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.]