13 Reasons Why’s first season had a truly serious job. The show, which details the aftermath of a young woman’s suicide, had a unique platform to discuss teenage suicide. “If we can make these experiences part of the conversation,” its creator Brian Yorkey told Al Arabiya “then we can really do something.” In the pursuit of creating conversation, though, the show has potentially increased suicide rates among teenagers. This is an artistic failure.
As has been widely reported, a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found the release of the show’s first season correlated with a near thirty percent increase in adolescent suicide rates. Most coverage thus far of this study has complicated the linkage between the indisputable spike in rates and the show. What the study found was evidence of a correlation, not causation; this is true. Focusing on pre-empting this potential misunderstanding, however, misses the point.
The show has, from the beginning, framed itself as an intervention. It has set itself up as an arena to talk about difficult problems facing young Americans today, hoping to help solve them. Despite what some have observed about the implications of its framing, its branding has always been explicitly anti-suicide. Surely, if, then, any person found themselves at an increased risk of suicide after viewing the show, it has profoundly failed. Whether or not a causal link is established, the show should have done more to preclude the slightest possibility of such a link.
With the slow implosion of Game of Throne’s eighth season, TV viewers have become more confident in their ability to spot ‘bad writing.’ 13 Reasons Why is bad writing, but its crimes are more severe than rushed plot development or insufficient character motivation.
In multiple interviews, Yorkey has related his artistic ethos: “truthfulness.” “Our North Star is always to try to tell these stories of these characters in the most truthful way we can,” he said to the Hollywood Reporter. It’s always better, he goes on to say, to talk about issues such as suicide, rather than stay silent. But what does truthfulness mean?
A television drama is not a news report. How a show says something is just as important as what is said. Communicating a suicide on the screen involves deciding what to show and what not to show. For a television producer to commit himself to truthfulness means something different than for a journalist to do the same. Presumably, there are, on screen, multiple ways to communicate a teenager’s death truthfully. Claiming a commitment to ‘truthfulness’ is not a valid excuse for an artistic decision.
Consider this device in 13 Reasons Why season two. The series’ effective protagonist, Clay, is routinely visited by a ghost/hallucination of Hannah, the deceased protagonist of the first season. Hannah appears in frame with Clay and can talk to him. None of the other characters can see her, though.
Is showing Hannah on screen after her death untruthful? She is not ‘really’ there and so, in a way, the show is violating its own directive. Clearly, a commitment to forensic truthfulness did not motivate this choice. Including Hannah in the second season does not maximize the truth factor of the season. It communicates something vital about the emotional experience of Clay, what it feels like to be haunted. This is not bad writing; this is all writing. Using a visual metaphor to express thematic content is good television.
What the Hannah ghost highlights, though, is the failure of the show’s creativity elsewhere. If the show is willing to deviate from realism to keep the actor who plays Hannah on-screen after her in-world ending, then why was this expressionistic tool-box inaccessible when her death was being graphically, excruciatingly shown? It is unclear why the show feels comfortable stepping away from truthfulness in the former case and not the latter.
No Reason Why
Suicide contagion through media is a well-known phenomenon and is often referred to as the Werther Effect. It has an inverse, the Papageno effect, a reduction in suicides caused by media. It is possible to imagine a world in which a study found the release of 13 Reasons Why led to a thirty percent decrease in suicides. There would have been a bloom of articles emphasizing that the study does not prove for sure that 13 Reasons was the cause of this decrease, but that it’s a mark in the show’s favor, nevertheless.
The frustrating thing about the world we do live in is not just that it appears some teenagers would be alive today had it not been for the release of a Netflix show claiming to want to keep them alive. That isn’t frustrating; it’s so, so sad. The frustrating thing is that had the creative team more seriously considered the existing literature on suicide prevention, had they committed themselves to depict it in a safe way, this unfortunate correlation may have been prevented.
With more inspired and careful artistic oversight, 13 Reasons Why could have been the protective force it was intended to be. All suicides are preventable, and there is no reason a television show should have led to even one more. Art isn’t worth that much.