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Degrassi: Next Class EP reflects on the show’s abortion episodes

‘The commonplace element of it still gives me chills,’ says Stephen Stohn, who also discusses the influence of American current events on the Netflix series

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Early in its run, the Degrassi franchise — which encompasses The Kids of Degrassi StreetDegrassi Junior High, Degrassi HighDegrassi: The Next Generation, and Degrassi — established itself as one that “went there” when it came to the latest issues affecting teens, like racism, homophobia, cancer, and even school shootings

The latest iteration of the show, Netflix’s Degrassi: Next Class, is following in its predecessors’ footsteps, touching on topics including gender identity (more specifically gender fluidity) and even Islamophobia and terrorism.

EW spoke to executive producer Stephen Stohn about whether the show’s move to Netflix (in the United States) has impacted its choice of themes and current events to tackle, what he’s learned about today’s teenagers after working on the show for more than a decade, and whether we might see the seasons expand to include more episodes.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The current seasons have been 10 episodes each. Is that a format you like, or are you thinking of adding more episodes?
STEPHEN STOHN: It’s not necessarily the number of episodes. Storytelling has really been evolving over the last few years, the whole concept of binge watching combined with not having commercials at least on the streaming services. And of course not having a set schedule or time for people to watch a show. They can watch at their leisure. We’ve been adapting to that. As we’re sitting back now and talking about the future, we’re asking that very question — Is it the number of episodes? Should we have longer episodes? How do we parcel the story out? How many characters should we be focusing on? What’s really going to make the most impact? That’s the kind of discussions we’re having internally. And we don’t have answers to that yet. My own personal thought is, I’d like to see the episodes run a little longer. I don’t know if Netflix would be into that.

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The show has always sort of “gone there” when it comes to hot-button issues. Since the move to Netflix, do you feel more freedom in the kinds of topics you can touch on, or has that not changed at all?
We’ve always been able to do it. But there’s always been push back from the broadcaster, particularly the American broadcaster. So we would just push the envelope to the extent we felt we needed to, and then we go a little further so then they push us back to where we always wanted to be in the first place. Now we really set the tone because Netflix gives us a great deal of artistic freedom, so we’re really pushing ourselves back and trying to just arrive at a story that’s authentic without being sensationalistic. So there is more freedom in that sense. Now over the past six months, the United States, in particular, is in a much more different place than it was earlier. There’s a lot of division in the country. And how do we approach that? There are a couple of different ways to approach it. One is to tackle that head on. Or do we pull back a bit and say, There’s so much fear going on in America that maybe we can focus more on some lighter stories? — especially since we’re going to have younger characters anyway since so many of our older ones have graduated. Maybe it’s the time to provide a little bit more of an alternative from the fear-based media that’s enveloping America.

Everyone knows the show is Canadian, but are you trying to fit that American sensibility?
Yes and no. We’re trying to fit the modern sensibility and in some ways, we think that being very specific, that we’re in Toronto and we’re telling individual stories from that point of view, if we can do it authentically then it allows us to be universal. I know that sounds weird. But rather than trying to say, “This is going on in Australia, and France and America, how do we adapt to everybody?” All we can do is be ourselves. And the more we are, the more it can appeal outside in America and beyond.

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Having worked on this show for so long, is there a trend you’re seeing in terms of issues that your younger actors seem concerned about or that they bring up?
To use an example of abortion, which will always, particularly in the United States, be an incredibly hot-button issue, and you can see a trend line there. Back in the Degrassi Junior High days when one of the twins got pregnant, we actually went to the steps of an abortion clinic, where they actually went up the stairs through a throng of people who were protesting, and we saw them just about to enter the clinic. It was very balanced storytelling because one of the twins was absolutely against the abortion, and the other decided to go through with it. And they were having this real debate amongst themselves, but as sisters, in the end, the one supported the other.

When we came back with The Next Generation, Manny had gotten pregnant, and again, it was a wonderful way to tell that story because Manny and her best friend Emma have that same sister-like conversation, and Emma is able to say, “If my mother had had an abortion, I wouldn’t be here.” You go through this very, very powerful response to what Manny is going through and we actually see Manny inside the clinic and making the decision to go forward. Her mother is there as well because she was supportive. And then last season we see Lola going through that decision. I’ve got a few favorite scenes, but right up there is Lola being inside, and us actually seeing the procedure. What is so striking about it is, it’s so commonplace. It’s like being in an office. You’ve got this bald doctor, and they’re having a little banter back and forth, and then it suddenly becomes very serious. And when Lola says, “Have you ever performed this procedure on a 16-year-old before?” And he says, “You’re not the first today.” The commonplace element of it still gives me chills.

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But that way that things progress, and they become more and more… authentic. Our society, with all the trouble we’re going through, that part of it is people are just being able to be more themselves.

We’re also sort of seeing that with how almost everyone just supports Yael’s coming out at genderfluid right away, but a few years ago, Adam had a really hard time coming out as transgender.
Yes. The writers go into the schools and talk with kids every year, and they went into the Muslim Student Associations in local Toronto just to find out what was happening and it really is the case that in high school [nowadays], people are supportive, and accepting. Of course, there will always be a group that is slower to accept, but we do live in much more open times. It’s a change that, to some sectors of the population, will take generations, but we’re definitely moving in that direction.

Degrassi: Next Class is currently available to stream on Netflix.