I may have neglected to mention the last time that I covered anything regarding Degrassi, which was about a year and a half ago, that I initially missed the finale of Degrassi Junior High. For years, I knew that in the final episode of that season–“Bye Bye Junior High”–the school caught on fire during a dance, but I never actually saw the episode until someone sent me a video tape full of Degrassi episodes sometime in the early 2000s. So back in 1990, I had no idea what happened and really no sense of the show’s continuity. Sure, I knew who the characters were, but if a random DJH episode came on, I really couldn’t tell you what season it was from.
That changed when I tuned into watch Degrassi one day and saw a new title sequence, one for Degrassi High. The characters were the same (for the most part) but they were older and at a new school. The whole thing would end just like DJH had–with a dance after everyone learned the school was about to close–but that’s a few years off. The episode that started DH was a two-parter, “A New Start.”
One of the things that can be the most heavy-handed part of old episodes of Degrassi is its educational aspects. There was, to some degree, a mandate that the show had to teach and sometimes that issue was handled in an “issue of the day” sort of way. That kind of happens in “A New Start,” even though the episode does its best to toe the line between a solid piece of teen drama and a very special episode.
While the cast is forced to adjust to its new surroundings and we get some great subplots, involving Joey, Wheels, and Snake getting hazed by older students, including Duane (who would become a key character later in the show’s run) as well as the introduction of new characters like Claude (more about him in future episodes), this one revolved around the twins: Heather and Erica. It seems that over the summer, they held the time-honored teen jobs of camp counselors and while working at the camp, Erica met and lost her virginity to one of the other counselors, a guy named Jason. It wasn’t out of character completely–Erica was always more boy-crazy than Heather–but the complication that arose was that by the end of the first part of “A New Start,” Erica discovers that she’s pregnant.
So begins a story that even today would be considered controversial: Erica gets an abortion. Most of the second part is devoted to her contemplating the abortion, seeking counseling, and arguing with her sister, and it ends with the two of them walking either up to or into the abortion clinic, depending on what version you saw. It’s a tough topic to approach and the writers do this deftly, as do the actresses.
One of the most important things to point out about Heather and Erica, which is highlighted in a pretty forced class discussion about abortion, is that the girls are a part of a very conservative Christian family, so when Erica brings up the topic as a way of working through her feelings (like I said, it comes off as a little forced) and gets a discussion going that properly highlights multiple sides of the issue. When Erica openly wonders if it could be the right choice for someone, Heather gets visibly upset and talks about how babies die every day in the “killing centers.”
Looking back at it, twenty-five years later with the perspective of someone who now has well-established views on the issue, this discussion and some of what Heather says comes off as almost satirical; however, when I was thirteen years old, I really didn’t know what an abortion was aside from it being an issue I heard about on the news. “A New Start” made an attempt at presenting abortion in a way that was straightforward, and Heather’s inner conflict is well done, too. Erica wants her support and Heather is so anti-abortion that she doesn’t know if she will give it, but eventually she puts her love for her sister above her political ideals and walks with her when she goes to the clinic.
That last scene, by the way, caused a controversy, at least among those who were aware of it back in 1990. The episode originally ends with Heather and Erica making their way through a crowd of anti-abortion protesters and freeze frames on a woman holding a figurine of a fetus as they walk in the door. This was too much for PBS, who truncated the American version of the episodes by a few seconds and ended with a freeze-frame of their faces. The episode still aired, though, which is more than I can say for a similar episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation which aired in Canada but was initially not shown in the U.S. by the cable network The N (incidentally, neither was “A New Start” or a later episode that referenced the abortion).
I don’t know if this opener was a way for Degrassi High to make a statement that they weren’t going to shy away from heavier topics now that characters were older, but it certainly gripped me and up until the show seemed to vanish from my television, I never missed an episode.
Both episodes can be found on YouTube …