Degrassi: The Next Generation goes there. A place where other teen shows of the early aughts — Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill, The O.C. — visited often enough but never took up residency quite like the Canadian teen drama created by Linda Schuyler and Kit Hood that has existed in various forms since 1979.
Twenty years ago, Degrassi: The Next Generation tackled the realest of teen issues — sexual assault, bullying, teen pregnancy, self-harm, child abuse, gun violence — with a cast of actual teens. Stefan Brogren, who played Archie “Snake” Simpson in four of the five major iterations of Degrassi, beginning with Degrassi: Junior High in 1987, believes this is why it stood out from the other teen soaps. “When you’re 16 playing a 16-year-old, those things you’re going through on the show are still so fresh and embarrassing,” says the 49-year-old actor-director over the phone. That recently lived experience brought an authenticity to the series, though, as Shane Kippel, a.k.a. Gavin “Spinner” Mason, points out: “If your school is anything like Degrassi, you should probably change schools.”
Jake Epstein, who played Craig Manning, sometimes felt the show tried to be too real. “We would beg the makeup people to cover our zits,” he says in a phone call from Toronto. They never did, which at the time “was so embarrassing,” but admits now, “it was what teenagers really deal with.” Ellie Nash herself, Stacey Farber, agrees that their extreme naïveté should have been cringeworthy. Yet it works because “that vulnerability was real,” she writes over email. “We captured what it feels like to be figuring things out at 14 or 15.” They were basically unintentional method actors, experiencing all the drama of adolescence in real time.
Those bona fides are why generations of young adults continue to revisit The Next Generation as both nostalgic entertainment and educational tool. It doesn’t hurt that Drake, then known as Aubrey Graham, got his start in those hallowed halls. (Though it’s unlikely any fans predicted his musical success based on Jimmy Brooks’s rhymes.) Or that the show has a high meme-ability rating; see: “New year, new look, new Paige.” The truth is, while things change, the more teens stay the same, which makes Degrassi worth revisiting, whether you’re a teenager now or were a few decades ago. “A binge of Degrassi is like a therapy session,” says Andrea Lewis, who played Hazel Aden. “You’re going to feel very seen.”
In celebration of Degrassi: The Next Generation’s 20th anniversary, ten of the original cast members shared their favorite episodes. No surprise, more than a few of them really go there.
“Jagged Little Pill” (Season 1, Episode 15)
Yes, Jake Goldsbie has seen the memes in which his character Toby Isaacs and his buddy J.T. Yorke (Ryan Cooley) think they’re on ecstasy. (In actuality, they’re on aspirin.) Now, he thinks they’re funny, but it took awhile for him to get there. “I felt like I carried a lot of weird teenager feelings about going through puberty on national television as ‘the nerd,’” Goldsbie says. But looking back today, he can appreciate how funny he and Cooley were together. The 13-year-olds didn’t know what ecstasy was, but onscreen, it plays like an absurdist comedy routine. “Whenever the crew laughed,” he says, “it was always a good sign.”
“When Doves Cry” (Season 2, Episodes 1 & 2)
One of the first things fans learn about Craig is that he’s being abused by his surgeon father, played by the Headstones lead singer and Yellowstone sheriff Hugh Dillon. The episodes were directed by Bruce McDonald, a cult Canadian filmmaker, who, Jake Epstein says, “in between takes would blast Led Zeppelin to get us in the mood.” The two-part introduction felt like a showcase for the young actor, who says the scenes of Craig being beaten up by his dad “were scary and realistic. I just had to hang onto that.”
Stacey Farber, who made her debut later in the season, remembers watching the episode at home and being “completely blown away by his performance.” She had gone to school with Epstein — “We were co-valedictorians at graduation, oddly enough,” she says — and this was “the first time I saw someone in my life — a friend — create something that affected me emotionally. From that point on, I was in awe of his talent.”
“Shout” (Season 2, Episodes 7 & 8)
In 2002, “consent was not a conversation we were having,” says Lauren Collins. This made the episode in which her character Paige is sexually assaulted by Dean, a soccer player from a rival school, all the more notable. Collins was only 14 years old. “I was a virgin,” she says. “This was not familiar territory to me.” But it resonated for Lewis, who played Hazel comforting her best friend while also encouraging her to report the unwanted sexual encounter. “Sadly, I think women understand being sexualized at such early ages in our lives,” she says. “Even if you didn’t know the language then, you were able to say, ‘Something’s wrong here.’”
Collins’s biggest fear wasn’t the material, but her dad coming to set. “I was so concerned and weirded out that I was basically about to go shoot a sex scene with him there,” she says. She was also concerned about the slap Paige gives Spinner for slut-shaming her. “She didn’t want to risk hurting me or scuffing up my face,” Kippel says. He encouraged her to go for it and not worry about “anything aside from the emotion and the rage.” When she finally did hit him, Collins says, she had “a guttural verbal reaction,” which is the take used in the episode. Kippel’s onscreen look of shock was real, too. “I decided that day that I should probably strive to stay on Lauren’s good side.”
“Mirror in the Bathroom” (Season 2, Episode 9)
While Toby struggles with his weight, Terri finally finds confidence in hers, booking a plus-size fashion campaign before epically clapping back at a fat-shaming ice-cream boy.
“It’s the first real moment where she stands up for herself,” says Christina Schmidt, who played Terri MacGregor in the first three seasons. “Hopefully, it helped some other people love themselves.” After leaving the show in 2004, Schmidt followed Terri’s lead and became a model. “I actually booked my first campaign based on the brand seeing me on Degrassi,” she says. “My whole career is thanks to Terri.”
“White Wedding” (Season 2, Episodes 12 & 13)
Miriam McDonald, who played Emma, was like a little sister to Daniel Clark, the actor who starred as her on-and-off boyfriend Sean. “To get the intimacy, we always had to cheat a little bit,” he says. When the tweens shared their first onscreen kiss in this episode, in which Emma’s mom Christine “Spike” Nelson marries Archie “Snake” Simpson, McDonald admits she was “shaking with nerves.” Clark was two years older than her and “seemed so much more experienced,” she says. “It didn’t help that we had an entire film crew of mostly males watching this super awkward first moment between us.” But looking back, she thinks “the nerves added to it looking genuine and unrehearsed on-camera.”
Despite Emma unexpectedly marrying Spinner in season nine, all these years later, “the No. 1 question I always get asked by fans is, Do you think Sean and Emma should have been endgame?” McDonald says. “To which I always say, Yes!” Clark concurs. “That was the OG relationship,” he says. “It’s like Degrassi dogma.”
“Pride” (Season 3, Episodes 4 & 5)
The episode in which Marco (Adamo Ruggiero) secretly comes out to Spinner is the one fans ask Kippel about most. At first, Spinner is dismissive of his friend, but he ends up overcoming his homophobia. “People have come up to me and said it’s that story line that gave them the courage to come out to the friends they were most afraid of telling,” says Kippel, who watched the 1993 movie Philadelphia in preparation.
It was a big emotional episode — Marco is the first openly gay main character on Degrassi — but Kippel admits that it was also really fun to shoot. “Sometimes an episode or a scene is so intense that anything that goes a little wrong, you just burst out laughing,” he says. That was the case here; the two guys kept missing their lines and cracking up over it. They did that scene so many times, Kippel says, that he and Ruggiero can still quote it word for word. In 2016, they recreated it for Degrassi’s YouTube channel, and as the bloopers show, they still couldn’t make it through without breaking.
“Whisper to a Scream” (Season 3, Episode 8)
After reading the script, Farber knew that Ellie cutting herself to cope with her alcoholic mom was going to connect with people. But “the weight of it scared me a little,” she admits. The director gave her “a VHS with a taped documentary or some news segment on self-mutilation” as research, but a lot of her performance was instinctual. “I didn’t understand anxiety or depression,” she says, “but I related to Ellie’s bottled feelings.”
Following the episode’s 2003 airing, “kids would come up to me at Degrassi events and show me the scars on their arms as if to say, ‘I do that, too!’” Farber says. “But I didn’t cut myself in real life or struggle in that particular way, and I didn’t know how to respond.” Worse, she read an article shortly after the episode aired about a group of teen girls who admitted they started cutting themselves because of the show. “I cried a lot. I felt responsible,” she says. “It taught me early in my career how powerful TV can be, as well as how dangerous when it’s content for children.”
“Accidents Will Happen” (Season 3, Episodes 14 & 15)
In 2004, the episode in which 14-year-old Manny Santos (Cassie Steele) chooses to get an abortion aired in Canada. It didn’t run in the U.S. for another two years. “There was all this whispering about fans trying to get access to it,” Lewis says. “And this was early internet days.” (When the season three DVD boxed set was released in the U.S. in 2006, it was advertised as “The Episode You Can’t See on TV.”) For Collins, whose Paige becomes a trusted confidante to Manny in the episode, it was a shock “to go through all the approvals in Canada and know it still couldn’t air in the States. It really says a lot about the time.” It also says a lot about Degrassi, which Stefan Brogren points out has a legacy of covering abortion.
Degrassi High first depicted it in a 1989 episode, which was edited in the U.S. to exclude shots of anti-abortion protesters outside the clinic. Netflix’s Degrassi: The Next Class pushed the subject even further in a 2017 episode, in which viewers see 16-year-old Lola (Amanda Arcuri) undergo the procedure. “To go into the room with a girl who’s ready to get an abortion,” he says, “you don’t get there without the Manny story.”
In “Accidents Will Happen,” Manny must contend with those who are unsupportive of her choice, including her BFF Emma, whose mom, Spike, made the decision to keep her baby in the Degrassi High episode “It’s Late.” (That baby turns out to be Emma, FYI.) “Being the child of a teen mom, Emma’s passionate views come from a sincere place,” McDonald says. Yet it’s Emma, not Manny, who changes her mind on the subject, something that still stands out to McDonald. Abortion is “a topic that is often only whispered about,” she says, but Manny is given agency to make the decision she sees fit. “Hopefully, the episode made people feel less alone.”
“Take On Me” (Season 3, Episode 16)
Degrassi’s homage to The Breakfast Club was “an unlikely mix of cast members thrown together in an empty school,” Farber says. “And we loved every minute of shooting.” The bottle episode set Ellie, Sean, Jimmy, Hazel, and Toby in detention for various indiscretions, including cheating, cursing at the principal, and surfing the web for porn. It was all very 2004.
Goldstein thought it “felt sort of like doing a play, in a way.” Clark felt like he was actually in detention. “Even the studio was quieter,” he says. “It was just a different vibe.” Farber remembers laughing all the way through the shoot. “Aubrey was the funniest person I knew — he’s still one of the funniest people I know,” she says. “Whenever we had scenes together, we’d crack each other up.”
“Rock and Roll High School” (Season 3, Episode 18)
This Battle of the Bands episode focuses on Craig trying to make things right with his ex Ashley Kerwin (Melissa McIntyre) through song. At the time, all Epstein wanted to do was play music. “Every lunch time I would jam with some of the crew members,” he says. Knowing that, the show’s music supervisor let him write the music for his onscreen garage band Downtown Sasquatch. He ended up singing and playing the bass and guitar on Craig’s big pop-punk apology. “Everything about this episode was kind of a dream come true for me,” Epstein says. Even the fact that Craig doesn’t get the girl in the end.
At the time, “my feelings were that Craig needed to be alone,” he says. “He needed to maybe take a second to sort of find himself.” Still, that song only made fans fall harder for the serial dater, which Collins chalks up to Epstein’s onscreen charm. “Jake was like a brother to us, but Stacey [Farber] and I used to always joke that we had this huge crush on Craig,” she says. “He was such a total heartthrob.”
“Time Stands Still” (Season 4, Episodes 7 & 8)
For the cast, the two-parter in which Jimmy is shot and later paralyzed felt like a turning point for the series. Five years after the Columbine shooting, the writers weren’t looking to glorify the tragedy, but instead depict the devastating effects this type of event has on everyone involved. Farber admits that, at the time, the episode “seemed really dramatic to me. Farfetched, even. It’s astonishing and so horrific how that’s changed. It was ahead of its time, sadly.”
While filming, no one actually knew if Jimmy was going to survive. “It was very Game of Thrones,” Epstein says. “Where we were like, No one is safe. We could go at any minute.” And the stakes of the episode felt very real for the actors; there were police cruisers parked outside and men walking the halls with prop machine guns. “It felt very much like being a student at a school when you hear about something horrific and your friends are involved,” Epstein says. “You’re just scared and waiting to hear what’s going to happen.” When the creators showed the cast the episodes at a special screening, “we were all in tears,” Collins says. Even now, thinking back to the moment in which Jimmy is shot, “I can hear it,” she says. “I haven’t seen that moment in probably 15 years, but I can hear him screaming out in the hallway.”
“The Bitterest Pill” (Season 6, Episode 12)
J.T.’s stabbing death in the previous episode “Rock This Town” was a real shocker for fans. Losing such an innocent character “showed how fragile life was,” Daniel Clark says. “Teenagers think they’re invincible, but that moment showed us all we were not.” Jake Goldsbie is partial to the episode in which Degrassi says its final good-bye to their friend, even though he admits it was a bizarre experience. “It looked like a funeral for Ryan,” he says. “There was a coffin on set with his picture, it was just odd.”
What else was odd was that kiss between Toby and J.T.’s ex-girlfriend Liberty Van Zandt (Sarah Barrable-Tishauer), which has long drawn the ire of fans. “I think that sort of means it worked, right?” Goldsbie says. “I’ll admit that at the time, I was like, What? Now, I can see how two people in that situation could be overtaken by emotions. It’s not supposed to make sense.”
“Death or Glory” (Season 7, Episodes 5 & 6)
When Spinner was diagnosed with testicular cancer, Kippel wanted to get his performance right, so he went on a “YouTube deep dive” looking for testimonials from teenage cancer survivors. No easy feat being that this was 2008, the early days of YouTube — the same year a little cover artist named Justin Bieber was discovered — but he wanted to make sure he perfected “how the pain registered on my face and where I was holding myself.” He also wanted to understand the psychological effects this would have on “someone like Spinner, who sees himself as a real manly man.”
After shaving his head for the episode, he also learned something new about himself. “Nothing is worth as much to your ego than someone saying, ‘The shape of your head is on point,’” he says of the compliments he got after his close shave. “It gives me hope, if I have to pull off the Jason Statham, I know that I’m going to be alright.”
“Degrassi Goes Hollywood” (Season 8, Episodes 19–22)
The four-part “Paradise City” episode, which aired as a two-hour movie in the U.S., features Manny heading to L.A. to become an actress and Ellie reuniting with her old unrequited crush, the newly Cali-based Craig. It was one of Brogren’s first episodes behind the camera, and it’s all thanks to Kevin Smith. The Jay and Silent Bob director, who was a frequent Degrassi guest star, was originally set to helm the TV movie but had to drop out “due to tax reasons. But he said, ‘I’ll come act in the show if Stefan Brogren directs,’” the man better known as Mr. Simpson says. “I thought it was a big old joke.” So did some fans. “Some kids love the episode, some kids think it’s not canon,” he says. “Oh, it’s canon. Sorry.”
The episode marked Dan Levy’s first acting gig, though the best bit of acting might be the moment in which Farber, as Ellie, attempts to drown herself in the Pacific Ocean only to be saved by her friends. In reality, it was “water that was up to my knees,” she says of the now-infamous scene. “We were losing light or our beach permit, and we only had two sets of my costume, so we had to cut corners and rush it.”
Drake’s “I’m Upset” video (2018)
Filming the Drake video felt like a bizarre high-school reunion. “We were back on the same set, in the same studio, eating lunch on the same cafeteria set,” Goldsbie says. “It was so weird, but good weird.” “We basically got drunk and danced in our high-school gym,” Collins adds, though she says it was “really sweet to see how nervous Aubrey was, just wanting to make sure everyone felt comfortable. I think he knew that it was going to be a real mix of emotions for everyone coming back.”
Since McDonald actually went to high school with the rapper, it was a nostalgia trip back to those teen years when “Aubs,” as she knew him, “had those high-school teachers wrapped around his little finger in the best way possible. Some of his skits in French class had the teacher and class literally howling with laughter,” she says. “He loved making people laugh.” For Kippel, it brought back memories of the two young guys working out together. “He was coming to the gym with me back then, trying to develop his body,” he says. “I think we know who won that race.”
Back then, Kippel remembers Drake spending long nights in the recording studio and filming Degrassi during the day. (Drake claimed he was “kicked off” Degrassi for this reason.) “He would talk about his fears of it not working out. He didn’t know if being a B-class or C-class rapper would be enough for him,” he says. “It’s so cool to look back and know he didn’t really have to worry about that.”
Fans argue that the video isn’t canon due to the fact that school shooter Rick (Ephraim Ellis) is still alive or that Drake’s Jimmy is walking without his wheelchair. But miracles do happen, which is why Collins is happy to consider it Degrassi fact, even if it skews more toward fan fiction. “I show up in a Maybach,” she says. “Like, Hell yeah, Paige is living!”