Every Netflix series aims to be a topic of conversation, to generate buzz. Its drama 13 Reasons Why, though, is getting people talking for reasons no other show on the streaming service has before. Since its release in March, schools across the country have sent notes home warning parents about the show’s graphic depictions of suicide and rape. Youth suicide prevention groups are advising teens to refrain from binge-watching the show, and psychologists are suggesting they avoid the series entirely. This is not the kind of chatter that accompanies House of Cards.
But despite—and in part due to—the controversy around the show, people are watching it. And talking about it. A lot. Currently, 13 Reasons Why is the most tweeted about show of 2017. But it wasn’t an immediate sensation. Like Stranger Things, last summer’s sci-fi drama about kids uncovering a portal to an alternate reality in their small Indiana town, 13 Reasons Why is defying the usual spike-and-fade demand curve of most streaming releases, and its sustained popularity indicates a different kind of Netflix success: the sleeper hit.
13 Reasons Why, based on the 2007 best-selling young adult novel by Jay Asher, tells the story of a high school sophomore who commits suicide, through tapes she made before she died. Each tape (and episode) addresses one of the 13 people the student claims contributed to her death. It’s a conceit suited perfectly to Netflix: As anyone who’s spent 12 consecutive hours a slave to the auto-playing “Next Up” function knows, TV shows like 13 Reasons Why are seemingly tailored to an all-at-once binge.
Usually, that sort of viewing manifests in a consistent pattern. According to Parrot Analytics, a firm that measures demand for shows based on factors like social media activity, a new Netflix series generally sees a dramatic spike immediately after release, followed by a smaller uptick a few days later and then a steady decline. (Netflix did not respond to requests for comment on this story.) For example, demand for Luke Cage peaked two days after launch, and then steadily dropped over the next two weeks. This makes sense, especially for Netflix’s Friday releases: People fire up the first episode, binge over the weekend, then move on to the next show.
13 Reasons Why didn’t follow this formula. After its March 31 release, it saw immediate popularity—no doubt in part because of the controversial book on which it was based—but then its momentum continued. Demand for the show didn’t peak until 10 days after release, making it the most popular Netflix series yet, according to Parrot Analytics’ metrics. And unusually, that interest hasn’t declined precipitously. A month after launch, the show still commanded 67 percent of its peak demand, unlike shows like Luke Cage (25 percent peak demand after a month) or Orange Is the New Black (29 percent for the fourth season). The only other show with such high sustained interest is Stranger Things, which maintained 72 percent of its peak demand a month after its release. This sustained popularity suggests a new category of Netflix show, one that gets attention via word of mouth and then stays in the conversation.
For a Netflix sleeper hit, the majority of viewers don’t watch it in the first few days—they likely don’t even know about it yet. Stranger Things was released last year to little fanfare, but viewership steadily grew because people kept talking about it. In the weeks after release, Barb became a meme, fan theories abounded on the show’s subreddit, and “the Upside Down” became a pop culture point of reference. This was new for Netflix, where success previously came from prestige (House of Cards), comedy (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Marvel (Jessica Jones), or fandom (Wet Hot American Summer). Stranger Things was eminently binge-able, but also satisfying (unlike The OA, which did not enjoy the same sleeper success). That pattern holds for 13 Reasons Why, which has an audience that is predisposed to watching in bulk and discussing continuously. Teenagers, many of them presumably on spring break, have taken to the show and boosted its popularity through tribute hashtags, memes, and even promposals. And just like with Stranger Things, that response has lead to the series getting a second season.
But unlike Stranger Things, or most renewed Netflix shows, the talk around 13 Reasons Why hasn’t all been positive. According to Taykey, a real-time audience data company, the sentiment of online conversations around the show was 66 percent negative a month after its release, compared to 12 percent for Stranger Things after a month and 45 percent for The Handmaid’s Tale two weeks after its premiere. It’s not just the target teen audience discussing the show—it’s also their concerned caretakers. The press has joined in, too, as the show’s controversy has spawned media coverage aplenty: In the six weeks since launch, 13 Reasons Why has garnered more than 2 million news mentions, compared to 324,000 in 10 days for the well-publicized, think-piece-prompting Handmaid’s Tale.
With a binge model, a show loses out on the traditional water-cooler conversation: When the whole season becomes available at once, viewers can’t check in every Monday morning to speculate about the latest episode. Netflix shows need to find a different way to fuel the conversational fire, and its sleeper hit successes indicate a model for a binge-able show with lasting power. Stranger Things relied on the eternal flame of nostalgia; 13 Reasons Why, geared towards a young audience that uses social media heavily, capitalized on controversy. It’s hard to say that any one thing made it a hit—but the show’s unfolding drama is clearly one of the reasons why.