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In these uncertain times, Degrassi is the ultimate comfort

Depression is exhausting. Thanks to reruns of the Canadian teen drama, I know I can make it through.

A group shot of the Degrassi: The Next Generation cast.
The Degrassi: The Next Generation cast.

I’ve been living alone in my New York apartment for the last month. It’s been great! No offense to my two roommates, whom I love dearly. But when they both ditched me to spend some time at their much larger, nicer, cheaper (a.k.a. free) parents’ homes, I felt a brief twinge of loneliness.

Geez, I thought, after I returned upstairs to my empty place after helping my roommate pack several weeks’ worth of luggage into her father’s car. What am I going to do all by myself every single freaking day?

And then I walked in, and I flopped on the couch, and the more pleasant reality sunk in: Everything that happened in my apartment was now in my control. I didn’t have to navigate the idiosyncrasies of my roommates’ schedules. There would be no mid-afternoon work or FaceTime calls in the living room, no awkward conversations about whose turn it is to use the TV. If I wanted to have a Zoom meeting, I could do so wherever I wanted, with or without headphones.

I stripped off my pants victoriously, cheering to my newfound solitude. I blasted the same song over and over, dancing and singing and happy and shirtless and pants-less. I played video games and watched 90 Day Fiancé late into the night. I ate Oreos for dinner and poured wine into a Pikachu glass.

On day one, my verdict on living the single life was clear: Hell yeah!

By day nine or so, I had to relitigate that decree. I lay on the couch, unshowered and exhausted, realizing I hadn’t spoken aloud to another human in hours. Playing the Stop Making Sense soundtrack on loop didn’t count as a conversation. I paused it, and I absorbed the silence that surrounded me. I felt bloated by it. And I felt lonely.

I’ve only lived alone once before, in college, when I had a single dorm room senior year. I lived next door to one best friend and a floor above two others, so I didn’t have to be alone if I didn’t want to. But oftentimes I was, procrastinating for hours on my thesis. The silence was crushing, even with music playing constantly. The paradox was that to focus, I needed to be surrounded by others, or by the bustle of life that existed without me having to make it so.

It was during that senior year of college that I first got back into Degrassi. The Canadian teen drama franchise has been running since the late 1980s, but the version most American 20-somethings know is Degrassi: The Next Generation. It aired for 14 seasons with nearly 400 episodes on the teen-focused Nickelodeon spinoff channel The N between 2001 and 2015 — and, over that period, introduced different Canadian teens and their wildly stressful teen dramas to get obsessed with.

I’d starting watching Degrassi back in my preteen days, at what might have been the height of its US popularity. This was back when the idea of abortion was still so taboo in pop culture that an episode where 15-year-old Manny (my best girl) decides to get one wasn’t aired in the US when it was first released. Teen shows weren’t exactly quaint at the time; The OC and One Tree Hill contained tons of sex and didn’t shy away from big or complicated topics. But Degrassi’s takes always felt authentic, not jarring. The Degrassi teens’ problems with relationships, gossip, drugs, death, body image issues, and garage band setlists were never so outrageous that I couldn’t imagine them happening in my hometown.

The show combined over-the-top melodrama with an authenticity rare on American TV. New actors usually joined the cast when they were about 15 years old — the same age as the high school freshmen they’d be playing when they debuted. They’d age alongside with their characters, playing them until they graduated high school, or even until they were well into college, before eventually leaving the show. Meanwhile, many of Degrassi’s adult characters had previously appeared as teens on the franchise’s older series, which established an extremely rich canon. (Emma, Next Generation’s first true “protagonist,” was the baby that teen mom Spike gave birth to at the end of the Degrassi High in 1991, in fact; on Next Generation, Spike was played by the same actress who had played her as a teen.)

I fell into the depths of this Canadian soap opera as a tween who lived vicariously through other people my age. I was deeply shy, unfashionable, and far more interested in video games and indie music than high school gossip and romance. Thank you, Degrassi, for letting me experience what that kind of more social, less self-conscious teenage-dom was like.

So when I returned to the show 10 years later as a senior in college, Degrassi was reabsorbing in my isolation. I streamed it every night for several weeks, letting it play on my little TV as I crawled into bed at 3 am. I’d eaten all my dinners alone in my room for days, and my friends were hung up in their own theses and exams. But at least I was keeping up with Ashley and Jimmy’s torrid relationship, Spinner’s cancer diagnosis, and Liberty’s pregnancy saga.

For the most part, I’ve avoided sustained loneliness since I finished college and started working. These last six months have been a stark change.

I sit far away from people at the park to avoid their breath when they have conversations with their friends. I miss listening in to their drama, and I miss petting their dogs. These are the kinds of background noises and unpredictable moments that comfort me during periods of depression, loneliness, and self-loathing.

Now, between working from my cramped apartment and not being able to see people in groups, having friends leave the city for home, and lacking places to spend my free time, I’ve felt completely out of control. I sometimes feel so alone that I cry uncontrollably, or I sleep for hours on end, or I forget to eat because I’m so anxious and worried about how much longer I can take all of this. The summer was rough enough; what will the fall be like? And the winter? What happens if one of my closest friends moves out of the city, like he’s been thinking about since the pandemic began? What happens if another best friend doesn’t come back from her parents’ house in a literal different country?

What happens if I can’t stand it, being alone like this, being uncomfortable like this, being so bored like this?

Well, there’s always Degrassi. Upon a friend’s recommendation not long into my experience of living solo, I downloaded the free Pluto TV app (which works on your browser, too). It’s been around for a few years, but he’d only discovered it when he hit peak pandemic boredom. Much like traditional cable TV, there are tons of channels with 24/7 programming, a real throwback that eliminates the specific choices required of streaming. And the only thing you can choose is what channel to watch — the specific programming that’s on is at Pluto’s discretion. There’s a channel that exclusively plays old clips of The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. There’s a channel that plays footage of popular new video games all day. There’s a channel that only plays episodes of Survivor. There are channels about cars, interior design, and Black Lives Matter-related news. There’s a channel that airs a variety of classic Nickelodeon shows, a personal fave.

There’s also a Degrassi channel that plays Degrassi: The Next Generation all day long. That is its only programming. It’s the best thing that’s maybe ever happened to me — I’ve now fallen deep into this preprogrammed rabbit hole, letting Pluto TV take me to all the different parts of the Degrassi kids’ high school years. As far as I can tell, the channel is working through every episode in order, but since I’m not awake 24/7, there’s plenty I miss out on. But I know the show will eventually come back to where I left off, and watching it always rekindles different memories. I’d totally forgotten about the Paige-Spinner-Terri love triangle! And oh, my god, wait, yes, now I remember: Sean came back from the Army for a minute, prompting Emma to take her top off in front of the whole school to prove to him she’s grown up! Did I totally skip past the “Degrassi Goes Hollywood” story arc the first time around? And wow, I definitely still have a crush on the deeply troubled Craig. (Obviously I could never forget baby Drake, a.k.a. Jimmy, who spends half the show in a wheelchair.)

These are the lives that I have once again gotten wrapped up in while my own has felt unstable and uninteresting and unfulfilling. Part of it is the familiarity, the comfort of already knowing the Degrassi cast and the show’s flaws. (How many kids have to die at a school that’s already had a shooting, a sex scandal, and rampant bullying for people to pull their kids out of it?) The later seasons of Next Generation, after the original teens move on, are definitely subpar. But the magic and novelty of all of these friends who grow up together is still entrancing. Degrassi doesn’t inspire me to reminisce about my high school days, since what happens on the show is so different from what I lived through. But I am eagerly obsessed with the daily lives of these characters all the same, as they’re far more engaging than my own.

And the Pluto TV concept has played a special part in rekindling my obsession. Much as old-school cable does, the Pluto TV platform prevents me from having direct control over what I’m watching. Once I switch on the Degrassi channel, that’s it: I have ceded any further decision-making in a way that feels relaxing, not overwhelming like the powerlessness I feel in the real world right now. There’s a channel guide on the app so I know what to anticipate. But it only tells me so much. I don’t have to sift through what I remember to be the “good” and the “bad” seasons. If I stumble upon an episode I’ve seen before and didn’t like or one I don’t care about at the moment, well, there’s some other channel playing something else I can watch in the meantime.

During times of overbearing sadness, I’ve often found it too difficult to think about precisely what to watch. Embracing the fact that I can’t do anything about most of the circumstances surrounding me is something I haven’t felt able to do during the pandemic. And if skipping out on the tedium of streaming decision-making also means I can engross myself in the melodramatic lives of Canadian teens to pass the time and find solitude, I’m extra willing to cede control.

My cable TV-like trip into suburban Ontario has been a mighty salve for my depressing, pandemic-induced indoors and socially distant lifestyle. My roommates will come back eventually, and I will probably yearn for the quiet again. But for now, in the halls of Degrassi, I feel less lonely.