13 Reasons Why: Media Effects, Serialisation, and Genre in Social Issue Programming
On 27th August, 13 Reasons Why (Bryan Yorkey, Netflix, 2017-) returned to Netflix for a third series. While the first series was based on the YA novel by Jay Asher, the second and third go beyond the scope of the original text, even whilst remaining (for the most part) with its characters. All of it has me reflecting on the ways media are seen to influence audiences and are used as tools for influence.
Although the first series garnered mostly positive critical reviews, there was controversy for its portrayal of suicide both in the notion that there can be a reason for an action that brings an end to a life and pain to family and friends and in the fact of the representation alone. There was concern of contagion: That depiction of suicide can contribute to suicidal behaviour in at-risk groups, in particular adolescents, who were the target audience for the programme. In fact, there is a rather lengthy and substantial history signalled in the name, ‘the Werther Effect’ referring to the suicides that followed in the wake of the publication of Rilke’s The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774. [Meanwhile, Drs Lund and Nadorff ask, ‘Is it even possible to connect 13 Readons Why to teen suicide?’]
Responding to the criticisms, both Netflix and people initially associated with the programme offered the limp and anodyne response that the programme was intended to “start a conversation”. However, by the airing of the third series, the producers decided to remove the three-minute graphic suicide scene in response to the concerns. Moreover, the producers emphaised the “conversation” component by adding an episode entitled 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons to the end of each series. In this programme, actors, producers, and mental health professionals gathered to discuss the social issues depicted in the show, which extend beyond suicide to include sexual assault and bullying.
Social Issue Programming
As someone who studies the role of media in mobilising change, I found the programme– or possibly more the controversies around it– interesting. It certainly spoke to my research interests as each of these actions speaks to the popular understanding that audio-visual media affect us or can be used to particular effect. An image can encourage action or be mobilised in a campaign to manage a social issue.
Serialisation v. One-Off
However, each additional series opens further questions. While films, ‘after-school specials’, and ‘very special episodes‘ of television programmes have raised social issues for the purposes of opening dialogue, educating, and providing guidance, what happens when the depictions are serialised and repeated? By moving beyond the one-off depiction, do show-runners become tempted push further and look for more shocking and troubling depictions to capture attention? Perhaps they fear audiences might lose interest in the mundane battles of recovery. Perhaps they worry that the audiences become inured to the trauma?
This certainly seemed to be the case as each series expanded to include more socially relevant issues including addiction, school shootings, homophobia, and immigration/family separation. Although the intention may have been to highlight the struggles everyone harbours– and issues that are entirely salient– the effect became almost comical as each episode heaved with social import.
As serialisation creates questions around social issue programming, so too does genre.
The first series was organised around a set of tapes, and digging into a (possibly unreliable narrator’s) account of her life and the factors that led to her taking her life. It was a mystery embedded in long form testimony: that first person narration of suffering that is intended to hail the listener into a community of responsibility. The second series took up a court case, a site for more testimony– if multiple– and a device that combines storytelling and justice.
But the third series was a mystery narrated by a new (and not entirely welcome to fans) character. This combination offered a noir effect that made the melodrama all the more lurid (if the dizzying array of traumas and torments hadn’t already). Notably, the advertising seemed to invoke the true crime documentaries that have become a part of Netflix’s offerings and brand.
But how effective is a lurid spectacle of crime and noir as part of the social issue genre intended to educate, edify, and transform? For me, the excess made risible the sombre intonation of each actor noting the significant social issues and the help that could be found on the 13 Reasons Why website.
My personal responses to the show, and in particular to the 3rd series which I watched in a combination of research duty and baffled amusement, speak to larger questions around television programming as a tool for influence.
- Are there inherent effects to consuming particular forms of media?
- What extra-textual tactics are used to direct a viewer to action (websites, additional programming, social media, fans)?
- What are the distinctions between the one-off (that special or outlier programme) and serialisation– particularly that without seeming end?
- How does genre figure into the work that a programme can do?