Mistysyn if they think off-screen, somewhere outside the confines of the show, Joey and Caitlin ever ended up together. Mastroianni puts his head in his hands and laughs.

Mistysyn says: “I’ll say this much: I don’t think Caitlin ended up with Kevin Smith!”

Another season of Degrassi was set to air this year but HBO Max has ditched its plans for a reboot; whether it is made elsewhere remains to be seen. But never mind, for it’s a brilliant time to immerse yourself in the older seasons of Degrassi, whether you want to get drunk on nostalgia, or are just curious what all the fuss is about. Mastroianni and Mistysyn still do regular live tours. There’s a new line of licensed Degrassi gear. The whole series is available to stream for free on YouTube. Everybody wants something – and that something is Degrassi.


Paul Verhoeven

The GuardianTramp

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