Why Degrassi and Euphoria are driving teen dramas to the dark side

HBO’s award-winning series Euphoria began its new season last month with a storyline fans wouldn’t be surprised by: a violent grandmother, aggressive drug dealers and a house party stacked with alcohol.

Written by Sam Levinson, who is also the show’s executive producer, Euphoria follows the story of 17-year-old Rue (played by Zendaya) struggling with an ongoing drug addiction while her classmates navigate love, friendships and trauma.

In January, on the premiere date of its second season, actor Zendaya posted a statement on her Instagram page reminding viewers the content was made for mature audiences.

“This season, maybe even more so than the last, is deeply emotional and deals with subject matter that can be triggering and difficult to watch,” she wrote.

“Please only watch it if you feel comfortable. Take care of yourself and know that either way you are still loved and I can still feel your support.”

Dark themes seem to be creeping into more shows about teens, experts say, with series such as the gossip girl reboot, Riverdale and 2017 Netflix series 13 Reasons Why tackling challenging topics, including drug abuse and suicide.

Levinson, who battled his own substance addiction, told reporters at the 2019 ATX Television Festival that he wouldn’t shy away from depicting addiction in a harsh way. He also talked about finding the balance of telling stories about teenagers and their sex lives without further fetishizing it.

“Any time you put anything on screen, it runs the risk of glamorizing it just by the sheer nature of it being on screen,” he said during the panel. “How do you portray drug use? How do you portray sex or sexuality in a way that feels authentic to being young?”

Regarding the show’s explicit sex scenes, he said the camera was often fixed on a single shot, rather than moving and capturing different angles, allowing for awkwardness and discomfort to “bleed in.”

In 2019, Deena ElGenaidi, a freelance arts and culture writer based in New York City, wrote a piece in Nylon about how teen TV in general was getting darker, reflecting what teenage life currently is like for some.

“Our lived reality currently has just gotten more serious, teenagers are dealing with so many more things today than teenagers were in the ’90s or 2000s,” she told CBC News.

WATCH | Netflix series tied to increase in youth suicides, according to international study:

ElGenaidi says teen shows she grew up with like the original gossip girl gold One Tree Hill were more in-touch with teens at that time as common storylines followed friendship, teen romances and bullying.

“TV shows have gotten darker to the point where sometimes they’re not very realistic. It’s a show outside of our lived reality and it becomes an escape,” she said.

Euphoria has had several controversial moments this year, including a pre-teen drug dealer enticing violence and Rue’s near-overdose after taking opioids.

Do teen dramas depict real life?

Ava Clark, an 18-year-old high school student from Toronto, says Euphoria is overly dramatic when it comes to reflecting generation Z.

Ava Clark, 18, said Euphoria is overly dramatic in its portrayal of contemporary teens and the issues they face. (Ava Clark)

“To think that everyone in the show is younger than me is crazy because, like, that never happened in high school,” she told CBC News in a Zoom interview.

“[The show] does a good job of reaching that audience, but not necessarily depicting what gen Z is actually like.”

But Sromni Kang, 16, sees the show’s storylines to be relatable and educational.

“It’s teaching [us] about drug addiction and all these issues teens go through,” she said via Zoom.

Kang said she would rather see the effects, even if they are intense, though she feels such content should come with trigger warnings.

“I would have never known how to deal with somebody going through that [drug addiction] and seeing it makes me less judgmental.”

Degrassi tackled dark themes in the ’80s and ’90s

For years, Canada’s Degrassi franchise aimed at balancing tough teenage issues with humor and charm. The series was groundbreaking for taking the risk of discussing topics that can be difficult for adolescents to discuss with parents.

Developed by Linda Schuyler and first airing in 1979 as The Kids of Degrassi Street, it generated popular spin-offs including Degrassi High, Degrassi: Next Generationn and Degrassi New Class.

The cast of Degrassi Junior High. In front, from left to right, are actors Michael Blake, Angela Deiseach, Irene Courakos and Stefan Brogren. In back, from left to right, are actors Amanda Cook, Maureen Deiseach, Bill Parrott, Cathy Keenan and Dayo Ade, (CBC Still Photo Collection)

The series was considered bold in the ’80s and ’90s for its ability to recognize and discuss tough themes for a teenage audience. One of the most notable storylines in Degrassi: Next Generationn focused on a character played by Toronto rapper Drake. His character, Jimmy Brooks, ended up in a wheelchair after being shot.

“I always like to feel that we were pushing it as far as we could for the times,” Schuyler told CBC News. “In the 1980s, you never would have thought of telling a gender-fluid story, but now, we could.”

WATCH | Degrassi cast needed an opportunity to start fresh:

In 2010, the show received the Peabody award for not sensationalizing or trivializing the first transgender male storyline in Season 10 titled “My Body Is A Cage we Degrassi: Next Generation.

“You need to acknowledge that there’s an issue, you need to talk about it openly and frankly, but not because you’re trying to be sensational. You’re trying to be honest and authentic,” Schuyler said.

The evolution of teen dramas

Modern teen series have always shared the same core teen narratives of their predecessors but now have the added narrative of social media in the plot, Schuyler says.

“But the key issues about acknowledging everybody’s differences and respecting and giving them an opportunity to feel they are not alone, that cuts through all the generations.”

Euphoria is one of the shows that demonstrates how teens are navigating the world, having grown up in a social media era. The show has grown immensely popular as Season 2 viewership has gone up nearly 100 per centaccording to Variety.

The show has been renewed for a third season.

Last month, HBO MAX also announced a new one hour Degrassi series coming in spring 2023.

Schuyler says she is excited for the new series and the 43 year legacy the Canadian drama series has created. She also suggests teen dramas don’t have to be too dark.

“I really think it’s important to not let the world implode and become too dark. That doesn’t mean I don’t take teen issues seriously. I take them very seriously, very respectfully, but I would just hate all the stories to be dark all the time.”

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