Photo: Jon Hall/Netflix
An Assemblage of Words in Response to is a new, probably ongoing project in which I give myself a limited time period to write words about things.
Sex Education is a surprisingly deep show, in terms of its ensemble.
Otis, the sex therapist’s son turned high school sex therapist, is undoubtedly the show’s lead. And his relationships with his mother, his best friend Eric, and his business partner/romantic interest Maeve are the most important relationships in the show. But as the show introduced other characters, it becomes more and more invested in their lives: while some “clients” appear and disappear in the episode where their problem emerges as an episodic point, others like Adam, Aimee, and Lily become part of the fabric of the show. It adds richness to a show that could have become tired amidst the tropes it deploys in order to stake its claim to ’80s teen movie nostalgia.
But when it comes to its finale, the writers’ interest in their supporting characters couple of hiccups for Sex Education, wherein story developments didn’t necessarily have the effect the writers desired.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is neither the first nor the last teen romantic comedy launched by Netflix this year: it was preceded by The Kissing Booth, and it will be followed next weekend by Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, with all three films sharing an interest in reclaiming a genre that has been increasingly marginalized by major studios.
But whereas The Kissing Booth is an ideological garbage fire that was rightfully criticized for its wonky gender politics (and, on a personal note, a distinct lack of quality control beyond that), To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before has elevated Netflix’s “Teen Rom-Com Renaissance” while still replicating the “viral” success of The Kissing Booth that signaled the demand for the genre. By the metric of views of “Cast Content” on YouTube—generated by various magazines and websites that pivoted to video in recent years, along with Netflix itself—the story of Lara Jean Song Covey’s letters and her fake relationship with Peter Kavinsky is generating just as much social chatter as its predecessor, but with closer attention to cinematic style and a far less problematic take on teenage romance. The result has been an almost overwhelming response to the film across social media, as Peter Kavinsky (and by extension actor Noah Centineo) became the internet’s boyfriend, and Netflix has the watercooler media that the film’s target demos will carry with them into the school year.
But for any of this to happen, the film itself needs to create moments that fans want to GIF, and a story that leaves them with an emotional reaction that convinces them to take to social media to change their profile pictures, post their edits, and reorient their online existence around this story and the people involved. And that story owes a lot to the Jenny Han book on which the movie is based, and I do think that the film would be generating a significant response even if it would have just taken the story as it was told and brought these characters to life in the capable and charming hands of Centineo and Lana Condor, who doesn’t get enough credit for her work as Lara Jean. But as I discovered when I dove down the To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before rabbit hole over the past two weeks, writer Sofia Alvarez and the film’s producers made a series of conscious choices when adapting the book that engineered the story to maximize this type of response.
They’re also choices that I’d argue make it almost impossible to adapt the rest of the series as it was written.
Last week, media scholar Casey McCormick posted a piece at Flow—where I have also been contributing during this most recent cycle—based on her research into Netflix, with a specific interest in the way they tell stories. I saw her present some of this research last week, and at the heart of it is an interest in what she terms “Netflix Poetics.” While this can take many forms, at Flow McCormick narrows in one element wherein many series “tend to be particularly metafictional, or self-conscious about storytelling,” citing the use of voiceover or direct address in shows like House of Cards or Narcos.
I was thinking a lot about the idea of “Netflix Poetics” as I watched 13 Reasons Why, Netflix’s most recent drama series, and the second this year that we could call “Young Adult” programming after A Series of Unfortunate Events. But whereas that series adapts a dark but ultimately whimsical set of children’s books, 13 Reasons Why—developed by Brian Yorkey with Tom McCarthy as the director of the opening episodes—taps into the very real tragedy of Jay Asher’s novel about a teenage girl who commits suicide, and the tapes she leaves behind to call out those she holds responsible. Channeling the type of issue-focused storytelling that’s characterized shows like Canada’s Degrassi, and which emerges more sporadically in teen programming on U.S. cable channels like MTV and Freeform, 13 Reasons Why offers an unflinching consideration of the social problems that would leave someone like Hannah Baker to take their own life.
I have a lot of thoughts about 13 Reasons Why, but more than any other Netflix series all those thoughts are caught up in the fact that it is a Netflix series. Based on both the narrative it presents and the way it chooses to tell that story, both the good and the bad of the show feel inseparable from the context of its distribution. It is a show that feels like it might have only been able to do what it does on Netflix while simultaneously feeling like it encapsulates some of the pitfalls of the rigidity of the Netflix model and its associated expectations. It is a show that is brutally honest about the struggles teenagers face today in ways that are refreshing and important, while simultaneously positioning itself to appeal to the cynical binge culture that Netflix increasingly relies on its original programming to construct.
It is also ultimately very good, and well worth your time, but I want to focus on how it represents a meaningful case study of the distinctiveness of Netflix’s original programming on the level of both the text itself as well as its distribution.
[The following will contain light spoilers for the entire first season of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why.]