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Netflix and ’13 Reasons Why’ Can Learn From Paramount Network Scrapping the ‘Heathers’ Reboot

Pulling the plug may not be the answer, but school shootings are so prevalent now that how TV shows engage with the topic is of utmost importance.

"13 Reasons Why"

“13 Reasons Why”

Beth Dubber/Netflix

[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “13 Reasons Why” Season 2 and general plot points from the unaired “Heathers” series.]

On Friday, Paramount Network confirmed to IndieWire that the “Heathers” series reboot has been dropped completely from the channel before it even had the chance to air. The news was first reported by THR.

The decision came in the wake of the mass shooting of students at a Santa Fe, Texas high school on May 18. The show already had a fraught history with school shootings; following the tragedy in Parkland, Fla., in late February, the network announced it would delay the reboot’s scheduled March debut. Although a new July premiere date was supposedly announced on the show’s Instagram account, no evidence of such a post can be found. Currently, there are no plans for the show to debut at all, at least not on a Viacom-owned network.

The Problem With “Heathers”

“Heathers” was loosely based on the original 1988 dark comedy starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater as high school students who are trying to navigate the peer pressure, bullying, cliques, suicide, and violence within the school’s hallowed halls. The series turned the formula on its head, switching the pretty popular girls who had made up the film’s title clique to a group of marginalized students instead. The self-described “pitch-black comedy” embraced the film’s transgressive subject matter and pushed the envelope for a contemporary audience. One early episode given to critics for review even opens with a first-person shooter video game that’s set in a school and then switches to a parallel first-person perspective for one of the show’s characters for the remainder of the episode.

In deciding to scrap “Heathers” altogether, Paramount Network read the temperature of the nation and realized that the subject matter depicted on the series required more careful consideration about their real-world impact. The show may not be entirely dead — it’s being shopped by Viacom to other platforms, including Netflix — but for now, it’s living in limbo, where its problematic content can’t contribute to or be seen as a glib treatment of an issue that has become increasingly dire.

"Heathers"

“Heathers”

Paramount Network

Critics suspect that the early negative reviews — wasting away on Rotten Tomatoes with a 33 percent rating — may have also been a factor in pushing “Heathers” aside. Nevertheless, having backed the show’s creative vision from the start, the network should be commended for understanding that this is neither the time nor is Paramount the place for the show’s controversial content.

The Problem With “13 Reasons Why”

The decision to drop “Heathers” demonstrates that this is a case where intentions don’t matter as much as the lives that could be affected. Beyond Paramount Network, other outlets might want to consider following suit — particularly Netflix and its own controversial teen series “13 Reasons Why.” The show had already been criticized in its first season for the depiction of teenage suicide and rape — with evidence that online searches on how to kill oneself grew after the first season aired. Studies show that thoughts of suicide often lead to actual suicide attempts.

In the second season of “13 Reasons Why,” much clearer messaging was made available before and after episodes about where troubled youths can get help, but this course correction felt too late after having shown a suicide in such detail. Season 2’s finale had its own share of disturbing imagery with an even more graphic depiction of rape and a school shooting scenario that concluded in a muddled, unrealistic fashion. The student Tyler (Devin Druid), who had been violently raped in the boys’ bathroom, arms himself and plans to shoot up the school dance in revenge. His friend Clay (Dylan Minnette) talks Tyler down and then allows him to escape while police sirens can be heard in the distance.

As IndieWire had outlined earlier, multiple aspects of the finale are troublesome and potentially dangerous in their messaging. Again, it’s assumed that Netflix and showrunner Brian Yorkey do not intend for that to be the takeaway, and yet, it couldn’t have been a surprise that there would be a backlash about these depictions.

"13 Reasons Why"

“13 Reasons Why”

Beth Dubber/Netflix

The unfortunate timing of the Santa Fe shooting occurring on the same day Season 2 was released just highlighted the link between art and life. (The show’s premiere event was canceled due to the timing.) While some shows can be taken as pure entertainment, the more realistic a show is and its depiction of real-world problems, the more scrutiny it invites. Therefore, “13 Reasons Why” could be seen as having more responsibility in how it depicts fraught situations than the satirical “Heathers” would.

Netflix knows that lots of adolescents watch “13 Reasons Why.” In fact, the streaming service has been courting the audience with its recent increase in YA-centered programming. Kids are watching, and as the Google searches about suicide methods show, what the audience is taking away isn’t necessarily aligning with the show’s aims. It’s therefore critical to get ahead of the situation, not be forced to respond to issues retroactively.

What Netflix Could Learn From Paramount and Other Networks

Paramount Network’s decision to pull “Heathers” from its schedule is just one example of the way forward. ABC also recently canceled its revival of “Roseanne” following its star’s racist tweet. FX dropped Louis C.K. from all of its shows after the comedian admitted to sexually harassing women. Many more networks have cut ties with stars in the wake of #MeToo revelations.

While these may all seem like disparate examples – school shootings, explicit racism, sexual harassment/abuse – all of these are hot-button issues that each network has decided to take a stand on. Networks are declaring that as the patron of both the art and artists, it has a say in who represents them.

What it comes down to is what Netflix decides is its ethos, and then how it acts accordingly. Netflix has courted talent known for progressive viewpoints, including Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy and now Barack and Michelle Obama. But as Netflix supports socially conscious fare, it means the service can’t sleep on the problem with “13 Reasons Why.” (Netflix already has an inconsistent history of #MeToo response: Netflix distanced itself from “House of Cards” star Kevin Spacey and Danny Masterson on “The Ranch,” but has remained mum about Jeffrey Tambor on “Arrested Development.”)

House of Cards Season 5 Kevin Spacey Netflix Robin Wright

“House of Cards”

David Giesbrecht / Netflix

It may not be necessary for Netflix to cancel “13 Reasons Why” to follow the fate of “Heathers.” For one thing, the show’s executive producers feel that there is “still story to tell.”  Also, it has a little more wiggle room than “Heathers” does storytelling-wise since the biggest incidents were confined to the finale instead of throughout the season. Netflix famously gives its showrunners a great deal of creative control, leading FX head John Landgraf to famously call out the service for being more focused on quantity and not quality. If that is the case, perhaps certain shows do need additional guidance or more resources.

The ending of “13 Reasons Why” Season 2 concluded in the style of a cliffhanger, one that left its characters with a new set of problems. It’s clearly meant to leave the viewers wanting more, but in the case of the school shooting plot, it seems rather gruesome to leave that storyline hanging.

“13 Reasons Why” doesn’t necessarily have to have all the answers. When the nation can’t agree on the best way to keep our children safe — more sensible gun legislation, armed teachers, better safety measures, and psychological profiling have all been proposed — TV shows can’t be expected to solve these problems either. But it can treat the subject matter in a way that doesn’t exacerbate the situation.

If Netflix decides to engage more with its content and its messaging, that’s the first step. And if it exhausts all possibilities and deems that “13 Reasons Why” has written itself into a corner, perhaps then it’s time to cut line. Given that the viewership for the series is even greater than that of costume drama darling “The Crown,” though, Netflix may have a strong incentive to renew it for a third season. It would just remain to be seen then what direction Season 3 would take to fix its problems instead of sensationalizing them.

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