Degrassi: Next Class will tackle racism is­sue

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - VIC­TO­RIA AHEARN

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.”

ED­UARDO LIMA, THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

“Degrassi: Next Class” cast mem­bers in­clude Reiya Downs, left, Miriam McDon­ald and Sara Wais­glass. The Sea­son 2 pre­mière takes on the is­sue of racism.

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