Netflix recently debuted an intense original series. 13 Reasons Why, based off the YA novel, follows a high school reeling from a young girl’s suicide. That is, until the release of said girl’s tapes about her death. Hannah Baker says there are thirteen reasons why she chose to kill herself. 13 Reasons Why, with executive producer Selena Gomez, put a twist on the murder-mystery formula fans loved from Making a Murderer. The show follows her story through flashbacks, as her friend Clay tries to piece everything together.
The series plays like most every teenage slice-of-life project. The writing is reminiscent of the film Perks of Being a Wallflower. The teenagers are all witty and worldly, often outwitting every adult. Normally, this type of program is hard to stomach unless you’re a teenager yourself. However, the murder-mystery element gives 13 Reasons Why a better edge. It’s an easier watch than Perks, or the CW’s teen soap opera Riverdale. They aren’t immune from cringe-y teen dialogue, but the characters are better than most. The show gives its teenagers just enough gravitas to be watchable.
The mystery itself plays pretty by-the-books. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means it works the form well. 13 Reasons Why does a good job of revealing information in small doses. It helps that the show is a contained series, wrapping up its tale in thirteen episodes. Knowing that Hannah took her own life also helped the mystery, in a way. Audiences were left wondering who had hurt Hannah, and exactly what they did. The layers to the mystery was solid and well-paced.
The dynamic between Clay and Hannah is simultaneously intriguing and trite. On the one hand, it’s interesting to see them interact in different times. The over-lapping action makes for interesting posthumous interactions. However, they’re hampered by the stereotypical romance thrust upon them. 13 Reasons Why can’t get through an episode without reminding viewers Clay is a “nice guy.” It turns the relationship between the two protagonists into a bland teen rom-com plot. 13 Reasons Why misses a great opportunity to dissect a normally vanilla character. Their relationship makes the Perks of Being a Wallflower comparisons all too apt. It’s one of the big things that keeps 13 Reasons Why from being truly unique.
As far as the teenagers themselves, there are some disparities in character depth. Some have very well-done stories, while others fall into tropes. The reveal of Zach’s transgression did a good job separating him from the pack. It was also intriguing how Alex’s seemingly harmless action had huge consequences. Marcus, meanwhile, became a blander character with his tape reveal. Ryan also got little development outside of being the “gay best friend” trope.
While not every teenage performance is phenomenal, they are largely better than the adult actors. It’s actually quite amusing how some of the child actors show up the adults. Many of the performances by veteran actors slip into melodrama. Kate Walsh and Brian d’Arcy James have the hefty task of playing Hannah Baker’s parents. While they rarely slip into full over-acting, there are definitely moments of it. Meanwhile, Derek Luke’s performance is largely emotionless. It really is the kids who shine in the series.
The thing that really separates the show from other teenage-centric projects is the dark subject matter. Keep in mind, the set-up for the mystery is the suicide of Hannah Baker. There’s a load of darkness and tragedy in that premise alone. Other kids suffer from similar dark subject matter, like alcoholism and abusive parents. On top of that, there is a lot of the series that is dedicated to discussing sexual assault. The subject matter keeps the show away from standard teenage-centric show fare.
Some would say the realism used to approach such scenes are crucial. The assault scenes are not any more gruesome than the frequent death & torture in other shows. But much like those deaths, the necessity of such realism is questionable. To have not one, but TWO explicit sexual assault depictions is hard to stomach. It’s a lot like the horrifying Ramsay scene from season five of Game of Thrones. There’s powerful, and then there’s gratuitous. 13 Reasons Why winds up on the latter end of the spectrum.
The moral of the story where 13 Reasons Why becomes convoluted. It’s admirable how the show tries to tackle things like assault and suicide in a realistic way. However, the show often goes too far into the edgy material. At the end of the day, Hannah is subjected to terrors no one should have to go through. It’s strange for the series to then subject audiences to it – twice, no less. On top of all that, there’s the problematic conflict resolution. Hanna DOES get her justice through suicide, insinuating it was a good thing. To have that be the message of your series is a huge issue.
This is why the series ultimately falls short of its aspirations. There’s too much silly teen angst, and too much visceral evil. It takes the elements that work and dilutes it. The show’s intentions of treating kids like adults, and exploring important subjects, are noble. But 13 Reasons Why fails to separate its gritty subject matter from its lofty goals. Perhaps that’s as good of a lesson as the show could realistically provide.
Overall, the series works for an adult’s 13-hour binge session. As far as teenage viewers go, perhaps they should stick with Gomez’s other projects. The show doesn’t work in giving viewers a meaningful resolution that justifies its cruelty towards Hannah. You could say that’s the “point” of the series, but that doesn’t justify it. 13 Reasons Why made a show inseparable from its dark subject matter, to its own detriment.
STAND-OUT PERFORMANCES: Katherine Langford, Alisha Boe, Christian Navarro, Ross Butler, Brandon Flynn
STAND-OUT EPISODES: “Tape 2, Side A;” “Tape 5, Side B;” “Tape 6, Side A”