Tell the average adult that you watch Degrassi, and you’ll get one of several reactions:
“How old are you?”
“Wait, that show’s STILL ON?”
Believe it or not, the Canadian high school melodrama Degrassi (formerly Degrassi: The Next Generation) has been on the air for sixteen straight seasons, not including the six combined seasons of The Kids of Degrassi Street, Degrassi Junior High, and Degrassi High in the 80s and early 90s (take that, Firefly fans!). It’s hopped from channel to channel, airing on CTV, TeenNick, The N, MTV, and, most recently, Netflix and changed casts every few years as the characters graduate, and while its target audience was mostly born after Degrassi: The Next Generation began, a few fans have grown up with the franchise and haven’t given up on it yet. One such fan is North Carolina radio producer Kary Bowser, who for over a decade has run one of the most prolific Degrassi fan sites, degrassiblog.com, complete with several YouTube channels, news and rumors from the cast and crew, and well thought out and occasionally snarky episode and season reviews.
I sat down with Kary to discuss his blog and Degrassi in general. Read what he had to say below, but warning: Here be unmarked spoilers for the entire series, including the most recent season of Degrassi: Next Class, the show’s current incarnation on Netflix.
Steph: Tell me about yourself. What got you into blogging about Degrassi in the first place? What got you into Degrassi in the first place? How did you end up going into radio? Has your degrassiblog.com life coincided with your radio life at all?
Kary: When I was a teenager I had this idea for a comic book (I drew back then) about a group of teenagers dealing with teen issues. Skip forward to my college years and I randomly came across this TV show called Degrassi that did just that and I was hooked. Me blogging about Degrassi was inspired by the fansites that existed when I first started watching the show, like the now defunct degrassi-tng.com. As those fansites started fading away in seasons 7 and 8, I wanted there to be a place where fans could find info about the show in one place. I never expected this to blow up as it has, and I attribute a lot of that to having started the blog at the right time. As far as my real-life job as a radio producer, I totally got into radio by accident. I was going to major in graphic design, but I walked into the wrong orientation meeting the summer before I started college. They gave us lists of courses we’d take for the various communications majors, and I fell in love with the broadcast production stuff. I wouldn’t consider myself an actual writer, but I’ve taken what I’ve learned through blogging to also write articles for my station. Also, I use the production skills I’ve learned to create Degrassi stuff, so it works both ways.
Steph: Why Degrassi? What’s made this show so special for you that you’d follow it religiously for nearly two decades?
Kary: I believe Degrassi presents themes that people of all ages can use. Yes, they present stories about teenagers and the issues they face, but even in an eating disorder episode like “Mirror In The Bathroom” it presents ideas about acceptance and rejection, things all of us deal with. I’m always looking for a life lesson in the stories Degrassi tells, and I apply them to my own life. I feel like I’ve become a better person because of it.
Steph: Even without including Kids of Degrassi Street, Degrassi Junior High, and Degrassi High, Degrassi’s been going strong for sixteen seasons. Given that it’s a show that’s historically been aimed at teenagers, this means that much of the current target audience wasn’t even born when Emma got her period in class. Yet you’ve been around almost since the beginning of the Next Gen days, and in many ways gotten to see the show grow up. What’s that been like for you?
Kary: I’ve been watching this show religiously since 2004, and it’s almost overwhelming to think about how much has changed, not just on the show, but in the fandom. The people I talked to in fandom in ’04 have moved on, and they’re adults with careers and possibly children of their own now. Even some fans who came on in Season 10 have moved onto the lives they were destined to live, teenagers who are now young adults in college. I’m definitely an anomaly, because the “lifespan” of a hardcore fan actively engaged in fandom is usually only a few seasons. I definitely feel out of place as the “old man” in Next Class, nearly twice as old as some of these fans. The way I look at the show as an adult who’s been there is different from the teenagers and young adults who are going through those things right now. As far as the show itself, I never expected Degrassi to last this long. Every year since Season 8 there was always that whisper in the back of my head that said “This is the last season, for sure.” But every single time, Degrassi’s found a way to make it through.
Steph: Degrassi has taken such a different turn since moving to Netflix. This is the third or fourth retool just since DtNG began (I say third or fourth since it depends on whether you consider seasons 6-9 to be a retool or just an extension of the DtNG days), but it’s also been the most dramatic–the format’s changed, it’s social media themed in ways it’s never been before, it’s tackling social issues in depth in ways it barely touched in the old days, and it almost feels like an entirely different show. What are your thoughts on the changes over the years, for better or for worse.
Kary: Change is scary and people are always kind of resistant to it at first, but in Degrassi’s case it’s a cornerstone of the series. A common complaint from fans over the years about *insert current generation* is that it isn’t TNG. That era is held in such high regard; I used to be one of those people who said Seasons 1-4 are the greatest and the show will never top that. But then the show just kept going, well beyond its expected lifespan, and therefore it’s had to find new ways to tell stories. Degrassi would’ve been canceled by now if it had just stuck to doing what it was doing in the early TNG years. The world is different today from the early 2000’s, just like those days were different from Degrassi Junior High’s days in the 80’s. Degrassi has thrived and survived so well because, unlike a lot of us, they willingly embrace the inevitability of change.
Steph: Degrassi is such a polarizing series, even within its own fandom. There are fans of the original DJH and DH days, fans of seasons 1-5 and nothing later, fans who loved seasons 10 and later, probably people who are only just getting into it now with Next Class, and for reasons I can’t fathom, even fans who prefer seasons 8 and 9. What are your thoughts on this? Which season blocks are your favorite and least favorite, and why?
Kary: I think the comparison between eras only becomes bothersome when people allow it to automatically discount other generations because of it. I’d hope people are rating the generations on their own merit and not strictly on trying to rate one as better as the other. People will be partial to which era they started watching (for me it’s Season 3 of TNG), but taking off our rose-colored glasses reveals that every single era of Degrassi has its strengths and weaknesses compared to each other. Ultimately though, it just comes down to personal preference.
Steph: Let’s talk about everyone’s favorite and/or most despised Degrassi topic–shipping! What have been your favorite ships over the years and why? Which ones couldn’t you stand? Where do you stand in the debates about Spemma, EClare, and pretty much every Craig relationship ever?
Kary: My all-time favorite ships are Sellie, Drianca and Parcy. Apparently I have a soft spot for stories where a strong female character comes into a male character’s life and makes him a better person! Also, Shay and Tiny are my everything in Next Class. With Craig’s ships I’m pretty neutral, but thanks to the 500th episode I’ve finally reached the “acceptance” stage of The 5 Stages of Spemma Grief. Don’t get me wrong, their marriage is random as hell, and part of the anger about that was we were expecting to never see Spinner and Emma on the show ever again after they got married. But I will admit it’s pretty cool that even 6 or 7 years later we’re actually getting a story about how their marriage has been going all this time.
I’ve been back and forth on Eclare, but without a doubt they’re one of the most masterful things Degrassi’s ever done in the entire history of the franchise. This ship was a dominant force that had such emotional control over Degrassi’s entire fandom for five years, Eclare shippers and anti-shippers alike. The broadcasters would pander to Eclare fans a lot and people also accused the writers of doing the same, but I think the writers were actually thinking much bigger than that. Degrassi’s showrunner once said they want to to incite their fans, for viewers to be engaged and to have strong feelings; Eclare was an absolute grand slam on that front, every single time they were mentioned online or appeared on screen. People who loved Eclare would stick around no matter how long it took with the hope of seeing them be endgame. People who hated Eclare threatened to quit watching the show constantly, but didn’t because they wanted to be there to see Eclare fail. That right there is why the writers kept Eli on the show for two seasons after he’d graduated. They also (wisely) chose an ending for Eclare that didn’t slap either fan group in the face, making them endgame without the “Happily Ever After” ending everyone on the planet was expecting. The writers are smarter than us Degrassi fans will ever give them credit for.
Steph: The show has tackled several issues more than once, to varying levels of success. They covered eating disorders with Toby, Emma, and Katie, drug and alcohol abuse with Ashley, Craig, Jimmy, Fiona, Katie, Alli, Spinner, Peter, Anya, and Sean, self-harm with Ellie, Adam, Cam, and Zoe, teen pregnancy and/or pregnancy scares with Manny and Craig, Jenna and KC, Emma, Alli, Clare and Eli, JT and Liberty, and Mia when it was convenient for the writers, sexual assault with Paige, Darcy, Zoe, Jane, and Emma, and the list just goes on and on. In your opinion, what’s made these plots and other repeated plots different from each other? Which attempts were successful,and which weren’t? Why do you think the writers have decided to do things like this?
Kary: Just naturally having different characters deal with the same situation creates a natural variance because people don’t handle situations the same way. Like with the eating disorders it’s the same concept, but we viewed Toby, Emma and Katie in various stages of it. Paige, Darcy, Zoe and Jane’s sexual assaults all happened in different ways and all of them had different outcomes and effects on the characters in the future. A couple of plots that stick out as not being as successful as I thought they should’ve been were Mia as a teen mom and Manny’s abortion. It felt like the show pinned Mia into a corner with the teen mom plot, so when they wanted to expand her character in Season 8, especially with lead female character Darcy leaving, they conveniently put Mia’s arc on the back burner by having her mom essentially raise Isabella. With Manny’s abortion, that’s a disappointment mainly because of the restrictions the broadcasters put on the story. Degrassi literally had to write her abortion so that you wouldn’t know she’d had one unless you’d watched “Accidents Will Happen.” Linda Schuyler revealed in a recent interview that they’re doing another abortion storyline in the upcoming season of Next Class, so I’m excited to see this story when it’s been told in the way they truly want to tell it.
Steph: So far, there have been four major in-show deaths since Next Gen (five if you count Craig’s dad). Which ones affected you the most, for better or for worse, and why? Do you think they’ll actually kill anyone from the bus crash at the end of Next Class season 2, and if so, whom?
Kary: I cried like a baby during the memorial episode for Adam, but JT’s death will forever have the most impact. I remember somehow info about his death got leaked online months in advance, so everyone KNEW it was coming. That didn’t matter. I was still a mess. “Rock This Town” is one of those episodes I don’t watch…why would you torture yourself like that?
I’m having a hard time trying to predict what will happen with the bus crash, but I will tell you this: if a death is going to happen, logistically there’s only one person it’d happen to (the others were seen on set while filming Seasons 3 and 4, so they’re at least alive). The reason I’m hesitant to say that someone will die is because they just had two deaths happen in consecutive seasons a couple of years ago. Though they were basically forced to write off Adam in that way they chose to kill him in a crash, and I’m not sure they’d turn around and do that same type of death again so soon. I’m leaning toward believing the person in critical condition remains that way for a while, and the show finds another way to write them off (think Terri MacGregor in TNG Season 3).
Steph: Degrassi is so infamous for dropping characters with little or no explanation that fans have said that missing characters end up in the “Degrassi Bermuda Triangle,” or “DBT.” What’s your personal head canon for what’s going on in there? Where do you think it is? Somewhere between Africa and Paris and stuck in the offices of the CW? Why did all of Peter’sgirlfriends have to leave him for the CW? Who were you saddest to see disappear, and who were you most relieved to say goodbye to?
Kary: It’s definitely somewhere in Africa….by now Darcy is a school teacher at the African Degrassi! I still laugh every time I think about Peter’s girlfriends leaving him for the CW. The thing nowadays is watching Degrassians randomly appear in Lifetime movies. You haven’t lived until you’ve watched Craig Manning, Becky Baker and Zoe Rivas hanging out together.
Steph: One of my favorite moments in one of your videos was in season 10 or 11, where you said something like, “Tune in next week, when #ShutUpMarisol becomes a trending topic on Twitter.” I think pretty much everyone hated Marisol at that point, myself included. That said, even the worst Degrassi characters tend to redeem themselves to a degree by the end of their tenure. Jenna, for example, went from being an overly perky backstabber to one of the most compelling characters in season 10. Which redemption stories do you think were most successful, and why?
Kary: CHANTAY!! Her usage on the show made her annoying for many years, but when they finally started using her more in her final season or two she was awesome! Peter’s also a great example of a character whose personality regressed to the mean as he went from that being that jerk posting nude/sexy pics of girls online to being someone we absolutely loved seeing return in Next Class.
One weird example of redemption, however, has been Zoe Rivas. Degrassi’s drifted toward making the characters more complex, and she’s such a prime example of this. She came onto the show as a diva who, underneath her IDGAF facade, just wants to fit in and feel loved. Zoe’s situation is unique in that her defense mechanism has been to act out in some of the most dangerously-problematic ways this show has ever seen, from cyberbullying to organizing the distribution of child porn. It’s wild that we’ve seen Degrassi humanize her through all of that by having her deal with such horrific things happening to her.
Steph: Back to Next Class. The show’s been dealing with a lot of extremely topical social issues since moving to Netflix. Season 1’s theme was feminism, with echoes of the still-lingering Gamergate era, and season 2 was all about racism and white privilege. How well do you think they handled these arcs? The writers definitely seemed to be choosing sides, but they also appeared to make an effort to humanize, say, Hunter and Frankie, without condoning their actions. What do you think worked, and what didn’t?
Kary: The biggest complaint I’m seeing about Next Class is that the seasons are too short and the arcs are being wrapped up too quickly (in reality the block structure of the show actually hasn’t changed at all, just how the broadcasters are presenting it to us as mini “seasons”). But personally, I’m really enjoying not just the stories they’re telling, but how Degrassi is telling them.
There’s this belief that Degrassi is still the show it was in Degrassi Junior High and early TNG where they presented stories in an “educational style.” Oh, this character drank? The moral of this episode is “Don’t drink or do drugs.” That isn’t what Degrassi is anymore. They still do teen things that affect individuals, but now they’re also veering into social issues that affect everyone, and presenting information in a way where they leave it up to the viewers makes up their own minds about what’s happened.
I was blown away watching Frankie’s racism storyline in Next Class Season 2 because at the time things were still tense in the news about #BlackLivesMatter. The creators have said a lot of the social tension here in America around the recent election/LGBTQ rights/Islamophbia are things the show will cover in Next Class Season 3. Degrassi is more relevant to the current world than it’s ever been.
As far as the storylines so far, I love how the show has humanized characters without condoning their actions. “Problematic faves” are officially a trend on this show because all of the characters are making the types of mistakes fans typically hate characters for, things like Zig and Tiny’s initial opinions on sexual consent and feminism in Season 1. The world gets too caught up in “boxed thinking” by trying to label people as either completely good or completely evil. That’s just not true a majority of the time, and Degrassi’s forcing people to recognize that in Next Class. You’re not a horrible person for making a mistake. I loved how the racism plot presented that you CAN engage in problematic behavior without even realizing it, but the most important thing is to understand that what you did was wrong instead of being defensive.
The only arc that I felt didn’t work was Yael’s girl-in-tech storyline in season 2. I felt like the show tried to pack too many thoughts into just that one minor plot that was only covered in one episode.
Steph: What has your relationship been like with the Degrassi staffers? If I recall correctly, you’ve gotten to speak with some of them in person before and interacted with them even more online. There was at least one interview about a decade ago where the writers mentioned following Degrassi bloggers (and yours is possibly the most snarky one this side of fan site Boycott the Caf, albeit less offensive). Have you ever found yourself thinking differently as a blogger, knowing you were being watched by those people behind the scenes? Which of the actors, writers, and producers have been the most fun for you to interact with over the years?
Kary: For the most part, I try not to bug the Degrassi staff directly (same goes for cast members), even if they follow me on social media…I don’t wanna annoy them by constantly asking them for things! Everyone I’ve ever interacted with from the show has been incredibly kind, and I’m grateful for the opportunities they’ve given me to do some really cool things over the years.
The only thing I’ve adjusted when it comes to blogging is I try not to be a total dick about my opinions when criticizing the show. In season 11, I wrote a total jerk review about one of Jenna’s plots where I condescendingly questioned the writers’ ability to write stories (complete with a climax diagram), and to this day I’m still embarrassed by that rude nonsense. It’s bad enough that the writers have to constantly read things from fans on Twitter and Tumblr calling them stupid and talentless. I feel like I owe it to them to give an honest opinion about the show, and I won’t hesitate to be critical of something they wrote that I didn’t think worked, but there’s also a difference between being critical and just being an ass.
I also avoid railing on cast members’ acting. Degrassi has been the first major acting gig for so many cast members over the years, dating back to Kids Of Degrassi Street; it’s not the end of the world if everything doesn’t come off as perfectly polished. Awkwardness is part of the charm of the show.
It’s always fun interacting with the various writers and crew members because they kinda stay in the shadows and don’t receive as much attention as the cast members do. My favorite moment though has to be the time Erin (from Degrassi Online) and I randomly ran into Aislinn Paul at a TTC stop in Toronto. We were standing there waiting for friends and Aislinn walked in, she spotted us and recognized US without us even introducing ourselves. They might not always have time to respond to everyone publicly, but the people at Degrassi lowkey pay attention to fans and know who they are.
Steph: You’ve had several video series in the past, such as “Degrassi Extra,” which if I recall recapped the entire “Boiling Point” arc of Season 10. You’ve also recorded song parodies as The Three Tenners and Whisper Hug. Given the choice, do you prefer blogging or vlogging? Which format has been the most fun for you to work with? Which video series do you like the best, and what can we expect to see in the future?
Kary: Both are fun, but I think I like blogging more because it’s easier. Vlogging is so time consuming and I have to take shortcuts to make it work; I shoot and edit vlogs on my phone so that I can work on things while I’m not at home. Creating the parody songs has been the most fun because I get to put my radio production skills to use (I have no actual knowledge about music production, though). I also love the challenge of trying to come up with creative lyrics about Degrassi to popular songs.
As far as doing video content in the future, I’ve started up a series called “Degrassi Corner,” which is just video versions of news I post on my blog. I’ll also be doing commentary about the show, from recaps of Next Class episodes, to listing my favorite seasons or even debating things like why there hasn’t been a true teen mom arc on the show since the 80’s.
Steph: In addition to Degrassi, you’ve spent a lot of time on Twitter talking about other shows, such as The Walking Dead. What shows have captured your attention lately and why?
Kary: Right now, How To Get Away With Murder and The Walking Dead are the shows you’ll find me scheduling my life around so I can watch them live. I also enjoy Girl Meets World and Backstage (apparently I’m a sucker for Canadian teen dramas). I’m a weirdo who still loves live TV because of Twitter and the entertaining things other fans say while livetweeting. I’m so far behind on watching a ton of shows, though: OITNB, Stranger Things, all of the Marvel shows on Netflix and Game Of Thrones. Maybe I’ll be able to finally catch up on them when Degrassi’s canceled…30 years from now.
Steph: What’s your hope for the future of Degrassi? Where would you like to see the writers go from here? What are your predictions for seasons 3 and 4 of Next Class?
We’re in a period of Degrassi’s history where for the first time POC now make up a majority of the cast. This show had the first transgender teen character to ever be a series regular on a scripted show. It’s hard to create exact representation for every single type of person in existence (especially when it comes to sexuality), but I hope this show continues to evolve and bring new types of characters who can bring new experiences to the show. It’s not just important that people be able to relate to these characters in some way, but it’s equally as important for viewers to learn about people who are different from them.
Steph: What else would you like to talk about? What do you want our readers to know? Final thoughts?
Kary: Well now I’m going to get deep I guess…if anything I’ve learned about life in my experience with Degrassi it’s that you should be spending your time doing the things you love without worrying what other people think about it, especially as you get older. Being an adult fan is freakin’ awesome. Also, be kind to each other, because as Degrassi’s shown us a million times over the years you never really know what people are going through.
Oh, and geek girls rule. Always.