The Bleak Landscape of Netflix’s Teen-Targeted TV

Melissa Henson | June 18, 2020 | 9:31am EDT
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A TV remote is held in front of the Netflix logo. (Photo credit: Chesnot/Getty Images)
A TV remote is held in front of the Netflix logo. (Photo credit: Chesnot/Getty Images)

Just one day after its annual shareholder’s meeting this month, Netflix dropped the fourth and final season of "13 Reasons Why." 

Little wonder they waited until after the meeting. Netflix executives have been called upon to justify their continuing support for "13 Reasons" at the previous two shareholder meetings. But despite their best attempts to justify a teen-targeted series that features sex, nudity, sexual violence, substance abuse, explicit language, and suicide – the series has been and continues to be, indefensible.

Across the ten episodes of season four; there were 935 profanities (the most frequent, by far, being “f*ck,” which was used 450 times, followed distantly by “sh*t,” which was used 214 times – in under 11 hours of programming), 152 instances of either implied or illegal alcohol or drug use, 96 instances of sexual content, and 99 instances of violence. The mature rating is clearly justified.

Yet Netflix and the series’ producers can’t seem to get on the same page about who the intended audience is for this series. Is it for mature audiences? Or is it for teens? The rating says mature audiences, but Netflix lists the series in its “teen” categories. Before the first episode, the producers included a black screen with the following advisory: “'13 Reasons Why' is a fictional series that tackles tough real-world issues. This final season of the show includes portrayals of mental health struggles and substance abuse, among other difficult topics. If you are struggling with any of these issues, this series might not be right for you or you may want to watch it with a trusted adult. If you need help, reach out to a parent, a friend, a school counselor or an adult you trust, call a local helpline, or go to” Clearly, the producers understand and intend that teenaged viewers are the primary audience.

But then, before episode 6, which involved an active shooter drill at the school, the producers included this advisory: “The following episode contains images of school violence which some viewers may find disturbing. It is intended for mature audiences. Viewer discretion is advised.” So…not for teens?

Season four follows the disparate group of friends, thrown together by circumstance in the aftermath of Hannah’s suicide. Now in their senior year, they are struggling to maintain some sense of normalcy amid school security crack-downs, active shooter drills, and student-led riots while also facing their own demons as guilt for their roles in Bryce’s murder, cover-up, and framing of Monty takes a toll on their mental health.

Justin relapses into heroin addiction; Zach develops an alcohol dependency; Clay is plagued by anxiety attacks and dissociative episodes. For the most part, they don’t seek help for these problems; they hide them -- from their parents, from their significant others, from each other, even from themselves. They lie to their parents and other authority figures with impunity and without consequence – and the only time they ever come close to being honest with their parents is in a cynical attempt to manipulate their parents into helping them get senior prom reinstated.

Netflix and the creative team behind "13 Reasons" congratulate themselves that they are tackling the tough issues facing teens in America today; but the biggest problem for the series is and has always been that they don’t deal with these issues responsibly, or in a way that will encourage troubled teens to get the help they need.

At the start of season two, Netflix added a warning, encouraging teens to talk to a “trusted adult” if they are dealing with any of the problems addressed in the series -- a message that has been constantly undermined throughout the next three seasons. There’s no point in talking to adults. You’re on your own. Even when they try to help, adults are part of the problem.

Despite the positive public spin Netflix tries to put on this dark series, it fails to deliver on the promise of addressing the difficult issues facing America’s teens. If the series is indeed for “mature” audiences, it offers no guidance or examples for adults to help teens navigate through these problems in the real world. If, as is more likely the case, it is intended for teens, it succeeds only in leading troubled kids down a dark hole of hopelessness. The show itself is morally bankrupt, but so is Netflix for the dishonest way it labels and markets this series.

Melissa Henson is the program director for the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment. ( Twitter: @ThePTC

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