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Success of '13 Reasons Why' does not bode well for network TV

I often think about how I would watch television if my job didn't require me to watch so much of it.

I am writing this as I look at a wall in my house that has a framed story given to me after I retired from this newspaper in May of 2010 that has the headline: "He Watched Crap So We Didn't Have To."

I stayed retired for about a month before starting a blog that eventually led me back to this newspaper and watching more television shows.

I can't watch everything, especially now with the streaming services Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime carrying excellent programs. So I can be a little late about my recommendations.

Which brings me to the Netflix series about teen suicide, "13 Reasons Why," based on a novel by Jay Asher. It's been streaming for about a month, but I didn't get to it until last week.

I started watching it with my fiancée on a Thursday night and it was so addictive that we couldn't stop until Sunday when we finished all 13 hour episodes.

Katherine Langford, left, and Alisha Boe play frenemies in the Netflix series "13 Reasons Why." (Beth Dubber/Netflix)

We also watched the 30-minute 14th episode in which the writers and stars talked about how much thought was put into many of the controversial choices made in telling the story and depicting the suicide so graphically that I had to look away.

Even though we had a joyous family event out-of-town last weekend, we were able to watch late at night at our hotel, which allowed guests to stream Netflix on their accounts for free. That was another indication of the increasing popularity of streaming services and the difficulties that face network television in the future.

The cast of "13 Reasons Why" is loaded with appealing young actors playing high school stereotypes: The entitled rich kid, popular athletes and cheerleaders,  a creepy photographer and the sensitive young man who listens to 13 tapes on an old Walkman recorded by the attractive, sensitive, misunderstood girl who was humiliated, bullied and assaulted by classmates.

Dylan Minnette stars as Clay Jensen, a shy, insecure teen who listens to the tapes made by the girl he worked with and loved, Hannah Baker. She is played by Katherine Langford, who I only learned is an Australian actress by listening to her talk in the 14th episode.

It's been a long time since I've been there, but the series seems to be a realistic look at high school today. It also has a very real look at the inability of loving parents to get teenagers to talk to them about things that trouble them. That hasn't changed since I was in high school.

Viewers also see the unspeakable pain the grieving parents of the dead girl experience.

The most unrealistic aspect of "13 Reasons Why" may be that Clay didn't lock himself into a room and listen to all 13 tapes non-stop to unravel what plays out like a mystery. At the very least, he might have skipped to the 11th episode in which Hannah talks about him.

However, the series is so depressing and uncomfortable to watch that you can understand why Clay might have had some trouble going through the tapes non-stop.

I can also see why the series has sparked national conversation about teen suicide. Some critics even fear the program will lead to more suicides and question if Hannah's story was the best way to address the issue. I understand the criticism and the fear. I'm of the view that any conversation about teen suicide and the impact of shaming and bullying is a good thing and could save lives. Those questioning if Hannah's experience is the best way to represent the issue are putting too much pressure on one character to represent more than her own truth.

There is talk of a second season of "13 Reasons Why" because not everything was resolved in the final episode. I hope that talk passes, because that would be so much like TV to continue shows that should end.

The non-stop viewing of "13 Reasons" got me thinking more about the advantage that streaming services have on the broadcast and cable networks because they don't rely on advertising and can make 13 episodes available for viewing at once.

The broadcast and cable networks are trying to compete by occasionally carrying some excellent limited series like "Shots Fired" on Fox and "American Crime" on ABC dealing with serious subjects.

The thought-provoking series are getting limited live viewership in Buffalo. Last Sunday's episode of "American Crime" had a 0.7 live rating on Channel 7, the local ABC affiliate, which is upsetting to anyone rooting for quality television.

It makes you wonder if the broadcast networks eventually will be better off following the streaming service model of making all episodes available simultaneously while also playing them weekly. Many viewers are doing that already.

A local TV executive who is a big fan of "The Americans" -- as I am -- told me that he DVRs several of the episodes to binge-watch rather than watch weekly on FX's schedule.

It doesn't help FX's bottom line if he speeds through the commercials on his DVR. The broadcast and cable networks also put several episodes On Demand, which works better for the networks because On Demand episodes prevent people from speeding through the commercials.

The networks are deciding what new programs to carry on their fall schedules, which will be announced in May. They may be fighting a losing battle. For every NBC's "This Is Us" or ABC's "Designated Survivor" last fall, there were multiple new series few people cared about.

"This is Us," which had a needed dose of humanity after the election year, is the only network program that got me to watch when it aired. I'm significantly behind on "Designated Survivor" and hope to catch up soon by binge-watching.

I also haven't had time to watch the second season of Netflix's "Love," the third season of Amazon's "Catastrophe" or more than the incredible opening episode of Hulu's dark "The Handmaid's Tale," which stars Elisabeth Moss of "Mad Men" and is getting the best reviews of any TV series in years.All the good stuff available means it is easy to avoid all the crap I used to have to watch.

And I'm not sure I could catch up on all the good stuff until I retire again.



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