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13 Reasons Why Exits Having Made Netflix and YA TV a Darker Place

How the controversial teen series redefined both its genre and its platform
  • A Season 3 promotional image for 13 Reasons Why. (Netflix)
    A Season 3 promotional image for 13 Reasons Why. (Netflix)

    Today Netflix drops the fourth and final season of its teen drama 13 Reasons Why. The series, based on the young adult novel of the same name by Jay Asher, and developed for TV by Brian Yorkey, made a splash when it premiered in March of 2017 with a controversial first season that took on the conceit that a high-school girl named Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) committed suicide and left behind a series of 13 audio cassettes explaining what led her to make that tragic choice. Four years later, the series wraps up having closed the book on Hannah's story and moved on to the classmates she left behind and the escalating series of life-or-death conflicts that have turned Liberty High into a remarkably violent and volatile microcosm of the issues facing teens today. 13 Reasons Why is poised to go out as a show that brought these issues front and center, while at the same time inciting a ton of criticism for the way it handled those same concerns. Moreover, 13 Reasons Why leaves having made Netflix and the young adult landscape significantly darker places.

    The setup of the thirteen audio cassettes in Season 1 made for a very TV-friendly presentation: Thirteen episodes, each focused on a different character (a template that was already working for Netflix's Orange Is the New Black), each episode filling in a piece of the puzzle. Of course, that puzzle itself was the suicide of a teenage girl, and the reasons why presented themselves as making the case for said suicide, so while the season as a whole addressed issues like rape culture and bullying head-on, that overarching premise reaped a whirlwind of controversy and criticism. The largest controversy involved concerns that the premise could send the wrong message about suicide, and there were reports that the teen suicide rate had indeed risen in the aftermath of the first season, although the causality of that has been debated. Netflix ultimately responded by adding bumpers with the cast and creators warning viewers of the potentially triggering subject matter, and directing anyone with suicidal thoughts to places where they could get help. The service also created after-show programming to help viewers, parents, and educators better deal with the implications of teens watching the show.

    Despite the controversy, which would recur to various degrees with the premiere of the second and third seasons, there was an earnestness to the way 13 Reasons Why went about tackling these issues. The show didn't cut away from Hannah's suicide, but it didn't glamorize it either. It was a harrowing, horrible moment, and after nearly a whole season of turning a young girl's suicide into a puzzle box, the series dealt with the act of it in a sober and unflinching way (before altering the scene in 2019). That certainly left plenty of room for debate about whether it was responsible to tell the story in the first place, but it at least gave an indication that the producers understood their responsibility.

    But perhaps the most consistent and on-target criticism one could lob at 13 Reasons Why over the years is that its commitment to running the gamut of every hot-button issue facing teens led it on a quest to increasingly up the ante in its depictions of shocking and traumatizing actions. There were the multiple rapes and sexual assaults committed by Bryce Walker, the school shooting that was aborted only at the last minute, and multiple savage beatings. The worst of them all was the violent sexual assault on Tyler Down (Devin Druid) by a handful of jocks at the end of Season 2. Again, the show took pains throughout the subsequent season to unpack the after-effects of such an assault, but it was hard to shake the idea that the assault happened in the first place as a plot device to move Tyler to where the story needed him to be for the finale (poised to shoot up a school dance).

    It's interesting that 13 Reasons Why premiered less than a year after Stranger Things. While Stranger Things presented a narrative centered on kids, the show itself was pitched straight to the nostalgic hearts of people who were kids in the 80s. It was a strategy that paid off in a big way, with Stranger Things becoming a summer sensation and pushing Netflix even higher up the TV mountaintop. 13 Reasons Why was never going to be as celebrated as Stranger Things, but it was a huge hit nonetheless — Netflix's biggest YA hit, to be sure. Its success pulled the tone of Netflix's teen-centered offerings away from nostalgic adventure and into something darker. We can see the fruits of that pivot in teen-focused shows with darker edges like Outer Banks and Elite.

    Meanwhile, the YA genre itself, which had spent the early part of the 2010s fighting dystopian battles in series like The Hunger Games and Divergent, before giving way to damsel-in-distress disease romances like The Fault in Our Stars, saw its biggest TV success with a show that dove headlong into the darkest recesses of teenage lives. Whatever you might feel about that legacy, it's a legacy.

    With its final episodes upon us, 13 Reasons Why gets a chance to end on its own terms. If its three previous seasons are any indication, those terms will likely be issue-oriented, uncompromising, and dark as hell. Its great success leaves Netflix with a YA legacy it can build on, but its long trail of controversy might make the platform act more carefully when dealing with this kind of dark subject matter again.

    The fourth and final season of 13 Reasons Why is now streaming on Netflix.

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    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: 13 Reasons Why, Netflix