Degrassi: Next Class is studiously PC, in keeping with the squeaky clean, Justin Trudeau image of Canada that Americans love (or love to hate). The characters who get screen time are young women or queer young men, and a good number of them aren’t white. There is one lunkish straight white guy, but it’s fairly clear he’s meant to be despised. For further flavor observe: the anthem of the first season is an original song by singer-songwriter Maya (Olivia Scriven)—former girlfriend of said lunk—called “Not Okay,” about gross men and their assaults, verbal, physical, and sexual, which she performs at the request of the school’s student feminist club.
What could go wrong? Well. The acting is not good, nor is the screenwriting—though this is to be expected from ‘teen’ drama. What goes wrong is the feeling you get that although much in Toronto and its environs is ‘#NotOkay’, it can be made okay with minimal effort. In other words, being ‘not okay’ is a temporary condition that one needn’t learn to live with; it’s not a fact of life.
There are moments of pathos. Miles (Eric Osborne), a rich, white, bisexual boy, has an abusive father; we never learn what the abuses are, but physical violence is implied. His mother, who for the first season is remarkably unpleasant, insists on bringing back his estranged father to make theirs one big happy family. Miles tolerates, often with unprescribed chemical assistance—courtesy of Asian temptress Esmé (yes, Esmé) (Chelsea Clark); in a serious lapse of progressive judgment, Degrassi has apparently decided to make yellow peril cool again—but he eventually decides to “get better” and, drug-free, confronts his mother. He tries and tries to tell her how his dad makes him feel, he half-cries to her, but, he says, she never listens. She is too focused on reuniting one big happy family to care that Miles is being abused. His mother does not know what to say. Nevertheless a few episodes later Miles and Mother have lost their mutual anger, and that’s (apparently) the end of it. Addiction, distrust—in Degrassi’s world, they just get better.
There are moments of cringe. In a multi-episode arc, Frankie (Sara Waisglass) plays what she calls a “prank” on a rival volleyball team in retribution for a prank pulled on Degrassi. This “prank” involves painting a banner depicting members of the rival team as animals—the black captain, in particular, as a gorilla—and hanging it in their gym. Frankie, more or less ingénue of season one, claims it was not “meant” to be racist and proceeds to whitesplain her way through a set of increasingly horrible encounters with the rival team. Her (one) black friend Shay (Reiya Downs), who at the start assumes Frankie is just stupid, ends up thinking she is an honest to goodness racist. But, at the end of the season, all seems well between Frankie and Shay; Frankie has apologized, finally; her repulsive behavior forgotten. What are we to make of this?
These are real enough scenarios, involving real enough conflicts that real enough teens will often enough experience. There’s also the typical romantic fluff, which although occasionally gay is thoroughly unremarkable. But nonetheless something is just off with this show. Part of the problem is one of audience. Is Degrassi for the non-woke, in particular the non-woke white tempted to pull a Frankie? Then perhaps it succeeds. The racist Frankie arc works well as an arc: while she’s bad enough in just one encounter, when they pile on and she continues to totally not get it, we have a blunt but effective synecdoche of fragile white racial psychology. If we can’t get it after watching Frankie so awfully not get it, we are irredeemable.
For the woke, however, the show’s charm, such as it is, is distinctly ambiguous. It’s weird enough to run, with no ambiguity whatsoever as to the intent, from one Atlantic-worthy cultural concern—pills, therapy, online harassment, lean-in feminism, the persistent delusion of reverse racism—to another between and within 25-minute episodes. Weirder still is when these bits are interspersed with anodyne relationship drama. Weirdest of all, however, is the somewhat chilling sense one gets from the show’s writers that they need to address the Issue of the Day and then move on to the next one as expeditiously as possible. While Degrassi is apparently aware that quite a lot of contemporary life is “not okay,” it seems not to fully recognize what this means: namely, that in order to represent the “not okay” which permeates everyday experience, you must resist the temptation to ignore it.
This is not only chilling because the treatment of each Issue is inevitably partial—as is standard in the sitcom/dramedy, significant events from a prior episode rarely persist in those that follow. It is chilling because one gets the sense from Degrassi that these bits of life can be addressed one by one. Once we’ve finished the Black Lives Matter episode we can move on, having paid our progressive dues. Once we’ve seen Zoë struggle to leave the closet after faking a hetero relationship, we can move on. Once we’ve been to the mental hospital with archetypically troubled youth Hunter (Miles’ brother) we can move on – because he’s “gotten better,” thanks to a healthy dose of CBT administered by a smiling psychiatrist and a dubious diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder.
This is just not right. These issues are not resolved—this is why they are issues. Degrassi gives us a diverse, tolerant, #blessed cosmopolitan universe where our social consternations can “get better.” But they don’t, not just like that. And so the show is, at the end, inevitably white—white in its anxiety for diversity and its anxiety for the problems diversity reveals to get better: now, if possible. White, then, in its basic anxiety about its position vis-à-vis the many, many others in 21st century North American urban life. That they be presented, and then fixed. For otherwise things are really Not Okay.