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After becoming an instant phenomenon following its March 2017 launch, showrunner Brian Yorkey’s adaptation of the best-selling novel also found itself thrust into a global conversation about how the series handled some of the tougher topics addressed in the high school drama, namely the graphic depiction of teenager Hannah Baker’s (Katherine Langford) suicide. The show revolves around Hannah’s unexplained suicide — which was shown up close — and the 13 audiotapes she left behind for her classmates, including star Dylan Minnette, who were left to decipher and ultimately understand why she took her life.
While the series was praised for raising awareness to traumas facing teens including suicide, sexual assault, substance abuse and bullying, 13 Reasons Why also faced criticism for “glorifying” suicide from mental health advocates and for triggering a surge in online searches.
In response to the backlash, the streaming giant added warning cards and crisis hotlines and, as season two approaches, Netflix will dig deeper to understand the controversy. In a bid to better understand the conversation surrounding the show between teens and parents, the streamer commissioned a global research study with Northwestern University’s Center on Media and Human Development, “Exploring How Teens and Parents Responded to 13 Reasons Why.” The results were shared Wednesday at a panel in New York that featured experts in suicide prevention and teen activism, as well as Netflix original series vp Brian Wright and 13 Reasons Why showrunner and creator Yorkey.
The study was commissioned last summer, with data collected in November. The results were delivered to Netflix two weeks ago, with the streaming giant now announcing a wave of changes based on recommendations from the study that included a custom introduction for each season and a season-two aftershow. A formal premiere date has not yet been announced, but Wright confirmed it will return this year. Production on season two wrapped before the study was completed, so the results of the investigation will not have had any impact on the show’s creative.
“When we took on adapting the book, we knew it was a cultural force already,” Yorkey said during the panel. “From the very first meeting I had with [executive producers] Selena Gomez and [her mother] Mandy Teefey, we said, ‘We have to portray this story as authentically as we can. We have to tell the truth.'”
Yorkey said that plan continued when he began writing the second season last February. “The challenge of when you are making a piece of entertainment for young viewers is that you want very much to make something that has a positive impact on their lives, but the instant that you become instructive and try to tell them the message that you want to convey and the right choices to make, they will tune out. They will feel pandered to,” he said. “From the beginning, we knew that we had to tell the stories as honestly as we could, that we had to portray these characters and the things that they go through with as much authenticity as we could bring to it, and especially that these tough topics deserved the most honestly in order to make something that teens would look at and recognize in this show their lives, themselves, people that they know and things they are going through. That was our mission from the very first moment, and it’s really exciting to see that born out of the research.”
After talking to more than 5,000 teens and parents in five countries, Northwestern’s study found that a majority of the teens said they related to the characters and felt that the series was an authentic depiction of high school life. A range of 63 percent to 74 percent felt that the intensity of the show was appropriate, and 63 percent to 79 percent felt that the graphic nature of Hannah’s death was necessary to show how painful suicide is. Overall, the study found that the show “opened their eyes” about how people their age may be affected by depression. (Complete results can be viewed here.)
Part of the conclusion presented by the center’s director, Dr. Ellen Wartella, included the opinion that there is area for improvement when dealing with such topics in entertainment. In response to recommendations for how media can better provide to support to both teens and parents of teens, Netflix announced several changes, including an introductory video from the cast breaking character to warn viewers about the topics and nature of the show and recommend how they get support if needed. The custom intro (watch that, above) will also be added ahead of the first season for viewers who are new to the series or who opt to rewatch ahead of season two, where it will also be included.
“When you press play on the series, that will be the first thing everyone sees,” Wright said of the video, which features Langford (Hannah), Minnette (Clay), Justin Prentice (Bryce) and Alisha Boe (Jessica). The end of the video prompts viewers to visit 13ReasonsWhy.Info, where Netflix has added additional resources from mental heath experts, including a downloadable discussion guide created with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Netflix has also launched a season-two aftershow, Beyond the Reasons, that will play after the 13th and final episode to continue the conversation with castmembers, experts and producers talking about some of the show’s tough topics. Wartella told The Hollywood Reporter that included in her recommendations was also having mental health professionals discussing the difficult episodes.
Yorkey told THR that he only viewed the results of the study days ahead of the panel, and Wright clarified that the research was not conducted to impact the show’s content. Instead, it “emboldens” them to believe the show is playing a role in critical conversations. “The content of the show hasn’t changed, but the research showed that people are craving more information and they are craving help,” he said. “I’ve always felt this show had the ability to start a really important dialogue. I do think that’s what we saw born out of season one and through the research — that it made people talk. I never would have predicted that it would have done that extra thing, which is to make people act more kindly to each other, and we’ve also seen that in the research and for me that is incredibly powerful. That’s the power of art.”
As for the decision to renew 13 Reasons Why for a second season — the freshman run, like HBO’s Big Little Lies and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, covered the entire book that served as inspiration for the series — Wright said Yorkey had a potential path forward, and later invited Netflix to the writers room to see what he had come up with, a plan that immediately excited the powers that be.
“The book concludes at the same place season one concluded and we were, at Netflix, prepared for it to be only one season, if that was what the best version of the show was,” said Wright about the controversial decision to renew the drama. “Brian walked us through a vision for season two that not only continues the story, it continues these characters’ journeys. It continues this dialogue and conversations and the expirations of some of these super-tough topics, but in a way that’s always wrapped in a very entertaining and propulsive thread in the story.”
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