Twenty years ago, Degrassi: The Next Generation made its television debut and quite literally influenced a whole new generation. A continuation of the ‘80s hit show, Degrassi Junior High, the Degrassi franchise changed the game for teen dramas as we followed an entire Canadian community from adolescence to adulthood — and then followed their kids.
I grew up alongside The Next Generation cast, and it feels like a true high school reunion to look back on my memories of that show: Manny’s glow-up with a cultural reset, JT’s death breaking my heart in two, the school shooting changed Degrassi history forever.
In anticipation of the 20th anniversary, I got a chance to speak with Jake Epstein, known for playing Craig Manning on the show. Craig came in at the start of the second season with a monumental two episode premiere arc introducing him as the stepson of Degrassi staple Joey Jeremiah, played by Pat Mastroianni. Over the course of the series, he deals with a litany of ups and downs, from an abusive father to bipolar disorder, a budding music career to drug addiction, and, of course, a love triangle for the ages.
“It’s interesting… I had a conversation with Lauren Collins, who played Paige, and we were talking about the storylines that may not have aged as well if they were happening today. You know, I wonder sort of after the Me Too movement, this awareness of the behavior of men... how that would have played with Craig’s storyline if that had happened today… because he was a pretty toxic character,” Epstein shared with me in an interview on Pop Culture Planet. “I was obviously very protective of him because it was an extension of me.”
Ashley, Manny,Ellie… who would end up with Craig? In one of his controversial arcs, we see Craig cheating on Ashley with Manny, resulting in her pregnancy, and, as it turns out, Jake Epstein wasn’t a big fan of that storyline either.
“I had a lot of issue with that cheating storyline. I really, I didn’t like it,” he shared. “I remember talking to the producers and saying, ‘I don’t like this. I don’t want to do this.’ Because I felt like, up until that point, I really believed everything that Craig did. I believed it because it’s stuff that I would have done. I could’ve made those choices. I really felt uncomfortable with the cheating storyline. The producer essentially said ‘Tough shit,’ you know? ‘That’s the role you’re hired to play.’ And I would fight it on set. I remember Linda [Schuyler] called me into her office to say this was the one time she didn’t like my performance because I was resisting some of those cheating scenes.”
Epstein opened up about how he tried to make Craig more redeemable in that storyline, but it was hard: “I was trying to make it believable so that we understood why someone would cheat. And Linda would say, ‘Craig’s being an asshole. So you need to just play that.’ And I found that difficult because that seemed so simplistic at the time. But I wonder if those storylines happened today… I think it wouldn’t have come across as very nice. Not that it did back then, but I don’t know how that storyline would have aged today.”
Despite the pushback on that story arc, Epstein had nothing but wonderful things to say about his former on-screen love interests. “In terms of those three young women that Craig had relationships with, I think it made a lot of sense why he was attracted and was good friends with all of them, and those were some of the best scenes,” he said. “The scenes with Cassie [Steele], scenes with Melissa [McIntyre] with the bipolar storyline, and then in the TV movie we did, Degrassi Goes Hollywood, I loved that storyline with Stacy [Farber] who plays Ellie. Even though they don’t really end up together, but... they sort of do, kind of. They were just all really great to work with. I was pretty lucky to have them as scene partners.”