A Very Special Episode of Degrassi tackles abortion

A Very Special Episode of Degrassi tackles abortion

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. Now through March: some of our favorite episodes of all time.

Degrassi: The Next Generation, “Accidents Will Happen (Part 1 and Part 2)” (season three, episodes 14-15; originally aired 1/26/2004 and 2/9/2004)

In which a baby cries during a gymnastics meet

(Available on Amazon Prime and Teen Nick.)

Pilot Viruet: It’s no surprise that Degrassi is my favorite teen drama of all time, right? I always have to clarify that I don’t just mean this in an ironic way, but that I sincerely enjoy the program and have watched the first few seasons more times than I should admit. It is the furthest thing from a perfect show and it tends to fuck up its storylines more often than not, but that is part of why I like it so much. It keeps trying. Degrassi has been on for so long (and in so many different forms) that it has to recycle basic plots. It works because it makes the show experiment with different outcomes—teens face pregnancy, sexual assault, mental illness, etc., but each character deals with it differently, just as actual people deal with the same things in different ways. They’ve had a few pregnancy episodes (Anya tricks her boyfriend and later takes Plan B; Liberty immediately opts for adoption; Jenna tries parenting for a while, but also goes with adoption; Mia is a pretty capable teen mother, but then jumps ship to The CW) but this one is the best, I think.

“Accidents Will Happen” isn’t the best episode of the show, but it is my favorite (or at least it’s tied; I wanted to spare you all from writing about a half-hour of Manny showing her thong). It was such a big deal when it happened—though it aired properly in Canada it didn’t come to America for a few years. It was actually released on DVD here before it ever aired—I remember it being marketed as some “too hot for TV” box set, which is probably not the right phrase for an abortion episode. There was all this mystery surrounding it; so obviously, it ended up being fairly tame. It was still relatively big for me, personally, because I’d spent my entire life in Catholic schools where nuns would only whisper the word “abortion” and ensured us that we would be damned to hell if we ever considered it. Now that I think about it, it’s hilariously absurd that the first time I saw abortion presented as something that wasn’t the worst thing in the world, I was nearly 18 and watching a Canadian teen drama.

Rewatching “Accidents Will Happen,” it all seems very laughable—as most Degrassi episodes do. I mean, the characters utter lines like, “I just did a front walkover that belongs in a horror movie,” and, “You’re about as edgy as a butter knife!” (Also, can we talk about how funny it is that Paige refers to Manny getting pregnant as a “loser-ish” move?) The episode strictly follows the “If a teen girl pukes in a school bathroom stall then she must be pregnant” rule. There is no subtlety: There is the overdramatic music, the sound of a baby crying as Manny screws up her routine, the scene with her trying to run away from this problem—literally!—but runs past a woman holding a baby. It’s unintentionally hilarious—and I love it.

For a Degrassi episode, there’s actually a lot happening. There’s the obvious abortion angle, which the show tackled in a nice way. Spike was predictably helpful (she had gotten pregnant in high school back in one of the older versions of the show) and Emma was predictably upset (she is the child that Spike could have aborted). It ties into Manny’s strict Filipino upbringing—she’s terrified of her father (and this is seasons before he gives her the “You’re a loose gal” speech) and worries that her family will send her away, but her mother accepts Manny’s decision. 

There’s also a lot happening with Craig. Craig is a favorite of mine—he’s a dreamy, leather-jacket wearing, music-obsessed kid who later develops a coke habit and opens for Taking Back Sunday. What’s not to love?—and he’s a total asshole to Manny in this episode. He’s a total asshole to girls in general; he begins hooking up with Manny while he’s still with Ashley. I’m glad Degrassi doesn’t go the expected route and have Craig immediately hate Manny or abandon her. Instead he goes full throttle in the opposite direction: he wants this kid, way more than she does, and he wants to have this ideal-but-impossible teen family. He has his own fucked-up family and his way of trying to reconcile that is to start anew. And there’s also the issue of mental illness that could factor into his wild reaction—it’s later revealed that he’s bipolar—but I’m hesitant to bring that into this storyline, because I doubt that Degrassi plans out their characters this much in advance.

But! Before I continue to spill more words on Degrassi than is acceptable, I really want to know what you guys think—especially if this is your first introduction to this weird, super Canadian world.

Sonia Saraiya: Oh wow, Pilot, it turns out Degrassi is everything I hoped it would be and more. (Holy crap, it’s Drake! And they really say “aboot”! I thought that was a myth about Canada. I was wrong.) This is my first introduction to the series, which has been on my list for a long time. Watching it now, I’m sad I missed out on this one when I was the same age as its characters. It would have meant a lot to me. I’m impressed with how self-assured the kids are, and at the same time irritated that I don’t expect maturity from all kids on television—in general, in American television, I think we sell kids short.

Primarily my takeaway from this episode is: “Oh, this is why they’re all so much happier in Canada!” Because although there are flaws with this episode, as you said, Pilot, I loved how eagerly and enthusiastically Degrassi works to make this a teachable moment. But it does so without getting sappy or moralistic. The only lesson of “Accidents Will Happen” is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to any complicated question, whether that is an unplanned pregnancy, or a crush at school, or fitting in.

Degrassi Community School also seems a lot more like the school I attended than most I see on television—with the possible exception of The O.C., but that is a different conversation—primarily because it was a nightmare trying to fit in, find friends, and figure life out, all while surviving grades, families, and sports teams. I tend to shy away from depictions of high school that don’t see it as a labyrinth of awfulness, because I just don’t recognize them at all. My So-Called Life is really important to me for being so unabashedly emo about high school, and a few of my favorite teen movies—Drive Me Crazy and 10 Things I Hate About You all treat high school as if it’s a complicated system of torture in which there are good guys, bad guys, and clear winners. (Is this the roundtable where we work through my feelings of inadequacy relating to high school? I GUESS SO!) 

Degrassi isn’t as nutty as I am, but still, it hits the right notes. I immediately liked its tone. It both does and doesn’t take high school seriously; Pilot, I laughed at the number of teen pregnancies that have apparently happened on this show. It does such a service to the characters and the audience by weighing “fitting in” and “getting knocked up” and “DJ Guns And Stuff” in the same episode. But it also has just enough distance that it can make these things feel silly—and, thankfully, manageable. Teen pregnancy isn’t fun and games, but with its hilarious jogging montage that is scored to a crying baby, it makes it something that is possible to laugh at, which is at least one step toward making anything teachable.

Lately, in my weekly reviews of The Following, I’ve been struggling with the idea of critiquing something that doesn’t have a clear moral center. This provides an interesting challenge, because Degrassi has a very firm moral center. On one hand, I am totally down with it, but on the other hand, I don’t want solely that to drive my critique of the show. Yet, it is a teen soap opera that is constructed almost entirely as a public service announcement. (Is this the roundtable where The A.V. Club turns into a mommy blog? I GUESS SO!)

David Sims: So, I started watching Degrassi about five years ago, and I made it through about four seasons before breaking and coming back to watch through season six or so. While I can never claim to be the kind of fan Pilot is, I fully understood the appeal she’s talking about. There’s something satisfying about a show that presents a HUGE, SHOCKING moral quandary or teen situation and resolves it within 22 minutes. I realize that this episode defies that trend by being stretched out to a double, but really it’s about two things: In the first, Manny learning she’s pregnant (and the importance of protected sex), and in the second, Manny deciding whether or not to get an abortion.

As Pilot points out, what’s funniest about this is that Degrassi is repeating its most famous storyline here—the pregnancy of character Spike from the ’80s edition of the show, which ties the two generations together through the character of Emma. I guess one question is whether the older edition could have ended so shockingly, and yet so matter-of-factly, with Manny making the choice of an abortion. Of course it’s somewhat depressing that such a thing would lead to the episode not being broadcast in America, but hey, I still applaud the show for making a storyline choice that doomed it to that fate.

Why is Degrassi good? Why did I willingly watch episode after episode even though it’s so cheesy in its straightforwardness, crammed with awful jokes and borderline acting (there are some good performers on this show, but others have an adorably amateurish style)? It’s the straight-ahead approach, the rigid formula, so infinitely adaptable. So many teen dramas beat around the same boring storylines over and over again, whereas Degrassi always throws down the marker in the first five minutes. This episode is about RACISM. This episode is about BULLYING. This episode is about BRINGING KNIVES TO SCHOOL. This episode is about PORN. Oh, a character you loved died tragically all of a sudden, with very little buildup? Well, that’s too bad. It was in the service of the story, of the message. Degrassi serves a higher purpose than your ’shipping or your love of thought-out plotting.

This episode is a fine example. Characters like Emma and Paige will start discoursing on whatever issue is in front of them with utter calm and rationality. The hilarious tampon talk at the beginning of the episode is all in service of the plot. It’s refreshing! There’s no subtlety, but there’s no need for subtlety! When Liberty has a crush on Sean, it’s obvious to blind cats in Saskatchewan. Everything’s very cause-and-effect, but the whole thing is somehow so charming in how it presents that.

Brandon Nowalk: I have sat through a couple Degrassi episodes at my friend’s house in the past decade—his younger sister was really into the show in these early seasons—so I was shocked and disappointed to recognize some of the characters. In fact, I think the aftermath of Manny’s abortion is the part of the series I had actually absorbed when I was younger and subsequently tried to block out. Pilot, where you see a lovable screw-up, I just see the screw-up, but that does make the strong moments stand out. It’s just, to me, your parenthetical primer on the pregnancies of Degrassi is way better than “Accidents Will Happen.”

I suspect I’m not the target audience, but I genuinely like Dawson’s Creek from Dawson’s first whine right through that last, cheerful shrug of a season, so I’m not necessarily too far gone for this earnest melodrama. That reminds me: Were the original Degrassi series this, well, I hesitate to say, “hyperliterate?” Because for every wooden non sequitur, like suddenly jumping from shaming Manny to “That’s a really cute color on you. What is it, hon, watermelon?” I could feel a Dawson-like grasp at wit that suggests Kevin Williamson’s influence, although I can’t for the life of me cite an example. None of the quotes I wrote down actually speak well of the show. For another contemporaneous comparison, when “Accidents Will Happen” first aired, The O.C. was smack in the middle of its Oliver phase, and still it’s more entertaining to me. Give me “Ryan, he’s got a gun!” over “You can’t [get an abortion]!” any day.

How self-serious of me to criticize an afterschool special for looking and feeling like an afterschool special, even if there are better ways to convey morals than this particular format. What really strikes me about “Accidents Will Happen” are the parts that grabbed me by the ears and made me pay attention. It takes Manny a whole episode to realize she’s pregnant, but when she finally spills the beans to the father, things start to get interesting. Then the episode is over. “Part Two” follows the same pattern—boring until abortion’s on the table, and then irresistible. The drama and the moral tale are actually interesting. The infomercial scenarios that make up most of the show are Robitussin.

Anyone else think of Becky’s abortion on Friday Night Lights? It’s partly the Texas setting that makes it so indelible for me. That scene where the doctor is required by state law to discuss with Becky the detailed development of her fetus before the young teenager can have an abortion is incredible. But really it’s the scene where she wrestles with the decision that I thought of watching Manny. Becky gets to me more, especially when she asks Tami if she thinks she’s going to hell and unflappable Tami immediately says no. But Manny’s scene was wrenching, too, a testament to the power of Degrassi’s earnestness. 

SS: Brandon, I see your point. This episode didn’t surprise me until the second half—up until then, it was a lot of moralistic clichés, even if those were delivered with the surprising gravitas of the Degrassi teenager. But when Craig is suddenly enthusiastic about being a father, I saw what might make Degrassi appealing even after high school—it’s committed to the characters being different, and though that sounds like lip service to diversity, it's also a compelling investment in character.

I came away from “Accidents Will Happen” far less interested in Manny and far more interested in Liberty, I have to admit. Not because Liberty is any more likable—she’s not, at all. But in her awkward posturing and misapplied sexuality she is both far too familiar and creepily fascinating, like a train wreck you can’t stop watching, I suppose. Going back to that investment in weird characters—Liberty isn’t a character you’d ever find on an American television show about teenagers. She’s not aspirational. She’s not hot. She doesn’t have a romantic, Hollywood-style addiction or predilection. She’s just weird and really confused about what being a person is about. Everyone thinks she is the worst, because she is the worst. Pilot, I know you don’t like her much—but I found her story in this episode about as compelling as Manny’s, even if it was far less developed.

But in all their cases, what I keep seeing are characters that both conform to certain identities and deviate entirely from others. The cast seems designed to be a sampling of the Canadian population; Manny is short for Manuella, because Manny is Filipina (and therefore has a Spanish name). She’s also an insecure gymnast who doesn’t seem to totally have a bead on what condoms do, which is fine, but hardly stereotypical.

I get very conflicted about my own desire to watch and champion shows that are deliberately diverse or representational—on one hand, it means a lot to me personally, but on the other hand, I see how striving in that direction can end up taking over the entirety of the show. Degrassi is sort of wonderful, in that it is actively trying to be the most socially just program it can be. But it’s also not artistic exactly. It’s not compelling and gorgeous. It’s so basic, the plotting and production style are right out of the soap-opera playbook.

As a critic, I guess I’m always wondering how to reconcile these two forces. It interested me to read that Degrassi was consistently very well viewed, as well as critically acclaimed; maybe there is a sweet spot here that television can achieve. What I’m trying to say is that Degrassi’s successes and failures have me wondering what makes a show “good.”

BN: Liberty brought me back to Teen Girl Squad: “I have a crush on every boy!” Sonia, I was interested to read how well reviewed it is too. I do not get it. The only rule for a show, as Degrassi might tell you, is to be true to yourself. As I hinted earlier, even if the goal is to promote certain morals, there are more effective ways to achieve that—let alone better acted, more dramatic, more stylish ones. The diversity is de facto interesting, but the same is true of Glee. That’s another show with a strong moral center—which is to say it loudly asserts the right thing to do each week and refuses to budge, whether you agree with its police work. Glee struggles with totally arbitrary plotting too. At first that’s what I thought was going on when Emma suddenly decided that she could disapprove of Manny, but nobody else could. Pilot explaining the backstory absolutely rescues that scene for me. Maybe there really are depths here that only reveal themselves over time. Maybe the accumulated history powers scenes, as it does on Glee.

I keep subconsciously trying to talk about anything but Degrassi, but if you’ll allow me one last comparison, between the totally distinct A/B structure and the ultra-sincere moral tales about “adult” issues, I couldn’t help but think of Undressed. But Undressed has a certain knowing quality. It’s not all-out ironic, but there’s a bit of a wink in its MTV cheese. Degrassi is so sincere that Mr. Raditch can talk about his special Saturday detention without a second thought. What’s off-putting about that is I seem to be watching an entire series compiled from PSAs, complete with its contrived situations, wooden performances, and advice. The format is all but telling me to narrow my eyes and keep my distance.

PV: What’s weird is that I don’t see Degrassi as a total PSA show, but that might be because I’ve seen every aired episode, right up to this week’s, and it loosens up as the series go on. Or it might be because this episode doesn’t play like the afterschool specials Im used to—they would have Manny die from the abortion or at least have a last minute change of heart, probably. Certainly compared to something like 7th Heaven, Degrassi doesn’t feel super moralistic to me. I guess this is a strange episode to argue this point on, but still, “Accidents Will Happen” is less “Here is why you shouldn’t have teen sex!” and more “Hey, some shit could happen, but you have options and you’ll be all right.” Then again, my biggest takeaway is Paige’s advice: “Ask questions first, get naked later.”

Anyway, to touch upon some of your points: I also felt the school was more familiar than the other teen dramas, but I don’t think it’s as hellish as those depictions. It’s a tamer version of hell. High school is hard, fucked-up, and confusing, but not the worst thing in your life (uh, unless you’re Jimmy or JT or anyone else who dies). The popular girls aren’t in their own stratosphere, nor are they so bitchy that they give me Nam flashbacks. They just serve their purpose and walk along.

Brandon, I loathe Dawsons Creek. It took itself way too seriously and had teens that don’t exist. That “hyperliterate” dialogue you mention is one of the reasons why I constantly rolled my eyes at that show—and I don't think that’s what’s happening in Degrassi. They have some weird, clumsy lines like the ones I’ve mentioned, but they’re so purposely terrible. Dawsons has their characters talk like adults who vomited up a thesaurus; Degrassi characters often sound like teen idiots, because most of them are teen idiots.

As for Liberty, she’s a character generally hated in the Degrassi universe, because she gets dealt some awful storylines and has this shitty, obnoxious, overbearing personality. I like the juxtaposition of plots here but ugh, I just can’t stand her. I can’t watch her embarrass herself in this without cringing and covering my eyes. It’s terrible, which is the point, but yikes. I should say that she is the valedictorian-obsessed aspirational overachiever character—which is what made her pregnancy more surprising than Manny’s (who, by the way, I would argue isn’t a screw-up at all, just a person who made a mistake, because of lack of knowledge related to age/upbringing/education)—and honestly, she’s kind of an asshole. But that’s definitely something interesting, how fluid these characters are and how they sometimes differ from week to week, because they’re all trying to figure out who they are.

When I visit my parents, I tend to watch hours of this show simply because they have Teen Nick and my mom always jokes that she can’t believe I write about TV but love something this shitty. And I get it, but I can’t quit Degrassi. I don’t think it’s all bad. I understand why it’s critically acclaimed. It has a strict formula, but it works. It knows when to get serious and when to make jokes (It’s earnest and sincere, but it’s also aware and sometimes self-conscious about this.), and how to balance the three stories in any given episode. And it was, for a long time, one of the few shows that teens could see themselves on—right down to how the low-budget earlier seasons forced the characters to dress like actual teens and not like, well, rich TV actors. It’s also a show that’s really in touch with its viewers. It loves the Internet. It knows what’s happening and it reflects it. Oh, Sonia, there is such beautiful low-key misandry happening in this current season! And there are episodes about slut shaming and sexist dress codes and a two-parter that mirrors Steubenville. I don’t know, man, but I could write an entire book about this show. I often joke that Degrassi is a show that everyone ends up loving after they sit through seven or eight seasons of it—so hey, let’s meet back at The Dot in a few months.

BN: I would so read that book.

DS: I agree with Pilot. It’s almost nonsensical to criticize this show. Degrassi cares not for your criticism. There’s work to be done. You can either get on board or go back to the States, you hoser. I would laugh, watching the early episodes, at how silly and didactic the show was. Then an episode would end and I’d mindlessly demand another. I don’t watch TV because I like how bad it is. I was enjoying the hell out of it. There’s just something so refreshing about a show that strips out anything that isn’t crucial to plotting, message, and forward momentum. Obviously, if everyone did it, television would be a hellscape. But watching Degrassi is like watching efficiency in action.

I know Pilot watches Kroll Show, so for Brandon and Sonia: Kroll Show’s spoof of Degrassi, “Wheels, Ontario,” is a high-school drama where everyone except one character is in wheelchairs. It brilliantly captures Degrassi’s aggressively thoughtful, inclusive tone. The characters are characters, and we have our favorites, but they are also cogs in a machine. I could never be totally mad at someone on Degrassi for doing something bad, because everything is in service of illustrating a point. 

One thing about Manny’s race, and how this show deals with race in general—like everything else on Degrassi, it’s not important unless it’s important for that episode. Like how Hazel’s just the bitchy cheerleader buddy to Paige, and then got a second season episode that was all about her Muslim heritage, her shame at being a Somali immigrant, her post-9/11 harassment at a different school, etc. And then it’s not really addressed again. I imagine that’s how Canada thinks about these things—everyone’s the same, unless someone wants to talk about their differences, in which case everyone’s happy to sit down and listen thoughtfully.

Next time: Now that we’ve finished up with “favorite episodes,” check back on April 17 for the first installment of the next theme: television we watched as kids. We’re kicking it off with some animated classics: a collection of Looney Tunes shorts.

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