Will Netflix’s new series change how we think about high school TV shows?
Last week, Netflix unveiled a darker trailer for 13 Reasons Why, a thirteen- episode series that hits the streaming platform at the end of March. It stars Dylan Minnette (Goosebumps) and an adaptation of Jay Asher’s novel of the same name: a high school mystery that integrates a smart horror premise inside the conversations about teen bullying, peer pressure and suicide that ricochet off every fictional locker-laden hall. In it, a student, before killing herself, sends a package with thirteen tapes detailing, well, her reasons why. Is she having her rightful vengeance beyond the grave or is there something more complicated afoot?
For a generation raised on the Harry Potter and Twilight series, this kind of literal mortality metaphor has long hit our big screens repeatedly and to diminished aplomb. But 13 Reasons Why has attracted some serious talent. Brian Yorkey, who penned the series for Netflix, is a Pulitzer-prize winning playwright most well-known for writing next to normal, a rock musical about teens suffering in the suburbs. Directing the series is occasionally-indie darling Tom McCarthy, his first project since taking home an Oscar or two for Spotlight.
Growing up as a reader of books who knows all the highs and lows of watching them get adapted, I’m well aware that 13 Reasons Why could just be another piece of money-making mediocrity, another If I Stay (2014), the horridly droll movie that made being a ghost, of sorts, feel like a very busy and unwanted chore. But in this golden era of serialized television, one that Netflix has minted itself curious terrain upon, I’m excited to see what McCarthy and Yorkey whip up to fill thirteen hours of my time. Here’s, uh, thirteen reasons why:
1. Last year’s Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events starring Neil Patrick Harris blew Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events starring Jim Carrey out from the back of my mind into the dust. Probably loading three novels in less than two hours was bound to leave readers feeling cheated, especially when dealing with Daniel Handler’s ornately-written and reference strewn writing, an argument itself that the teenage tentpole that is a big budget YA movie has exhausted itself.
2. Mark Hudis and Barry Sonnenfeld’s eight hour-long episode adaptation managed to tack both more of the series (four books) and more of the things in the series (gothy interiors, elegant ruins, etc.), making the intricate world of its author feel, you know, intricate. The rooms are (almost) as well-designed as Handler made them and we actually get to spend a solid chunk of time enjoying them. “The exaggeratedly morose misadventures of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire aren’t meant to be condensed into a single installment,” concluded Erik Adams, over at the A.V. Club.
3. Bringing back the high school TV show: YA novels like 13 Reasons Why take place, unsurprisingly, in high schools. The high school TV show feels curiously less-than-touched by the neo-realistic touch of the golden era of television that has shined on everything from political satires to jail dramas to mystery whodunits. Until last year’s Riverdale, any image of the realistic (ish) high school felt like it was shot sometime in the last decade because it was.
4. Okay, I get that Teen Wolf has been on the air for some time now but we really need more Riverdales, right?
5. Really, what I’m hoping to see, especially with McCarthy behind the camera, is a revival of the golden era of high school drama, the turn-of-the-millennium moment that begun around the time of Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks on the air and ended sometime after Veronica Mars was pattering out. These were serious shows at their time and felt like the vivid complement to the early epic television narratives that are so revered today.
6. And high school TV shows work because the point of a YA novel is really to enmesh you in the daily life of being a teenager; having homework and prom dates to worry about and now just having one of those things mentioned twice before shortly before our protagonist has to faces whatever monster has been looming throughout the turgid first two acts. And something about fighting in gigantic stadiums and in smaller, but also gigantic, mazes doesn’t feel quite…everyday?
7. The basic format of the teen TV show is a thing with petty dramas, an obsession with documenting the small movement of social groupings, something that been absorbed directly into the DNA of today’s more respected TV shows, from Orange is the New Black to the very petty squabbling at work on Big Little Lies.
8. But what really interests me about adapting 13 Reasons Why into a series is that the premise, and the trailer seems to indicate the same, brings together the high school drama with the style of neo-noir mystery television, itself recently back in vogue in TV shows like Archer and True Detective. The aforementioned Riverdale does some of this also and Riverdale is great. More Riverdale!
9. A criticism is already mounting toward toward that premise, however; of turning a novel investigating suicide into what Marissa Martinelli, over on Slate, calls “more of a mystery thriller.” Other worry that its treatment of its subject matter will be dangerous. I disagree. If the realistic teen drama is going to be updated then it needs to embrace current conversations head on in order to have the same kind of moving impact that discussions of poverty and materialism had on The O.C. or abortion did on Degrassi: The Next Generation.
10. Itself a lineage that suggests that serialized storytelling is precisely the place where those discussions can happen without feeling pushed along or cheapened.
11. And, as anyone who has even formed a vague opinion on John Green knows, the marketplace for YA fiction has broadened considerably. Namely, beyond its titular young adults. Which is why streaming platforms, with their stratified but mostly generationally-driven audiences are perfect to find audiences that are much into “prestige” shows as they are into purely bingeable drama. The fact that streaming has flattened the very differences between those demarcations merely underlines the point.
12. Streaming platforms are also ideal for this because, inherently I would argue, teen drama is meant to be binged. Netflix’s recent revivals of Gilmore Girls (and planned re-revival) point toward this and, to be honest, the kind of story that 13 Reasons Why promises is really something that needs to be watched in one tear-jerked all-night sitting.
13. Ultimately, what has separated teen drama from being considered prestige drama is something connected to a reduced idea of who teenagers are, that their drama is over-the-top because it is less important, in some way, than murder-mysteries and more violent fantasies. Contemporary cable television attained its current golden prestige by adopting the motifs of respected movies of our time and driving them through the needs of its own serialized format. It’s high time teen drama did the same.
Related Topics: Netflix