Teen television was at its height in the early aughts. From Gossip Girl to The O.C., viewers became enamored with characters who navigated high school and their socialite milieu. But during this same time, another series emerged that stripped away the glossiness of such shows and confronted real-life, often taboo issues on a regular basis: Degrassi: The Next Generation.
The teen drama, which premiered October 14, 2001, on CTV, chronicled the everyday lives of the pre-teen and teen students at Degrassi Community School. Created by Yan Moore and Linda Schuyler, Degrassi: The Next Generation was a reboot of the 1989 Degrassi High series, which Schuyler created with Kit Hood. That meant some of the main characters of the new series were the kids of Degrassi High’s alumni. The Canadian series ran for 14 seasons before it concluded (the latest iteration, Degrassi: Next Class, aired from 2016 to 2019).
The authenticity and boundary-pushing storylines of Degrassi: The Next Generation resonated beyond its Canadian borders. It seemed like no topic was left untouched, as the show covered LGBTQ+ issues, abortion, school shootings, sex, mental health, rape, revenge porn, drugs, teen pregnancy, and many more. The show’s tagline—“It goes there”—was on the nose. The aforementioned themes were paired with a side of melodrama and tackled by average-looking kids—not the model-actor types seen on The CW—who could make them more relatable to young viewers. Degrassi: The Next Generation was so alluring because it didn’t avoid addressing hot-button issues—and it spoke, without condescension, to its teen audience.
In honor of the 20th anniversary of the first episode, we spoke to the cast and crew of the show.
Degrassi: The Next Generation could have been cast differently
Adamo Ruggiero, actor (“Marco”): I went in to audition for season two for Craig Manning (Jake Epstein), did not get that, didn’t hear from them for a while. Then they called me back. I was auditioning for this character, but his name wasn’t Marco at the time. I ended up getting that role, and the story that was told to me after the fact was that I wasn’t right for Craig, but they were really looking for a gay male character. It was something that the producer had always wanted to do in the original Degrassi.
Mike Lobel, actor (“Jay”): The casting was super untraditional for me. I went in for the role of Dylan, which is a very different character than Jay, and I did a callback for it. And then they booked me for Jay, which is very weird. I kind of always thought I was so off the mark that they saw me [as] an inverse character? But I’m happy that I got it.
Shane Kippel, actor (“Spinner”): The writers and producers at that point were looking for the actor to appear [and] really solidify the look of a role in their mind. And apparently when I walked in the door, they’re like, “That’s Spinner, we got him.”
Linda Schuyler, co-creator: One of the other guys was Jake Goldsbie. We really liked him, but we didn’t have a character for him. So, we created a brother for Ashley, which would be Toby Isaacs. We tended to try and find our core group, and then we would also find people who we really liked, and we would extend our universe out.
Aaron Martin, writer/showrunner: Aubrey [Graham], I think auditioned for Spinner, as well as Jimmy.
Miriam McDonald, actor (“Emma”): I only ever auditioned for Emma, and the audition process took nearly a year. I had no idea even who Spike was, so I think that maybe there was naivete to my performance that I brought that actually kind of worked in my favor because I was so inexperienced and coming at everything from a very, kind of childish perspective.
Stacey Farber, actor (“Ellie”): I’d been auditioning for a year or so before my Degrassi audition—maybe I missed the casting sessions for roles in the first season. Ellie was written as a confident, “punk” outcast, and the character description mentioned that she had some attitude, and so I wore my favorite jean jacket.
Lauren Collins, actor (“Paige”): Originally, I read for Paige, but they wanted me to come in for Paige and Ashley. Obviously, Aubrey was auditioning for Jimmy, and Jimmy and Ashley were a couple from the beginning of the show. So in our scene, we had to kiss in the audition room in front of Linda, Stephen, and Aaron.
Daniel Clark, actor (“Sean”): I remember one of my first auditions was actually for Jimmy. And within a few weeks, they brought me back in for Sean.
Playing Marco prompted Adamo Ruggiero to come out
Ruggiero: I was a closeted gay boy, and I found myself on the show, and my life went from zero to 100. I hadn’t really acted that much before. Suddenly, I was a character that was playing to all my deepest, darkest secrets, so there was a lot of negotiation of my coming out personally and a negotiation of my personally not being prepared to have those conversations because they were drawing to these pains in me. But in a way, I was forced to have those conversations, publicly and globally. That balance was ping-pong, like, “Who am I? Am I ready to reveal? I know that this character, whether I like it or not, is going to reveal it for me.”
Collins: I remember when Adamo came out to me, and it was after Marco came out. I can’t imagine the struggle and the turmoil that he’d been going through having to act out what he was about to experience in his own life. I think that’s what made the performance so moving.
Ruggiero: It was a time that was incredible, but also left some things in me that have taken me some years to negotiate, and I’m still negotiating. It was a coming-out experience that should not have been that public for me. However, there’s always a wonderful side. What Marco gave me is a community. In the promotion of the show, I connected with a queer world. He just busted open this door of a world that probably would have taken a lot longer to find.
Martin: I’m a gay man, so there’s a lot of autobiographical stuff in Marco. Marco’s early relationship with Ellie was pretty much me with every female friend I had in high school.
Farber: I went to sleepover camp for the first month of that summer break and made sure I had my first kiss there so that it wouldn’t be with Adamo on set in front of a crew. Our growing friendship off-set brought playfulness and humor and chemistry to our work together onscreen, and I’m proud of our portrayal of a relationship that was supportive and loving through Marco’s coming out.
McDonald: I really, really love [Marco’s] storyline, and I think that the Paige and Alex storyline was really interesting, too, because you didn’t really see it coming. I think that it was really good to show both versions [of queer storylines].
Collins: I believed in the love that Paige and Alex had, but I did have a hard time when they initially told me because Paige was completely boy-crazy. But it was just really ahead of its time. Paige didn’t believe in labels, and that was something that, at the time, felt new and different.
The season-three episode, “Accidents Happen, Part Two,” in which Manny (Cassie Steele) gets an abortion, became contraband for American teens
Kippel: Even though people are very polarized on the issue still of abortion, Degrassi was instrumental in paving the way to provide that forum for an issue [like that].
Shelley Scarrow, writer: We knew going into that issue, that episode was going to be a problem for the American standards and practices team. As a writer, I was super excited to write it, because you know that it’s kind of going to be a big deal. But I knew fairly quickly that it was never necessarily going to air in the United States.
McDonald: Because [Emma] was the result of teen pregnancy, she was very much anti-abortion. Her perspective was that if her mother had gone through with making the choice not to have the child, Emma wouldn’t be here.
Scarrow: I remember the first day the episode got shot [Cassie] coming on the monitor and going, “Holy fuck, she is so little.” And it just drives home, “Hey, sometimes 14-year-old girls have to have abortions.”
McDonald: My biggest memory was what Cassie was going through personally with the disappointment of finding out that [the episode] was banned. It’s such a controversial thing, and for a young teenager to shoulder that, it was a heavy weight for [Cassie]. But she did amazing with it obviously.
James Hurst, writer: We were hearing stories [that] if you had a friend in Canada, they’d tape it for you and send it to you. Kids on the playground were passing the tape around because if you were really into Degrassi, that was not only a huge episode in terms of the issue, but it was a huge episode in terms of the art.
“U Got The Look,” in which Manny arrives at school wearing a thong, was inspired by the way Cassie Steele herself was growing up
Hurst: We saw [Cassie] was blossoming, was expressing her sexuality, and I don’t mean that in any sort of creepy way. With a lot of characters, we pick up on something from them and we write about it. We wanted to have a conversation about the experience of a young woman coming into her sexuality.
McDonald: I think it became so iconic because there’s this image burned into people’s minds of an actual thong: There is a literal piece of fabric that can be associated with this episode. It symbolizes that transition from little girl to woman. From my recollection of being 13 or 14 years old, girls fall into one of two camps: They’re either sort of the “good girl,” which Emma represented for the early seasons [or] Manny’s “bad girl.” So many girls can relate to that feeling.
Ruggiero: My favorite line [was] when [Manny] came to school and didn’t have her thong. Emma was like, “So, you listened to the principal,” and she was like, “No, I’m not wearing any underwear.” It was fabulous.
McDonald: I mean, it’s a blue rhinestone thong. Who could forget that? You don’t see that every day, let alone on a teenage girl on a TV show.
Hurst: It was, in a way, a coming-out episode for Cassie Steele as an actor.
Degrassi: The Next Generation shot alternate versions of Paige’s rape scene in the season-two episode “Shout” for American networks
Scarrow: We knew we wanted to touch that issue of non-stranger rape. I had an experience quite similar to Paige’s at a party as a teenager. You would write these stories that were close to your heart.
Collins: I was 15 years old. I was very much a virgin and had not found myself in that situation, with a guy in my life. I had no point of comparison. It was not a comfortable situation to be doing it as Lauren.
Ruggiero: Lauren and I are close friends, and we were very close shooting the show. It was definitely an intense experience for her as a young person to negotiate that. Even filming it, I remember it being a challenge.
Collins: You’re seeing him on top of me and clothes are on. It wasn’t too revealing, but you start to see the struggle and you see Paige repeatedly saying no, and then the camera sort of drifts off to the window to the party below. We shot different versions, where it didn’t linger on us at all, where you really didn’t see any of the struggle, and that was because of the American network and what they would or wouldn’t be allowed to show.
Scarrow: It’s all credit to Lauren for having that depth as a performer to make the “mean girl” character take that emotional arc. But I do remember someone saying at the executive level that said the rape was going to humanize the character [of Paige], which, what the fuck?
In season four, there was a two-part school shooting storyline that left Jimmy paralyzed from the waist down. Aubrey Graham (a.k.a., Drake) allegedly did not want Jimmy to be in a wheelchair
Stephen Stohn, executive producer: We wanted to tell the story in a balanced way. We flew up Barbara Coloroso, who was from Littleton, Colorado and wrote the book The Bully, The Bullied, And The Bystander, which was all about the Columbine tragedy. Her main focus was on the bystanders. She felt that the guilty party in Columbine was the school administration and the entire atmosphere that allowed the bullying and the lack of respect to go on. We tried very much to incorporate that into those two episodes.
Hurst: I took Carrie, and [the movie Metal Skin] and put Jimmy in a wheelchair. I created this character called Rick. I was told that if you create a character, you get character royalty, so if you bring them back, you get extra money. So, my pitch was Rick comes back to school.
Brendon Yorke, writer: We wanted to show how bullying in particular can create the conditions where it becomes a recourse for someone who is a victim of that. We tried to do it in a way that showed you where everybody was coming from in terms of who were the victims and who were the bullies, and ultimately the bullies became the victims.
McDonald: I don’t know its meaning, but to tell the stories from the character’s point of view who was actually the one doing the shooting is incredibly brave, because nobody wants to make that character someone who they can sympathize with. And yet we showed how he was bullied and that was part of what led him to take that type of action.
Lobel: That episode was really intense, and we all knew when we were making that how difficult it was going to be for people to watch. At the time, this crisis with gun violence entering schools was totally new. It was almost like nobody wanted to even confront that issue, and I do remember them not airing it in the U.S. after we had aired it in Canada.
Kippel: We had all of these prop police cars and officers and quasi-soldiers walking around with semi-automatic machine guns—that were all props—in our parking lots and walking around the hallways of the school. It was very chilling, even though we knew it was in a controlled environment.
McDonald: They needed to have a “gun wrangler” on set to show everybody it’s not loaded, it’s not real. It was genuinely terrifying when I did have it pointed at me. I think everybody’s heart was a little bit broken every minute of filming that episode.
Clark: This was a very heavy topic to address, and they wouldn’t even let us see Jimmy get shot. They wanted to keep everyone in character as if the school shooting was real.
Collins: I think [Aubrey] struggled, just physically with having to all of a sudden do everything confined to a chair. That was really hard for him. I definitely have a few memories of him toppling the chair over and falling off of makeshift ramps that they’d constructed for him.
Kippel: [There’s] the apprehension of having your character confined to a wheelchair, or even not really feeling like it’s right to be portraying someone who is confined to a wheelchair if you’re fully abled yourself. But that pertains to [Aubrey] and how he felt with that.
Collins: I don’t want to speak for anyone, but I think [Aubrey] probably struggled with the idea that he was one of two Black characters on the show, and that he was the one who was winding up shot and in a wheelchair, which obviously is part of a much larger conversation.
Stefan Brogren, actor/director (“Snake”): There was always a conversation: “Is there a surgery that Jimmy can have? Can we somehow get him out of this?” The idea was played with a lot. In the end, we started having him getting up on his feet and walking with crutches.
Hurst: There was a letter from a law firm in Toronto, and it was from Aubrey. It was an odd letter that said, “Aubrey Graham will not return to Degrassi season six as Jimmy Brooks unless his injury is healed, and he’s out of the wheelchair.” I said, “Get him down here.” He came in and was like, “What letter? I don’t know about that.” And I said, “All right, I understand. But how do you feel about the wheelchair?” He’s like, “All my friends in the rap game say I’m soft because I’m in a wheelchair.” And I said, “Well, tell your friends in the rap game that you got shot. How much harder can you get? You got shot, and you’re in a wheelchair.” He was like, “Yeah, yeah.” He was so nice and apologetic about everything. He instantly backed down. I was very passionate about it, and I said, “Aubrey, there’s some kid somewhere in a wheelchair, who’s completely ignored, who’s never on television, never gets represented.” I need you to represent this person. You’re the coolest kid on the show, and you can say there’s nothing wrong with being in a wheelchair.”
Farber: I took a large photograph from the production office—a still frame—of Rick pointing the gun at Jimmy with a row of lockers behind him. I had that on the wall in my apartment for a while. It was a conversation starter when people came over mainly because it’s a piece of art that features a young Drake.
Kevin Smith was supposed to direct the Degrassi Goes To Hollywood movie
Ruggiero: Kevin Smith grew up in the original Degrassi and had a major crush on Caitlin Ryan [Stacie Mistysyn].
Lobel: He wanted so badly to direct. He really championed the show. He wasn’t worried about “Oh, this isn’t my brand.” He really let his freak flag fly.
Ruggiero: He acted in the show, I think, because of funding in Canada. We had to have 100% Canadian production, so he couldn’t actually write or direct. So he just became a character for a while and had a love interest in Caitlin. Imagine having your childhood crush and then getting to play out a romance years later in the show. It’s just fabulous.
Brogren: I did the Degrassi Goes to Hollywood TV movie that some people either love or hate, but I was brought in [to direct] because Kevin Smith, who was going to be acting in the show in several episodes, said that he’d only do it if I’d direct it, which was an excellent bonus.
In season four’s “Secret, Part One” Emma (McDonald) performs oral sex on Jay (Lobel) at the ravine, and she gets a bracelet in exchange for it. Lobel still gets asked for “sex” bracelets
McDonald: [Mike and I] laughed about every single part of it, right down to the bracelets. It was so absurd that it was almost comical when we were filming it.
Lobel: There was a societal worry at the time about how laissez-faire young students in high school were [about] having oral sex. So, I remember it was a bit of a hot-button issue, and it was a little bit ripped from the headlines at the time. The bracelets that Jay gives his, I want to say “victims” for some reason, were being handed out in schools around North America. And parents were understandably worried.
McDonald: That was pretty mortifying to sit in the read-through and read that this is what I’m going to be portraying on TV. But I think it’s similar to the thong episode. It’s representative of a girl who wants to be seen as grown-up and mature and is very far from being ready.
Lobel: I have a lot of people just asking me for bracelets [still]. That’s funny, but also pretty dark humor. I’ve also had someone yell “gonorrhea” at me from across the street.
McDonald: I have a Cameo account, and I can’t even tell you how many people request to have me say something about going down to the ravine.
The plotline from season nine’s “Degrassi Takes Manhattan,” in which Spinner and Emma get married, still flummoxes the cast
Ruggiero: I think I can be honest. All of us were like, “Does this make any sense?” All of us were confused.
McDonald: I don’t think they should have gotten married. They probably ended up getting divorced.
Clark: I think Shawn would have been pissed or disappointed. He left, and it was just kind of open-ended what happened to his character.
Lobel: Someone needed to get married. It felt very like Friends.
McDonald: I think Sean and Emma should have ended up together somewhere down the line. I don’t know what motivated the writers to go there. It was a lot of fun, but definitely random. Sean and Emma should have been endgame, and Spinner and Emma are a totally random pairing.
Brogren: Being the director of it, I have to find the reason why I love them getting together. So, for a long time, I have fought to defend that relationship. I’m at a point where I give up because obviously Sean and Emma is a way more exciting story for them to get together in the end.
Music was a huge part of Degrassi: The Next Generation on and off screen
McDonald: There was a music world within the Degrassi music world. Many of the guys were actually in their own bands. I’ve been to a handful of Mike [Lobel], Jake [Epstein], and Shane [Kippel]’s shows. Cassie, I went through a whole bunch of her live shows in L.A.
Yorke: Melissa McIntyre [Ashley] could play piano, and Jake Epstein could play guitar, and they didn’t have to fake it necessarily. Shane actually learned how to play drums and still does play drums
Collins: I don’t know why everyone at Degrassi can play an instrument and sing, which I don’t do either of. It probably has to do with Stephen Stohn having a musical background, owning a record label and him wanting to sort of infuse that into the show.
Kippel: The first of the bands that I was in actually started on Degrassi as Stüdz. As I was on Degrassi, I was getting more serious about playing music as well, so a faithful coalition that was meant for onscreen but ended up spilling out into real life was the band Stüdz, with Ray Ablack [Sav], Dalmar Abuzeid [Danny], Jamie Johnston [Peter], and myself. We were having so much fun playing around on set, and we decided to start playing around off set. And then we formed my first very serious band called Soundspeed with those guys.
Brogren: [When] we wanted Jimmy to be interested in having a rap career, it was really important to Drake that Jimmy’s raps were not very good. Aubrey was the one who took charge of that and came up with Jimmy’s rap that he felt someone at Jimmy’s level would be doing. He didn’t want it to be Drake rapping. He wanted to be Jimmy rapping. I always found that so smart.
While Degrassi: The Next Generation often “went there,” there were still topics and themes that the cast and crew felt weren’t covered enough
Ruggiero: [Marco] was so pure. We missed opportunities to talk about gay sex, and queer sex and queer bodies. Marco is really kind of desexualized, and I think that was something that maybe networks weren’t ready for at the time. Once Marco came out, he always had a boyfriend. But in his relationships, there was nothing about the dynamics of gay sex and safe sex and the sexual culture as a young gay man.
Hurst: I don’t feel that we tackled racism. I don’t think we did a good job with it. I feel bad about that. I know we tried. There was an episode that explored Islamophobia, which was a really important issue post-9/11. But I think we failed on racism.
Ruggiero: Race wasn’t often spoken about. There was one episode with Hazel. Her character spoke about a violent experience that she had, and it was never super unpacked.
Collins: I definitely feel like there was zero diversity behind the scenes.
Scarrow: We definitely did not have enough people of color writing on the show. Being a child actor is actually a position of privilege because it takes a lot as a family to put forward your child’s acting career. Finding already experienced child actors of color was not easy. I know we let people down on that front. That was privilege showing.
McDonald: The thing that people really liked about the show was that there weren’t really lingering multi-episode storylines. But for me, because so many of the issues were so big, I wish that they actually could have given more time to some of the issues. With what’s happened in recent years regarding racism, that’s a really big opportunity where I think the show really could have explored it a lot more and on many different levels. But you never know, maybe they’ll make another incarnation of Degrassi where they can touch on some of the topics that they may have missed.
Schuyler: I don’t think we’ve not told things, but we sometimes haven’t told them quite as quickly as we wanted to because we tried to keep a balance in our stories. We’re not trying to just be sensational, we’re not trying to do it from the headline, but at the same time, we don’t want our stories to be dismissive.
Brogren: Did Degrassi try? I think we really tried. Could we have done better? Absolutely. But I also think that we are in a minority of shows that even care to try.
The cast believes the lasting legacy of Degrassi: The Next Generation is due to its forward-thinking, realistic storytelling
Martin: It’s one of the few teen shows that actually doesn’t talk down to teenagers. And so it’s exploring things that teenagers go through without imposing morals onto it.
Ruggiero: We were all cast age-appropriate. We all looked super real. I was no heartthrob, and the show talked about these things that kids are so curious about.
Collins: The kids were relatable in appearance and in what they were wearing. It was not about fantasy. We were not trying to create this fantasy that shows like Gossip Girl or The O.C. present.
Ruggiero: There was a campiness to the show. It was just overdramatic. But there was a bit of this, like, Canadian camp that can only exist in parts of Canadian television.
McDonald: There’s always going to be a demand for shows that aren’t so glossy and picture-perfect. That’s really where Degrassi thrives. We picked the stories that other shows didn’t want to talk about and the topics that people were either shy about or were too controversial.
Lobel: Degrassi has always been there, pushing the boundaries and having those conversations that young people just can’t have with their parents, and it’s the honesty in which it was portrayed. It was never sugar-coated.
Kippel: It was a place for kids who were growing up and actually living these experiences—or a version of them—to see that they weren’t alone.