10 Times Degrassi High Was the Best Thing on Television
If you were a child of the '80s, these moments are burned onto your brain.
Growing up with Degrassi High
When it debuted on Canadian TV in 1987, no one could have guessed the impact Degrassi Junior High would have—least of all the generation of kids it helped shape. Shot on a relatively low budget in and around Toronto, the series about a bunch of school kids who were extraordinary in their ordinariness was easy to mock on the playground, despite the fact that once we were home, we were all secretly glued to the set.
Maybe it was just a little too real for comfort. It felt safer to make fun of Spike, Wheels and Snake than to admit that we all knew these kids—or kids very much like them. Maybe we even saw a little of ourselves in Joey or Caitlin, Arthur or Yick. In any case, the raw performances and honest writing had us completely invested in this little Canadian TV show that rebranded as Degrassi High in 1989, and continues to generate spin-offs 30 years on, with HBO Max recently announcing a new Degrassi revival, set for release in 2023.
The production values of modern-day Degrassi are certainly slicker, but the brief glimpses I’ve had only made me appreciate Degrassi High even more. It may have been humble, but it had humour and heart, and, as I discovered during a recent lockdown-induced rewatch of all 70 original episodes, it holds up remarkably well to this day. These 10 moments in particular took me back to my childhood, and made me remember just how lucky we all were to grow up with Degrassi.
Joey invents crowdfunding
Nowadays, when someone needs cash for their worthy cause, they’ll just launch a kickstart campaign online. Back in 1990, Joey Jeremiah (Pat Mastroianni) had to be more enterprising: To get the money for a down payment on the car of his dreams, he takes bets to walk through the school cafeteria—naked (apart from his trademark fedora, of course). Although it looks like Joey’s about to make good on the dare, the get-rich-quick scheme is ultimately thwarted by the dastardly school bully Dwayne (Darrin Brown), who’s got Mr. Raditch (Dan Woods) waiting in the wings.
The build-up to this—likely the slowest streaking event ever captured on camera—is brilliant. It’s hilarious, of course, to see the entire cast in the cafeteria whipped into a frenzy, but you can’t help but feel for Joey, whose bravado starts to crumble as the deadline approaches. A truly classic Degrassi High moment. (“Bad Blood: Part 1,” Season 5, episode 1)
Girls’ night gets wild
One of the biggest disappointments in life is discovering that you’ll never have as much fun at a party as the characters in Degrassi High. I mean, these kids managed to dance like no-one was watching, fuelled by nothing more than pop, chips and Gowan on vinyl.
Of all the parties hosted in Degrassi, nothing compares to Diana’s surprise birthday sleepover in “The All Nighter” (season 5, episode 7). What starts off as a fairly sedate girls’ night descends into major drama when Kathleen (Rebecca Haines-Saah) *gasp* lights up a joint. It doesn’t take long for her to regret her indiscretion, though—as soon as Melanie (Sara Ballingall) takes a drag, she’s spilling all of Kathleen’s tea in Degrassi’s consummate “Oh no she didn’t!” moment. In one fell swoop, Kathleen’s secret struggle with anorexia, her abusive boyfriend and her mother’s alcoholism become fodder for the next issue of the Degrassi Digest. Not only does it shift our sympathy from the always-likable Melanie to cranky Kathleen, it also manages to warn against the dangers of drugs in a way that doesn’t talk down to the audience—a hallmark of Degrassi’s approach to teen issues.
Erica gets an abortion
As the action shifts from Degrassi Junior High to Degrassi High at the beginning of season four, it’s clear that the show isn’t pulling any punches. The opening scene of the Degrassi High years (“A New Start: Part 1”) introduces a storyline that pits the twins, Erica and Heather (Angela and Maureen Deiseach), on opposites sides of the abortion debate after Erica finds out she’s pregnant. It’s heavy stuff, but so sensitively and intelligently handled, it still feels relevant more than three decades on.
Rewatching this as an adult, I have a new appreciation for how the writers avoid a neat and tidy resolution. The shockwaves of Erica’s decision to go through with the abortion are felt throughout the rest of the series, and given added poignancy contrasted with the continuing struggles of the twins’ classmate Spike as a teen mom.
When asked to weigh-in on the debate herself, Spike (Amanda Stepto) gets a fantastic line that could just as easily serve as the series’ manifesto:
“It’s great to have, you know, high ideals and stuff, but when you’re in that situation, right and wrong—they can get really complicated.”
There’s no happy ending here; just an inherently optimistic belief that deep-down, most people are inherently decent, doing the best they can in a world that’s often unfair.
Caitlin dumps Joey
Getting your heart torn out and trampled on is a teenage rite of passage. The only thing that makes it different when it happens to Joey P. Jeremiah is that we *all* feel it.
No sooner have Caitlin (Stacie Mistysyn) and Joey started their freshman year than she’s trading him in for a pretentious senior named Claude (pronounced “Clode,” naturally), whose affinity for goatees, Godard and the world’s skinniest jeggings prove irresistible Cait-bait. If only she knew he’d been leaving her to take the fall when they’re nabbed as eco-terrorists in a few weeks! But I digress.
The fact that everyone else at school sees the breakup coming long before Joey does makes the eventual dumpage that much more painful to watch (“Everybody Wants Something,” season 4, episode 5). Pat Mastroianni’s performance as Joey is really spectacular here, visibly deflating as Caitlin delivers her bombshell, and leading a generation of viewers in mourning at the apparent demise of Degrassi’s power couple…
Michelle moves out (and back in again)
Some girls celebrate their “Sweet 16” with a party. Others book their driving test. Michelle (Maureen McKay), however, marks the occasion by moving out on her own in downtown Toronto (“Sixteen,” season 4, episode 9). Imagine the freedom! (Imagine snagging a Riverside apartment for $100 a month, for that matter.) It’s a teen dream come true—until it isn’t.
In typical Degrassi fashion, Michelle’s initial excitement gives way to despair as the bills (and laundry) start piling up. Forced to take on a part-time job after school, she turns to caffeine pills to stay awake during exams, leading to an epic freakout that gives Saved By the Bell‘s Jessie Spano a run for her money. It’s the tipping point that prompts her to reach a compromise with her dad and move back home, but thanks to the honest lead performance and thoughtful character arc, it’s clear this is a much more mature and self-assured Michelle than the one who moved out.
Wheels goes off the rails
Poor Wheels (Neil Hope). In Junior High, he suffers one of the series’ biggest gut-punches when his parents are killed by a drunk driver (“Can’t Live With ‘Em: Part 1,” season 3, episode 1). Degrassi High picks up the thread, and takes it in a daring new direction by turning “poor Wheels” into a liar, manipulator and thief (“Home, Sweet Home,” season 5, episode 8).
It’s a shocking fate to befall one of the series’ core characters, and what makes it especially compelling television is that it isn’t just Snake (Stefan Brogren) and Joey’s sympathy that’s being put to the test, but the audience’s as well. Even after he’s been accused of stealing money from Mrs. Jeremiah and turned out on the street, Wheels seems unrepentant—and worse, continues to play the orphan card to get what he wants. It gives us some really uncomfortable questions to mull over. How much would you be willing to put up with from someone who’s going through hell? Exactly how far can you push the limits of a friendship before it breaks?
There’s an added poignancy watching these episodes now, knowing the sad fate of actor Neil Hope, who struggled with his own demons and passed away, homeless, in 2007.
Lucy makes a horror movie
Sometimes you just need a break from the hot button issues and teen angst, and that’s exactly what Degrassi serves up in a little gem called “It Creeps!” (season 4, episode 14). Lucy’s (Anais Granofsky) attempt to film the world’s first “feminist horror movie” as a class project makes for a refreshingly light, all-out comedy episode that reminds us why we fell in love with these characters in the first place.
Playing the male victims of Caitlin’s masked killer, Joey, Snake, Wheels and Simon (Michael Carry) each get to adopt an alter-ego that’s totally at odds with their personalities. There’s a lot of fun to be had with Joey as a nerd and Snake as a biker, and it’s clear everyone behind the scenes is having an absolute scream on the production.
The perfect Degrassi episode for a rainy day.
Dwayne finds out he’s HIV-positive
There’s a moment in “Bad Blood: Part 2” (season 5, episode 2) that chokes me up to this day. Dwayne, Degrassi’s resident bully, has just discovered he’s HIV-positive. Although he’s terrified and keeping his test results secret, a chance classroom visit from two HIV-positive AIDS awareness counsellors prompts him to ask, “How do you deal with the fact that you’re going to die?”
It’s hard to explain to anyone born after the Degrassi High phenomenon just how pivotal the show was in bringing taboo subjects into the mainstream. Presenting an AIDS awareness seminar within the context of a Degrassi classroom—and having the characters ask those raw and unfiltered questions that were on the minds of a generation of Canadian kids—is both brave and brilliant. We might not have had those frank discussions during my school days in rural southwestern Ontario, but through Degrassi, I got to experience them all the same.
“Everybody Wants Something”
The Zits may have only had one song, but “Everybody Wants Something” is possibly the most infectious earworm ever captured on cassette tape. In his autobiography, “The Narbo’s Guide to Being a Broomhead,” Pat Mastroianni claims that he, Stefan Brogren and Neil Hope wrote most of the catchy tune themselves, which adds another layer of brilliance to the legendary track.
This being 1990 and all, the Zits realize they won’t have a hit on their hands without a music video to market it, and enlist the aid of Lucy to film a baffling series of vignettes in and around the school (“Everybody Wants Something,” season 4, episode 5). There they are playing their instruments in the trunk of Clutch’s paint-splattered car! Now they’re singing in a dumpster! Now they’re… Tossing a dummy of Wheels from a second-floor window? It’s totally bananas, but if you’re not grinning ear-to-ear by the end of it, you are most definitely a broomhead.
Joey cheats on Caitlin
Given the chance to film a feature-length finale for Degrassi High, the production team wisely decided to go out with a bang. “School’s Out” trades the high school setting and Issue of the Week™ in favour of a full-on soap opera approach, putting our beloved cast of characters through the absolute wringer. Few fare worse than Caitlin, who spends her last summer before university slinging quarter chicken dinners at Swiss Chalet while boyfriend Joey is sampling the menu at Tessa Trampinelli’s (Kirsten Bourne). It’s only a matter of time before Joey’s caught in the act—an unforgettable showdown that will live in history as the first time the “f”-word was uttered on Canadian television (not once, but twice!).
Is it the happy ending we were hoping for? Heck no. But man, it’s great TV.
Next, check out 10 classic TV series that could only have been made in Canada.