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‘13 Reasons Why’ Is a Huge Success, and an Even Bigger Source of Controversy

In the face of protests from parents and medical groups, the Netflix series just got renewed for a second season

(Netflix/Ringer illustration)
(Netflix/Ringer illustration)

Because it airs on the notoriously opaque Netflix, we’ll likely never know how many people actually watched 13 Reasons Why, the unflinching high school drama enumerating the events that led bright, sensitive high school student Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) to take her own life. But by every qualitative standard, 13 Reasons is a smash. In a sort of reverse baton passing, the cast presented an award at this weekend’s MTV Movie & TV Awards to the Stranger Things ensemble. More than a month after its premiere, the show is still very much in the cultural conversation. And in the ultimate act of validation for a piece of teen-targeted pop culture, the show also gave rise to a vindictive meme. The show was just renewed for a second season on the back of those successes.

But the renewal also comes on the heels of an overwhelming backlash to the show’s tone and message from varied parties like high schools, parents, and medical associations. With popularity comes scrutiny, and it turns out 13 Reasons Why has struggled to withstand the intensity that comes with being a phenomenon, let alone a phenomenon based on a subject as heavy and fraught as teen suicide.

Shortly after its release, 13 Reasons Why — a show about suicide marketed to minors — became a magnet for controversy. Last month, a handful of Canadian schools banned students from discussing the series on campus. New Zealand’s Office of Film and Literature Classification created a brand-new rating specifically for the show aimed at preventing minors from viewing it without adult supervision. (Netflix’s global availability means a show gets instant international distribution.) Many American schools have sent parents letters advising that they talk to their children about the show: “We suggest that you please take a moment to discuss with your child whether they have read the book [by Jay Asher, on which the show is based] or watched the series,” reads one missive sent to a Ringer staff member. “If your child is already watching … we strongly recommend that you view it with them and that you have supportive discussions about the content and your child’s personal reactions.”

The subtext of all these warnings and advisories is essentially that exposing kids to a narrative about self-harm — among other things, including rape, bullying, and substance use — is not something to be done lightly. 13 Reasons Why isn’t light, but it is surprisingly casual in how it filters Hannah’s struggles through the prism of more familiar and easily digestible tropes. Hannah relates her story from beyond the grave in the form of a set of cassette tapes circulated, according to her precise instructions, among the 13 people she blames for her death. This device occasions an uncomfortable genre mashup, establishing Hannah’s suicide as a mystery — a gamified treasure hunt that exists awkwardly alongside a heartfelt portrayal of teen angst, and even more awkwardly alongside the John Green–style romance that transpires between Hannah and Clay in flashbacks. The tapes also require the show to withhold crucial character information in the name of suspense, prioritizing plot over emotion on a show where the plot is meant to be in service of emotion.

The structure is also, in a way the show is never quite willing to admit, a fantasy, an idealized version of what might happen in the wake of your untimely death. The recordings Hannah left behind trigger a wave of guilt and introspection among those who wronged her, which is precisely what Hannah hoped they would do. It’s a scenario that plays into a classic adolescent dichotomy: between being overlooked and being seen, possibly because you’ve forced people to finally see you via the most drastic means you have at your disposal. Hannah’s tapes have, more or less, exactly their desired effect, and if 13 Reasons Why wants to present itself as realistic in its treatment of high school and suicidal tendencies, it’s also implying that the aftermath of Hannah’s death — more than a dozen people either being tortured or torturing themselves over the role they might have played — is realistic as well. It’s hard to imagine a worse potential takeaway.

The cast and creators of 13 Reasons Why clearly consider their show to be a thoughtful work rooted in empathy. Creator Brian Yorkey describes it as a show “about the way we raise boys up into men and the way we treat girls and women in our culture — and what we could do better in both cases.” When musician Will Toledo, who contributed to the soundtrack under the moniker Car Seat Headrest, tweeted, “I am obliged to tell you all that [the show’s] kind of fucked … Writers: please don’t tell kids how to turn their miserable and hopeless lives into a thrilling and cathartic suicide mission,” male lead Dylan Minnette, who plays Hannah’s erstwhile love interest Clay, responded, “I can assure you that everyone behind the show, including myself, have the best intentions in making it … I’ve talked to many teens who’ve shared the positive impact the show’s left on their lives and those around them.”

But others disagree, and strongly enough to think the show ought to be kept from impressionable young minds. The National Association of School Psychologists issued a set of guidelines specifically pegged to the show, cautioning, “We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series,” explaining, “Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies.” Justifying its decision in a statement, the New Zealand film office charged that 13 Reasons “does not follow international guidelines for responsible representations of suicide. … The show ignores the relationship between suicide and the mental illness that often accompanies it.” The show alludes to mental health only in passing and includes no substantive discussion of depression. Though it aims to promote awareness of teen suicide, 13 Reasons instead obscures one of its primary causes.

To assuage such concerns, Netflix resolved last week to insert additional content warnings into the show on top of the ones that already preface a handful of especially graphic episodes. “We would encourage any viewers or readers who have been affected by the content of this story to get in touch with Samaritans, who can listen and offer confidential support 24/7,” the opening card now reads. Subsequent cards now also include a link to 13reasonswhy.info, which provides the contact information of the Crisis Text Line and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

These are all worthwhile steps. Ultimately, though, they serve to underline the extent to which 13 Reasons Why and its home platform didn’t seem prepared for the fallout of their own success. 13 Reasons’ breakthrough is raising some tough questions about what it means to make entertainment out of suffering, and while supplemental warnings are a step in the right direction, they also don’t constitute a real answer. 13 Reasons Why has succeeded in spreading its message, but after a message has spread isn’t the best time to evaluate its contents. The show can’t adjust its more irresponsible assertions regarding suicide’s causes or impact. It can only try to mitigate them by tacking on context.

The second-season renewal only compounds the problem. That the show earned a second season at all is yet another example of 13 Reasons being blindsided by its own popularity. Netflix initially announced the show as a miniseries, and a seemingly finite premise (13 tapes, 13 episodes, a single novel) made another volume unlikely. But television is still as much a business as it is an art form, so Yorkey has promised that in lieu of the first season’s iconic tapes, “a different sort of analog technology” will help Hannah’s classmates continue to navigate both her absence and other goings-on at their high school. Whether it’ll be 8-tracks or CDs misses the point: The creators have established Hannah’s high school as a place so rife with drama that a fatal car accident is treated as an afterthought, and teenage mental health is more ignored than elucidated. The show will need to change more than the technology to fix the first season’s problems.

The show will also spin outward from Hannah, swapping her voice-over for a medley of other characters’ — meaning a chance to tell other stories with a greater awareness of how they’ll be perceived. A suicide attempt can be more than the cliff-hanger it was insultingly used as in Season 1; sexual assault, one of Yorkey’s stated priorities, can be a subject of its own rather than a late-season reveal. Both plotlines open a window for 13 Reasons Why to show its intent with storytelling and to incorporate criticisms of the first season, rather than struggle to clarify that intent with statements and interviews after it’s already streaming. And while a sudden change in approach may not be probable, it is possible. Perhaps knowing the show’s reach and influence in advance will help ground the decision-making in some necessary caution.