Netflix Counts the Reasons Teens Should Watch ‘13 Reasons Why’

Posted May 17, 2018 10:46 p.m. EDT

In the second episode of the new season of Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why,” high school student Courtney Crimsen publicly reveals that she is a lesbian. Wanting to be understanding, caring parents as the news ripples through town, her two fathers hold a family movie night. They flip through a stack of DVDs — all about lesbian relationships.

“Movies and shows are a wonderful way to open up a dialogue,” one of the dads says to the other, as Courtney sighs, annoyed.

If the show’s writers were aiming for coy self-reference, they achieved it. Far more overt is the opening of the first episode of the new season, which begins streaming on Friday at 3:01 a.m. Eastern Time. The show’s stars address the camera directly, out of character, and issue trigger warning after trigger warning. “By shedding a light on these difficult topics, we hope our show can help viewers start a conversation,” says Katherine Langford, after introducing herself as the actress who plays the character Hannah Baker, the teenager whose suicide is the centerpiece of the show’s storyline.

The first season of “13 Reasons Why” did spark its share of fraught discussions, much to the surprise of the producers and Netflix. Based on the 2007 novel, “Thirteen Reasons Why,” by Jay Asher, the first season of the show became a viral sensation among teenagers and young adults, inspiring memes, “promposals” and cassette-shaped slime. But it also alarmed parents, mental health care professionals and school administrators who worried that the show glamorized suicide without providing meaningful context or relevant information for young viewers.

“We knew when we were making Season 1 that we were telling a challenging and suspenseful story in a pretty unflinching way,” said Brian Yorkey, the playwright (“Next to Normal”) who adapted the book for Netflix and is the series’ showrunner. “We suspected that there would be some strong conversation. What we didn’t expect was the amount of the conversation.”

Yorkey and Netflix executives have spent the last year trying both to figure out the story line for a second season and how to get ahead of any blowback the show’s return could cause.

First, there was the creative question of where to take the characters now that the show’s original source material had been exhausted.

The first season faithfully followed the arc of the novel, organized around the 13 audiotapes. Hannah records a cassette for each high schooler she feels tormented her (and for one person she just wants to explain herself to), explaining why she feels their behavior contributed to her misery. For the new season, Yorkey settled on a court trial as the plot device. It is set into motion by Hannah’s mother, played by Kate Walsh, who sues the school for being negligent in failing to prevent the bullying that culminated in Hannah’s suicide.

“We started with the idea of the trial as the engine of the story and the engine of discovery,” Yorkey said. “Is it possible to get justice for what happened to Hannah, and what does that look like?”

Simultaneously, Netflix executives enlisted Zeno Group, a public relations and marketing firm, to conduct a study that Netflix used to promote the idea that TV shows help parents and their kids to bond over difficult issues.

Netflix then released the research and infographics like one titled, “What Should Parents Be Watching? A Netflix Guide to Connecting with Your Teen.” If you want to have “a tough convo” about stress, you should watch “Grey’s Anatomy.” If you are trying to “find more in common” with your child, you should watch “Gilmore Girls” or “Friends.” If the goal is to “understand my teen,” Netflix says, watch “13 Reasons Why.”

By the fall of last year, Netflix took a more serious tack. Through Zeno, it reached out to professor Ellen Wartella, the director of the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University.

University administrators negotiated a deal with Netflix, in which Wartella and her team would have autonomy in creating the questions and analyzing the data collected by a third party, even though Netflix partially funded the research. “We wanted a rigorous, independent academic study to help us understand the far reaches of the conversation” ignited by the show, said Brian Wright, the Netflix executive who oversees family and young adult original series.

The study found that the show was for many a positive catalyst. “Parents and kids reported that they actually talked about the show itself, that the program was an enabler for parents to talk to their teens about life,” Wartella said. (The study did not ask specifically about “suicidal ideation,” but did survey respondents about depression, loneliness and social anxiety, she said.)

Among Wartella’s recommendations: The cast should address the audience directly as actors not characters, to help convey to teens the fiction of it all, and direct them to talk to adults about their problems and to seek information on the web. (Wright says his team came upon that idea independently.)

At the end of each episode, a character in voice-over directs viewers to 13ReasonsWhy.info, a resources site created by Netflix with guidance from nonprofit groups like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the American School Counselor Association.

“Netflix is taking their responsibility seriously,” said Jill Cook, the assistant director of the American School Counselor Association. (Cook says the association has no financial relationship to Netflix.)

Cook initially contacted Netflix last year to express her organization’s concern that the depiction of adults on the show as clueless — a counselor doesn’t report concerns to the principal, parents have no idea that their kids are having torrid sex upstairs after a school-night family dinner, dads watch DVDs instead of Netflix — would discourage students from seeking help. For the show’s resources site, it helped create the discussion guides, and for its own website it recently posted a template letter that school administrators can send to parents. One person who plans to binge-watch the new episodes as soon as they drop is Polly Conway, the senior editor for television for Common Sense Media, a digital resource for parents trying to assess what movies, TV shows and books are appropriate for their children.

Netflix didn’t respond to Common Sense Media’s request to screen the new series ahead of its release. So relying on the trailer that Netflix shared earlier this month, the organization cut a quick video titled, “5 Things Parents Need to Know About 13 Reasons Why Season 2.”

Among the warnings are that story lines revolve around suicide, gun violence and sexual assault. “This year we want to be ready,” Conway said. “Last year we didn’t know how huge it would be and it happened fast.”