Netflix continues to release quality series at a dizzying rate and the different themes, genres and demographics they’re able to cover in the process is quite impressive. They seem determined to offer a high quality option for fans of any type of TV and with 13 Reasons Why they deliver a teen drama that exceeds the expectations of its genre and boasts writing, directing (including two episodes helmed by Spotlight’s Tom McCarthy) and a young cast that couldn’t be described as anything other than top notch. Regardless of anyone’s conclusion on the show itself, there’s no denying that it’s incredibly well-made.
I also happened to find it compulsively watchable. There is absolutely a mysteriously morbid undercurrent throughout the whole thing that captivates you from the beginning and you want to see how all the pieces are going to fit, but apart from that, even in the midst of such darkness, the show feels surprisingly hopeful and its heartbreakingly real characters are the type that make TV such an exciting medium. With each passing hour, teenagers that could be written as archetypes are fleshed out and brought to life with admirable complexity.
By now, you probably know that 13 Reasons Why is a Netflix series inspired by a young adult novel of the same name by Jay Asher. I remember reading the book about seven years ago but the details are fuzzy so aside from the basic outline, most of this felt new to me and I couldn’t tell you what they changed. Just like the book, the show follows a high school student named Clay Jensen as he listens to 13 tapes recorded by fellow student, Hannah Baker, explaining the reasons she killed herself. All 13. And she names names. The rules are you have to listen to the tapes or the details will leak and if you have the tapes, it means you’re on one of them.
SPOILERS from this point forward….
With 13 tapes, 13 Reasons Why was practically tailor-made for the Netflix model and I think it does a really impressive job pacing things out over the course of those 13 hours in a way that is consistently compelling. Sure, there’s a couple dozen times where we have to suspend disbelief because there’s no way that Clay would take this long to get through the tapes and it’s a little annoying that he is, but if you can accept that admittedly silly notion, then you will have gotten over the biggest roadblock to enjoying this show.
And “enjoy” feels like a weird word to use when talking about a show that highlights a teenage suicide. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it, but I never lost sight of the fact that there is something a little macabre about the whole thing. While it’s clear that the cast, writers, creator and producer Selena Gomez all want this show to serve as a suicide prevention PSA in some way, their good intentions don’t change the fact that there is something a little unsettling and exploitative about the whole thing. I saw someone online refer to it as How To Get Away With Suicide and while it’s never as over the top or salacious as the show it’s being compared to there, it’s true that we’re taking a very voyeuristic look at a really horrifying situation when we watch this show and it might make you feel a little conflicted.
To be perfectly honest, there are quite a few red flags to consider. Enough studies have shown that when suicides occur, they often inspire other suicides and suicides in entertainment and pop culture can have similar effects. Through all the good intentions of those involved, I’m not sure that 13 Reasons can ever possibly do enough to snuff out the romantic notions some associate with suicide in moments of desperation. Not to mention, the entire concept seems like a pretty appealing idea for anyone who’s thinking about ending things; leaving a message behind for each and every person that wronged you? I don’t have any suicidal ideation and I don’t have many grudges, but even I get the draw of that.
With a subject as thorny and dangerous as suicide, there may be no perfect way to approach it in television or movies, but I have to give 13 Reasons credit for at least doing their best to paint it as the ugly, foolhardy choice that it ultimately is. One of the beautiful things about the show is that even while we see the different ways that Hannah was treated badly–and some of what she goes through is absolutely horrible–there are other times where she was hurt by a misunderstanding or when she was hurt by someone, completely overlooking someone else (often Clay) attempting to be kind.
In a subtle yet effective way, the show is able to convey that Hannah was not in a place to trust her own perspective when she made the decision that she did. Her pain was real and legitimate to be sure–high school can be an incredibly cruel place and sometimes the perpetrators are unrelenting–but it could have been temporary. She was a smart girl with endless possibilities ahead of her but she wasn’t able to see beyond the temporal and as a viewer, it’s impossible to miss how shortsighted she’s being. Even before the sexual assault that pushed her into darkness once and for all, Hannah had already become obsessed with her own misery on some level. It’s not her fault, she needs help and at a certain point, depression clouds your vision from from seeing anything except the awfulness of the world. Perhaps witnessing this occur with someone else will provide clarity to someone finding themselves in the same reality-distorting haze.
While there are plenty of bad people in Hannah’s life, even the kind ones let her down because, well people suck. Sheri is a sweet girl that makes a horrible mistake that hugely impacts Hannah, her friendship with Alex and Jessica mostly fizzled out and ended up all screwy thanks to standard terrible high school communication but boy, did they handle things poorly and then, of course, Clay who has several moments where he shuts Hannah down or says something hurtful simply because he’s aloof and too much in his own head to recognize how much she’s hurting. In fact, some are understandably irked that Clay gets off fairly easy in the show (and even easier in the book) but I thought they struck an interesting balance in how they ultimately portrayed things. He certainly recognizes that he failed Hannah a number of times as he thinks back to all these different instances where he said the wrong things or ignored the signs and even if she lets him off the hook, I think the show smartly shows how even the “good guys” sometimes say or do the wrong thing.
A lot of 13 Reasons Why deals with good people just missing the right moment. Hannah’s parents are drowning in money troubles and don’t understand how their constant fretting and bickering might affect their daughter, she has teachers and counselors that show genuine concern but blow it when it matters most (particularly Mr. Porter who is distracted and negligent at a crucial moment) and friends who get caught up in petty high school drama and have no clue that by doing so, they’re helping to shatter somebody in such a fragile state. The other thing the show does really well is it allows Hannah to be a real person, which means sometimes she was messy, petty, jumped to conclusions and kind of a jerk herself. There are plenty of things that she said throughout the show that could have very well ended up on someone else’s tape. She wasn’t a saint. She was a normal teenager that got pulled into depression and as her pain got worse, she frankly got less likable and although part of you wanted to scream for someone to notice and help her, you also couldn’t blame them because you could see how she was pushing them away.
As for the suicide itself, the show is unrelenting of its depiction of the act. It’s a bold choice that’s getting some pushback, but while I do understand the dissenters, I think it was the right choice. As I mentioned, there is an odd sort of glamorous intrigue that attaches itself to suicide many times and portraying it in an uncensored brutal, horrific display that would make even the strongest stomachs queasy paints a picture of just exactly what you’re signing up for if you make this choice. It’s easily one of the hardest scenes of television I’ve ever had to watch and her parents discovering her later on (Kate Walsh and Brian d’Arcy James are excellent in this) is heartbreaking.
The suicide isn’t the only instance where the show chooses to be graphic, there are two very explicit sexual assault scenes that occur late in the season as well. I’m torn on how I feel about these depictions because I’ve seen several women online upset that TV continues to push the envelope in how graphically they choose to portray rape. I get it and there’s a fine line between realism and being gratuitous and I’m not sure if 13 Reasons crosses that line both with the assaults and maybe even with the suicide. On the other hand, too many rape scenes have been ambiguous in the past, brazenly undercutting the horror of the act. By refusing to look away from the terrible act (a choice Sweet/Vicious also made earlier this year), the show is able to strip away any mysteriousness, any twisted sexiness that one might attach to such a thing. It’s a crime and it’s abhorrent and there’s no denying it when you look right at it so, in that respect, I appreciated what they were going for.
The whole show is a lot to digest and, like Clay with the tapes, you may want to space it out a little. The thing that makes the show so great though (and extra heartbreaking) is that Hannah is an enjoyable character to spend time with. Smart, witty and unique. Whether she’s sharing a slight flirtation with Clay or giving high school social interaction another shot, she’s fun to be around and there are many moments of levity through the season, despite the heavy subject matter. As mentioned above, the entire young cast is superb, with Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford on the top of the list but there’s not a single actor that doesn’t step up when given something substantial. The tone is hypnotic, the soundtrack is stunning and the struggles are universal.
Maybe that’s why “teen angst” or coming of age dramas sell so well. There’s something about that time in life when emotions are so heightened and reactions so overblown that we can all relate to. Because the dirty secret seems to be that we never entirely grow out of that. We never completely find our place and the world never stops being mean. There’s a filter most usually use in the adult world, but the social structures that crippled us then haunt us now; it’s easy to get swept back up in all of it as a means of processing our own stuff.
So mostly, I love this show. I thought the material was well-crafted and powerful and, depressing as it was, I enjoyed it. That said, there were some contrivances that did bug me a little. There’s already plenty of debate on the show’s depiction of mental illness which I’ll leave for greater minds to carry on, but even a layman could detect inconsistencies. There’s certainly an argument to be made for Hannah being a little too clever and chipper while she records tapes meant to serve as her suicide note but there’s also Clay’s convenient symptoms that range from anxiety to panic attacks and even hallucinations. These things feel like a way to stall Clay as he listens to the tapes and provide us with a few disturbing images along the way, respectively. It’s certainly one of the weaker aspects of the show and a distraction to the good work being done. I also thought that for a show that bucked against expectations and made its characters–good or bad–thorough and complex I was a little disappointed that Bryce had spiraled into a bit of a villainous caricature by the end.
The show’s other cheap ploy is teasing Clay’s tape as if it’s going to contain some earth-shattering revelation but it ends up being the most innocuous of the bunch. The other kids, scared that Clay might blab about their misdeeds, often comfort one another by saying “wait till he gets to his tape…” and when Clay asks Tony point blank if he killed Hannah, Tony replies yes. In fact, there are a lot of times when Tony could have gone just a little further in comforting his friend that was clearly on the verge of losing it. In an effort to “honor Hannah,” Tony walked around like a joke and said cryptic, often ominous things that in hindsight were pretty cruel when it turns out Clay didn’t have to anything to worry about on his tape to begin with. It also doesn’t help that Christian Navarro, the actor that plays Tony, looks eerily similar to Puck from Glee (the actor that was arrested for child porn) and also about 10+ years too old for high school. There were a few times where I could see Tony’s good intentions and he said something relatively touching or profound, but most of the time his presence was just distracting or a nuisance plot device.
So, yes, I told you I had complicated feelings about the show. There are some cheap teen drama gimmicks that the show employs that it’s way too good for. There is an argument to be made that a show like this could possibly do more harm than good that I understand that. There is a certain masochistic element to voluntarily putting yourself through something so painful and yet, I’m glad I did.
There was something cathartic and refreshing about the whole experience, seeing the human condition so accurately depicted over the course of 13 episodes. I’m a sucker for strong characters and solid writing and moving performances and shows that make me feel something and 13 Reasons knocks it out of the park on all accounts. It’s a really exceptionally crafted story, tackling a whole host of issues in ways that are fresh and insightful, being true to the pain of adolescents and respecting the trials of those currently powering through it.
There are a couple loose threads that leave things open for a second season (possibly involving another suicide as well as a school shooting) but I’m torn on that suggestion. I love what they did here and think it stands so perfect as these 13 episodes; I wouldn’t want the impulse to continue things to dilute its power (especially as they inevitably add more Hannah flashbacks) or stretch the believability of how much misery could exist in a single town. But what I absolutely know about those producing is this show is that they care deeply for these characters and about these themes so I would be inclined to trust their vision. They’ve certainly proven with this first season that they’re able to effectively examine the horrors of this world in a way that feels authentic and passionate, determined to do justice to the subjects with which it grapples. And to come away as a really good TV show and not some after school lesson trying to masquerade as one is no small feat. I don’t know what the future holds but what they have here is special and regardless of what questions and quibbles I may carry, I greatly admire it.