If you’re a Canadian under the age of 40, you’ve never known a world without “Degrassi.” One of television’s most globally iconic shows, the teen soap opera has been on the air in one form or another since 1979. And that’s thanks to the hard work of creator Linda Schuyler, who brought the show to life, as she explains below, because she was so frustrated by the fact that the junior high school kids she was teaching had no television made specifically for them.
Having undergone numerous relaunches and rebrandings, including the addictive “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” the show has remained a part of the zeitgeist for decades. This week, Season 2 of “Degrassi: Next Class” premieres on Netflix, reaching its 500th episode.
At the TCA Winter Press Tour, Linda Schuyler and executive producer Sarah Glinski spoke with IndieWire about the Netflix relaunch of the show — which Glinski grew up watching, and actually made her want to be a writer for television. Not just any television, though — very specifically, “Degrassi.” Here’s how the show came to be, and how it changed lives along the way.
It’s really interesting to talk about “Degrassi” just in terms of how it feels like it’s always existed. Well, of course for you [Linda], it hasn’t always existed, but for you [Sarah], it has.
Sarah Glinski: It’s pretty much always existed for me. I was pretty young during the very first “Degrassi” when it was on the air. I think I was 10 years old watching reruns of “Degrassi Junior High.”
Linda Schuyler: Oh my.
Glinski: Yeah. [laughs] Sorry. And it’s funny because I thought Toronto was a place where teenagers did really bad things.
Schuyler: Obviously it hasn’t always existed for me. I was in my 20s. I spent eight years as a junior high school teacher and I had a great frustration because there was no media and storytelling that was for that age group that I was teaching, which is a very special age group, one that I fell in love with through my teaching years. And I was so frustrated and I would go down to the Toronto Board of Education and say, “Please, you’ve got to give me some shows for these kids.” I had been studying film and television at university as much as there was in those does and finally it was just like, “You know what? I’m going to make these shows.” And so I quit teaching with the idea of wanting to make shows specifically about the kids having one foot in childhood, one foot in adulthood. The push-pull between those two is what has been giving us dramatic story for over 35 years.
That’s remarkable. It was originally four after school special films?
Schuyler: Sort of. I think the first year…well the first year, we did one half hour. And then people saw it because there was no live action for youth in those days. It was all animated. So we were very fresh and then I think the next year we did three half hours and then it took me about six years to do the first 26 episodes. And then once we got involved with PBS and CBC in Canada, we started 13 episodes for “Junior High” and then 16 episodes.
Glinski: My second season writing on the show, we did 45 episodes [laughs].
Schuyler: [laughs] That’s insane!
Were these financed independently or…
Schuyler: I have been producing “Degrassi” on and off for 35 years and there have been over 30 different business plans. As an independent producer, you never know from one year to the next how your funding is going to unfold. We’ve changed broadcasters many times throughout that time. We’ve made use of all the available Canadian funding support that comes from a federal provincial level. Now, of course, we’ve done an amazing transition over to Netflix with “Degrassi The Next Class.” That’s pretty exciting.
Talk to me about how you came into this show, Sarah. You grew up watching it to some extent — [to Linda] I’m sorry, I imagine that’s always a weird thing to hear.
Schuyler: Yes [laughs].
Schuyler: That’s all right! [laughs]
Glinski: I’ve always wanted to write teen television and “Degrassi” was the place that you write it. I went to something called the Canadian Film Centre, which is really like the AFI of Canada. You had to write down your five- or 10-year goals and I was like, “Showrunner of Degrassi,” and I didn’t tell anyone. [To Linda] I’ve never told you this story! [laughs] I didn’t tell anyone. It was just sort of in my heart. That was a thing that I really wanted and then I graduated and Linda and I met and within a year or so, I was working on the show. I sort of grew up as a writer on the show. I’ve been on the show for…this is my eighth year.
What made you write that goal down?
Glinski: I liked the show, and I liked telling authentic stories for teenagers, and there just wasn’t anywhere else to do that.
It is such an interesting niche. When Netflix came to you, what is it they said excited them about the brand?
Schuyler: Well, to be fair, we went to Netflix [laughs]. We pitched Netflix because we knew that we’d had a wonderful run with “Degrassi: The Next Generation” and we’d gone 14 years with that. And at the end of that, we graduated a whole bunch of characters. We must’ve graduated about 10 characters. We took a hard look at it ourselves internally and said, “How are we going to keep this show fresh?” We realized that after 14 years, we needed to give ourselves a reboot. Out of that internal discussion came that we were going to call it “Degrassi: Next Class,” and Sarah coined a lovely phrase, which is “We’re going to keep it fresh and keep it familiar” because we wanted old fans to still feel comfortable with it, but we wanted new fans to think they could drop in and not be encumbered by not having seen it. So, we took this to Netflix. We did a big pitch about a year ago. It was so well-received by them and we couldn’t be happier because we say, “This is where the kids are. This is where the kids are watching.”
Glinski: You’re missing one part of the story that’s pretty important to me, which is in the beginning when we sort of started development, which is like October or November, Linda came to me and sort of my partner Matt Huether, who’s another writer on the show, and said, “Make your dream ‘Degrassi.’ Pretend you have no network notes. Just come up with the season that’s in your heart, that you’re passionate about telling.” And so we did, and I challenged my writers. We all sat down and that’s what we pitched to Netflix, and I think Netflix saw that. They saw how authentic it was, how original and how we were talking about things that nobody else was in a way that nobody else is talking about. So that’s pretty important.
Schuyler: You had done a very good job, Sarah, of identifying that the audience that started with “Next Generation” and the audience that we’re going for now, which is Generation Z — they weren’t even born when we started “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” You talk about all of these pivotal moments and we realize, “No, we have a whole new generation that we’re talking to now.” Your team did a lot of research into that and that affected storytelling. It just felt like the right time, that we were ready to give the show a reboot.
How much of that research becomes first person? How much of it is just really talking to that age group?
Glinski: Well, I always like to say we’re a show about firsts. I think we all remember our firsts. We remember our first kiss, our first crush, the first time we failed a test, the first time your parents said you can go to a party because you had an earlier curfew than all of your friends. And I think the feelings are the same, the specifics are different and I think that’s what we as writers keep in our hearts. Sometimes, we spend time in high schools hanging out with teenagers. Obviously, we talk to them all of the time, read articles, we look at what’s happening on social media, we see trends, but I think the fact that the feelings are the same and we can always relate to the feelings is really important.
Schuyler: And I think the other thing that’s an important factor in our show — we’ve always made an effort to cast age-appropriate. I like to talk about the fact that you can take a 25-year-old who looks 15 and have them play a role, but that actor is bringing 10 more years of life experience to that role. By having our cast be age-appropriate, they bring the freshness and the authenticity of that age. Plus, they don’t contribute to the early stages of the storytelling, but we do have a process in our read-through where we all sit down around a table with producers, writers and cast — this is before the script is published — and every episode, we talk it through and they have an opportunity to say, “Seriously?”
Glinski: You get to see teens react to the content for the first time in the room during the read-through and that can be really helpful. The conversations that happen after a read-through sometimes changes the stories and help us be more authentic.
What most excites you about the “Degrassi” legacy?
Schuyler: Oh my gosh [laughs]. I think what most excites me is that there is a legacy and the fact that we have stuck true to trying to remain true and authentic to the voice of teens, but making sure that we move with the times. I think by doing that, we’ve had resonance throughout the generations and I couldn’t be more thrilled to see it still having relevance today and watching the comments coming through on social media and the like.
Glinski: You answered it so well [laughs]. For me, I think it’s every time we get a letter, email, tweet about how watching the show has really impacted people’s lives. I think they say, “This is the first time I saw myself represented on TV in a situation I went through myself. I’ve never seen that before and that’s really important to me and empowering to me.” I think the fact that so many people have seen themselves for the first time on our show. I think that’s really important.