With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.
No teen drama on television is as simultaneously prolific and mocked as Degrassi. As of its August 2015 “finale” on TeenNick, the series had amassed 14 seasons, 385 half-hour episodes, and a handful of non-canonical specials, outpacing Cheers, Law & Order: SVU, and other long-running primetime staples. And that’s just the series that debuted as Degrassi: The Next Generation in 2001; start adding in previous iterations of the franchise and the numbers become overwhelming. To end Degrassi’s run on that note would be impressive as hell, but it turned out that the melodramatic powerhouse has no intentions of stopping. Shortly after the series was dropped by TeenNick, it was announced that Netflix had picked it up. Degrassi: Next Class—sort of a 15th season, sort of a new entity—debuts on January 15; true to its Canadian roots, a handful of the new episodes have already aired in the series’ native country.
But the question has never been “When will Degrassi end?” The question is “How does Degrassi stay watchable year after year?” The answer is simple: It remains the same.
Degrassi may have tweaked itself slightly over time—a brief exploration of the telenovela model, a couple of years where the students wore uniforms, the introduction of “new” media—but its core has always been the same. It’s a show about teenagers dealing with teenage problems. There are capitalized “Problems” like having an abortion, gender identity, and facing your date rapist in court; lowercase problems like an innocent crush on a teacher, trying to get tickets to a concert, and keeping your LARPing hobby a secret; and impossible-to-categorize problems like finding your mom’s vibrator under a bed (and bringing it to school), or buying a penis pump (and bringing it to school), or adopting a teacup pig (and bringing it to school). Say what you will about Degrassi, but it leaves no stone unturned: One episode featured a school shooting while another focused on a student wearing a thong to class; one character cut up her arms while another shat on top of a cheerleader pyramid.
To love Degrassi is to love all of its faults and missteps: its horrid plots and lazy technology stand-ins (Facerange, MyRoom, OomfChat), its terrible dialogue (“That’s bovine fecal matter!”) and cheap guest stars (Kevin Smith’s questionable arc). The reaction to Degrassi is often more complex than the series itself. The teen-centric program is as loved as it is despised, as enthralling as it is frustrating, as occasionally brilliant as it is utterly ridiculous. Yet it remains highly addictive and nearly impossible to look away from, especially when it begins to not just veer off the rails but to set fire to the track behind it, causing train wreck after train wreck until all that’s left is Principal Archie “Snake” Simpson standing on top of a smoldering pile of overdone tropes.
Trope is a term with negative connotations, but what’s most impressive about Degrassi is that it manages to use the conventions of teen drama to its advantage, finding ways to turn melodramatic after-school specials into pure entertainment. Degrassi has an ongoing commitment to airing very special episodes casually and without fanfare, without the alienating, condescending feel of a drinking-and-driving PSA in a driver’s education class. Very special episodes are easy to mock, but Degrassi practically owes its existence to them.
With so many episodes, it’s daunting to jump right in, so here are the most special of Degrassi’s very special episodes.
Sure, the Degrassi pilot is silly and dated, but it’s also endearingly dorky, and perfectly sets up the series’ main goals for the next 15 (and counting) years. It quickly provides a link to the previous version—protagonist Emma (Miriam McDonald) is the daughter of two Degrassi High characters—and immediately launches into the lesson of the week: Don’t meet strangers from the internet, kids! Of course, this was much more pressing in 2001 than it is now, but the sentiment remains. Despite the warnings of her friends, Emma goes to meet her e-boyfriend, only to find out that he’s actually an adult preying on teen girls. “Mother And Child Reunion” doesn’t sugarcoat the uncomfortable horror of this situation—there is an unsettling video camera set up in the hotel room, hinting at something sinister—but it provides the requisite happy ending, thanks to Emma’s computer-savvy friends. Mostly, though, “Mother And Child Reunion” sets expectations for the rest of the series. It’s a rehash of its predecessors, sure, but it’s a rehash for an entirely new generation with slightly updated storylines but the same basics, from the troubling teen storyline to the unsophisticated wardrobe (as opposed to the straight-off-the-runway looks of say, Pretty Little Liars) to the plainspoken dialogue (extremely welcome during the era of Dawson’s Creek).
Looking back, “Shout” doesn’t feel as groundbreaking as it did in 2002 (or ’03, when it debuted in the United States); Degrassi has explored rape through several different characters since then, and in more nuanced storylines. At the time, however, “Shout” felt new, rare, and important. The episode focuses on Paige (Lauren Collins), Degrassi’s Queen Bee, who attends a party and then gets date raped by a rival school’s soccer superstar. The scene itself is rough—she cries for him to stop and he ignores her—but what really stands out is the aftermath. Paige tells her friends they consensually made out, she (rightfully) lashes out in anger when a male friend verbally attacks her, and she tries to convince herself that it was her own fault. What’s more is that it’s a storyline that continues well into the fourth season, when the trial begins.
Diversity is an important—and admirable—trait of Degrassi. Yes, the majority of its cast is white, but the show has examined race through storylines like Hazel (Andrea Lewis) pretending to be Jamaican to hide her Muslim roots; it’s also diverse in terms of sexual orientation and identity. There are multiple gay characters on Degrassi—adults and students—as well as students who are bisexual, questioning, and fluid. The first notable queer student storyline began early in the third season with Marco (Adamo Ruggiero). “Pride” depicts the rough waters of navigating teen sexuality, from self-denial to outward homophobia—the devastating centerpiece of “Pride (Part Two)” features a hate crime in which strangers jump Marco. Like the rape scene in “Shout,” the gay bashing in “Pride” is hard to watch, but necessary for depicting the real horrors that gay youths go through.
“Whisper To A Scream” tackles depression and self-harm with surprising insight and emotional depth, while showing vital restraint. Ellie (Stacey Farber) finds herself overwhelmed with the current state of her life (including a father overseas—on a peace-keeping mission because this is Canada—and an alcoholic mother) and begins cutting herself. This habit quickly becomes an uncontrollable urge, until she’s confronted by Paige. What still resonates here is the brief friendship between Ellie and Paige, who were once hateful enemies. Even Paige can’t keep up her steely, too-cool persona when she sees her nemesis in trouble, and she softens enough to help.
Arguably the most famous Degrassi episode, and certainly the most controversial of The Next Generation, “Accidents Will Happen” took the bold step of introducing abortion into the series (well, into The Next Generation) through Manny Santos (Cassie Steele). Manny’s unplanned pregnancy doesn’t leave her many options: The father is Craig (Jake Epstein), an unreliable classmate (who, it’s later revealed, has bipolar disorder), and Manny certainly can’t tell her strict Filipino parents. With the help of her best friend’s mother, Manny chooses to have an abortion, but not before a two-parter full of back-and-forth thoughts, slivers of hope that are yanked away, and a strained friendship with Emma, who temporarily represents the pro-life argument.
Okay, maybe this is the most famous Degrassi episode—though for reasons beyond its actual plot. Not to say that the plot isn’t memorable—a school shooting—but it tends to come in second place to the ridiculous fact that school shooting victim Jimmy (Aubrey Graham) grew up to become Drake. But let’s rewind: The building blocks to “Time Stands Still” were put into place during season three, in another very special episode in which misfit Rick (Ephraim Ellis) begins physically abusing his girlfriend Terri (Christina Schmidt), eventually putting her in a coma. He’s ostracized and bullied from then on and, a season later, brings a gun to school. Though some of the episode’s intent (it’s basically a “Why you shouldn’t bully” PSA) is lost in the sheer absurdity of the situation—including Drake’s less-than-impressive acting—the importance actually lies in what “Time Stands Still” sets up. The episode was jarring even by Degrassi standards and marked a turning point for the series. Depending on who you ask, the series either died along with Rick or it began to thrive in this new world in which anything could—and did—happen, even if it meant extreme character changes and serious, series-altering plots: Jimmy was paralyzed for the remainder of his time on the series, while Emma starts down a fairly dark path.
Ask 100 Degrassi fans the moment they’re still not over and 90 of them will talk about J.T.’s (Ryan Cooley) death. J.T. was the goofy heart of the show, the boy who always meant well—whether he was sticking by his girlfriend after she decides to have their child (and then subsequently gives it up for adoption) or just cheering up his friends when they’re going through something rough (such as Paige’s rape). In “Rock This Town,” as J.T. attends a party and makes the decision to rekindle his romance with Liberty (Sarah Barrable-Tishauer), he’s suddenly confronted by gang members from a rival school who stab him to death in the street. It was both shocking (the stabbing was censored on TeenNick, though not in Canada) and upsetting—so much so, in fact, that if you didn’t tune out after “Time Stands Still,” you almost certainly stopped watching here; Degrassi is basically divided between pre- and post-J.T.’s death. But it’s an essential episode of Degrassi, one that took a basic very-special-episode topic (teen violence) and turned it into a legitimate tearjerker.
Spinner Mason (Shane Kippel) grew from obnoxious comic relief to a fan-favorite in just a few seasons, and the maturity of his storylines grew with him. While he was previously known for taking ADD meds and getting boners in class, season seven dealt him a serious hand—and Kippel ended up proving that he was one of the standout actors on the show. In “Death Or Glory,” Spinner learns that he has testicular cancer, but is unable to accept the diagnosis because he worries that he’ll suffer the same fate as his father who died of cancer. “Death Or Glory” presents the typical cancer-storyline antics—Spinner acts out and becomes self-destructive; Spinner dramatically shaves his head in front of the mirror while a loud, terrible song plays—and the episode does characteristically rush through from denial to acceptance. Still, it’s a two-parter that really sticks—and not just because it’s possibly the only TV episode that features a rack focus from a teen boy’s face to his testicle in a jar.
Degrassi prides itself on keeping up with the teens, but in a way that actually works—as opposed to brands tweeting out slang—and a way that feels wholly genuine. Sure, it can fall into the trap of following basic teen trends (a multi-episode arc in a recent season revolves around a SnapChat clone) but the series shines when taking up real-life issues. Season 10 saw the introduction of a new character, Adam (Jordan Todosey), a female-to-male trans student. It was the first treatment of transgender issues in the whole Degrassi franchise and, for the most part, the series actually pulled it off. “My Body Is A Cage” does include Degrassi’s trademark dramatics—at one point, Adam is outed by a female student and then thrown into a glass door—but it’s actually the smaller moments that make “My Body Is A Cage” so memorable.
The episode doesn’t turn Adam into a character to gawk at, nor does it turn him into a trans lesson for viewers. Instead, he’s immediately well-developed and humanized, and the series treats his struggles to fit in with the other boys much in the way it casually treats any characters’ high school desire to fit in—just with the added gravitas. “My Body Is A Cage” deals with Adam struggling with his gender dysphoria—mild frustrations at his mother’s “pronoun problems;” a temporary return to “Gracie” (and self-harm) in order to appease his family and peers—before finding comfort in new friends who encourage Adam to be himself.
As established, Degrassi is no stranger to depicting sexual assault and its aftermath on students. There was Paige’s date rape in season two and, in season seven, Darcy (Shenae Grimes) is roofied and raped at a party. But it’s “Unbelievable” that sticks with viewers the most. In events that resemble those of the Steubenville High School rape case, Zoë (Ana Golja) gets drunk and blacks out at a party, later discovering that photos and videos of her assault are making the rounds at school. “Unbelievable” is a surprisingly emotional and insightful portrayal of Zoë’s ordeal, tackling her reactions to the assault, victim-blaming (which is quickly shut down by various characters), and the ripple effects felt throughout the school.
And if you like those, try these: “Jagged Little Pill” (season one, episode 15), “Don’t Believe The Hype” (season two, episode 11), “U Got The Look” (season three, episode three), “Don’t Dream It’s Over” (season three, episode 17), “Secret” (season four, episode 14), “Foolin’” (season five, episode four), “Standing In The Dark” (season seven, episode one), “Talking In Your Sleep” (season seven, episode 17)
Availability: Unfortunately, all the episodes were recently taken down from TeenNick’s website, but seasons one through 12 are available on DVD, and the entire series can be found on YouTube.