WASHINGTON - Every so often, a TV series debuts that attracts young viewers for a lot of bad reasons.
The latest example is "13 Reasons Why," a Netflix series about a teen's suicide, and the 13 reasons why she was pushed to suicide. The series, conveniently enough, has 13 episodes -- one for each tape she's made for each person who somehow contributed to her killing herself.
One conceit of the show is that if any of the 13 recipients breaks the delivery chain and doesn't forward the package of tapes to the next person, then a new set of tapes will be released. Suffice it to say that "13 Reasons Why" was renewed for a second season less than two months after Netflix allowed all the episodes to be viewed online.
A British website, PopSugar UK, noted how therapy dogs had been on the show's set for the actors because of the intense nature of the scenes.
However, no therapy dogs are available for the untold thousands -- maybe millions, as Netflix doesn't release viewer information -- of impressionable young people who might be watching the drama series, since streaming is forever for Netflix's subscribers.
Educators and mental health professionals rightly have been alarmed over the program's content. Will a TV show contribute to an increase in teen suicide?
Even though "13 Reasons Why" is rated TV-MA, for mature audiences, there's not much stopping a teenager to tap into the family Netflix account to watch it.
The National Association of School Psychologists made public their worry that teens would binge-watch the show, which is based on a 2007 novel of the same title, and that they'd watch it alone. Those concerns are legitimate. Suicides are typically people who feel they have no one to talk with, and that watching episode after episode just ingrains more deeply the despair felt by the show's own suicide victim, Hannah Baker.
Scott Ridgway, executive director of the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, told Public News Service, "We recommend parents to watch it with their children if their children choose to watch the series, and this way it gives an opportunity for that discussion afterward to let folks know that there are resources and support."
Critics also have pointed to what they feel is an unfair portrayal of a school counselor who is told by Hannah, albeit somewhat inarticulately, that she feels suicidal, yet doesn't make an effort to help her.
Another issue: the 13 reasons themselves. Let's be honest: Only in teen fiction would someone go to the trouble of making tapes to tell 13 real or imagined tormentors how they contributed to her suicide, not to mention a sequence of backup tapes. Ironically, the work involved in making so many recordings ought to give someone a reason to live. In reality, next of kin may see a note -- or nothing at all.
However, is the show's message that you need to have 13 reasons before you take your own life? In truth, one or two reasons can be enough for a depressed teen to think that "everything" is wrong. All "13 Reasons Why" does is give kids a bigger menu from which to choose.
The one thing schools and towns fear is an "epidemic" of suicides, in which one kid commits suicide and sets off a chain reaction of kids who kill themselves. Unfortunately, this phenomenon happens enough to make adults shake in their boots.
To recall another, older and more celebrated series, "MASH," the rarely heard title to its opening theme was "Suicide Is Painless." To kids who have killed themselves, nobody can tell how much psychological and even physical pain they endured prior to the act. To kids whose suicide attempts were unsuccessful, there could be a long road to rehabilitation from both the psychic trauma and the physical injuries of a botched suicide. To next of kin, the pain of losing a loved one can seem almost unendurable.
I had two cousins -- brothers born a year or so apart -- who killed themselves, also a year apart, shortly after their high school years. The rupture of relationships within the remaining family members was nearly as bad as divorce, and in one instance persists to this day.
It took a month for Netflix to add a content advisory at the beginning of each episode. Too little, too late? What would be more helpful is this number at the end of each episode: (800) 273-TALK (8255), the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, to let viewers know there's a better way to deal with problems than ending it all.
Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.
When you keep your eye on TV, what do you see? What are your likes or dislikes? What are your concerns and criticisms? Be as general or as specific as you wish. Send your comments to: Mark Pattison, Media Editor, Catholic News Service, 3211 Fourth St. NE, Washington, DC 20017.