Degrassi: Next Class will tackle racism issue
TORONTO — The “Degrassi” franchise is known for its topical storylines and the second season of “Next Class” kicking off Tuesday re-enforces that reputation.
As headlines swirl over police shootings of black men in the U.S., the season 2 arc of “Degrassi: Next Class” focuses on racism and a Black Lives Matter protest.
The storyline comes to a head in the franchise’s 500th episode, in which some “Degrassi” alumni (not Drake!) return for a 35th anniversary gala that’s disrupted by the protest.
“There’s a protest happening outside of the school and true to her ... nature, Emma wants to join in on that protest,” says Miriam McDonald, who starred as Emma Nelson on “Degrassi: The Next Generation” and returns for the 500th episode.
“I don’t think we’ve ever really covered racism in this way, especially because it’s not someone blatantly being racist because they know they’re being racist,” adds Sara Waisglass, who plays Frankie Hollingsworth, a politician’s daughter.
“My character just doesn’t understand that her act is racist and that’s, I think, a really cool way to tell a story — a villain who doesn’t know she’s a villain. She learns through her best friend, which is also so important, because it shows that whole putting-yourself-in-other-people’s-shoes (idea), which is also a main theme.”
Reiya Downs’s character, Shay Powers, is the one who helps Frankie realize her racist ways.
“I think that’s the way it usually is,” says Downs. “A lot of people have an idea that to be racist, you have to be this racist monster, but that doesn’t generally exist, like, someone who will just blatantly say racist things.
“Usually it’s more undercover and it’s just a bias the person has that they don’t really know about, but being open to learning about it is great and I think ‘Degrassi’ showed that really well.”
“Degrassi: Next Class” airs on Family Channel at 9:30 p.m. in Canada and streams on Netflix in the U.S. On Friday, the entire second season will also be available on the Family Channel app.
“I love being on Netflix. I think it is so cool,” says Waisglass. “My friends will be sending me Snapchats of them watching Netflix.”
The Netflix exposure south of the border has also caught the attention of stars including Jimmy Fallon, who mentioned “Degrassi” in his “Thank You Notes” segment.
“We were like, ‘Ugh, that’s us!’ and we were freaking out,” says Waisglass. “I’m a huge Jimmy Fallon fan, so I was dying.”
Other “Degrassi” alumni who return for the 500th episode include Jake Epstein, Shane Kippel and Lauren Collins.
“Five-hundred episodes of any show is completely unheard of, and particularly a show from Canada that revolves around teenagers,” says McDonald.
“It’s absolutely amazing that it’s had this longevity and at the same time when you watch the show, it’s easy to understand why.”
McDonald says it was like “a time warp” returning to the set, adding some of the new cast members were only born in 2001, when “The Next Generation” started.
“Of course I would consider coming back,” she says. “It does feel like a family. It was such a big part of my life ... All of my teenage years were spent on this set, all of my summers were spent shooting here, so it feels like a very familiar, homey sort of a place.”
“Degrassi: Next Class” cast members include Reiya Downs, left, Miriam McDonald and Sara Waisglass. The Season 2 première takes on the issue of racism.