13 Reasons Why- Series Review

Posted April 24, 2017 by Thomas James Juretus in Nerdy Bits

WARNING:Some spoilers may follow, though I will endeavor to keep them to a minimum. 13 Reasons Why is a hard series to talk about without going into certain details, but I will try to keep things generalized as best as possible.

Teenage suicide is a touchy subject. Handled the wrong way, it can become a maudlin affair, suffering from far too much angst and too little realism. Worse yet, it can almost be glamorized, making it seem like a viable alternative. Handling such a delicate and dark subject matter right requires a deft touch and a willingness to show things unflinchingly in a realistic light. You want the subject to be presented as undesirable, and yet there needs to be some understanding as to why it happens and what can drive young people to such desperate measures. The new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, based on the young adult novel by Jay Asher, strives to do just that. But how well does it succeed? For the most part, quite well, but not without a few missteps along the way.

The series opens as Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) receives a package on his doorstep. Inside are seven cassette tapes, with each side of the tapes being numbered. After retrieving a boombox from his father, Clay pops in tape number one, and discovers it was made by Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a classmate and friend who had recently committed suicide. It’s here Clay (and the audience) are told that we will learn the thirteen reasons why Hannah killed herself (hence the series title) and those who played their part. She lays down some rules- that the tapes must be listened to in order, and at the end they’re to be passed on to the next person mentioned in the tapes. And so, Clay begins on a journey that unfolds over thirteen episodes (each episode dealing with a tape side), hoping to find out why his friend made her choice. It’s a journey that leads him to other classmates and touches on themes of bullying, navigating life as a teenager in high school, and sexual assault.

The premise is set up as sort of a mystery, though we already know what the outcome inevitably will be, since Hannah is already dead when the series opens. We see the reactions of other classmates and school staff. One student creates a memorial in the school’s lobby, cards and messages are left on Hannah’s locker, and teachers set up suicide awareness program, complete with posters on the walls and discussions in class. We get to see the effects on two sets of parents, those of Clay (Amy Hargreaves and Josh Hamilton) and, of course, Hannah’s (Kate Walsh and Brian d’Arcy James). The school principal (Steven Weber) seeks to alleviate tensions while handling a lawsuit from the Bakers, along with student counselor Kevin Porter (Derek Luke). Clay becomes a bit obsessed and even unhinged at times as he listens to the tapes, going to places Hannah visited and seeing visions of her as he checks things out.

Along the way, Clay must deal with several classmates who are mentioned in Hannah’s tapes. There are the three jocks, Justin, Bryce, and Zack (Brandon Flynn, Justin Prentice, and Ross Butler), two cheerleaders, Jessica and Sheri (Alisha Boe and Ajiona Alexus), the yearbook photographer Tyler (Devin Druid), an outsider Alex (Miles Heizer), two members of the student council, Marcus and Courtney (Steven Silver and Michele Selene Ang), gay student and publisher of a magazine Ryan (Tommy Dorfman), and senior Tony (Christian Navarro), who helps Hannah in making her tapes as well as distributing them. As expected, each of these students have their own issues- a broken home, alcoholism, being bullied themselves- in addition to interacting with Hannah. Not all of these issues are what leads to them being part of Hannah’s life and her subsequent downfall. Some are shown to us after the fact of Hannah’s suicide. In this way, the students are presented more in shades of grey rather than black and white (only one could truly be considered a villain, but even that person is shown to be more enabled by the high school culture). Tony appears as the most cryptic, somehow anointed guardian of Hannah’s secrets, and he sort of mentors Clay as Clay works his way through the tapes.

13 Reasons Why succeeds mainly with its casting, as no one really strikes a sour note and for the most part come across realistically. Hannah’s parents are shown working through their grief while pursuing a lawsuit against the school, and Clay’s mother, Lainie, struggles between being an overly concerned parent and then dealing as the defense attorney for the school. Minnette basically carries the show as Clay, as he struggles with the loss of Hannah. For the most part his performance is terrific, but there are some frustrations as well with the character. There were plenty of times when things could have been avoided had he just spoke up and not been so secretive. This just seemed to be a plot device to stretch things out, as instead of listening to all the tapes at once he seems to listen to each side for a whole day (the novel takes place over a shorter time frame). In this way, the showrunners made each tape side an episode just to take it to thirteen episodes, apparently to fit in with the show’s title. Along the way, Clay makes some illogical choices, though he’s not alone in that regard.

Which leads us to Hannah. Langford does her best to make Hannah a sympathetic character, and she does succeed to a point. A good thing, as we wouldn’t care if she were unlikeable. But for all the troubles that do come Hannah’s way, some are of her own making. You can debate on why Hannah doesn’t take action after witnessing a sexual assault (she never goes to the police, talk to the victim, or confront the perpetrator) or follow up when another friend knocks down a stop sign, which leads to tragic results. You even have to wonder why she makes the tapes in the first place. Is it to gain understanding into her actions, or merely to lay blame on others? Some could argue then that making these tapes was a purely vindictive act, done for selfish reasons and a way to absolve any blame for her own misfortunes. She also seems to want characters to read her mind and come after her, even when they listen to her wishes to go away. Some of this we can perhaps attribute to her being a teenage girl (not always the most logical of people). But some of it also lessens the sympathy for her a little, making it a little harder to become emotionally invested in the character, which is a little important to help us get through all thirteen episodes.

Fortunately the characters affected by Hannah’s suicide prove to be more compelling. Kate Walsh is terrific as Olivia Baker, struggling to comprehend why her daughter would do such a thing while being determined to press a lawsuit against the school to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. Navarro makes Tony quite likeable even when he’s being maddeningly cryptic. Boe delivers a good character arc as she falls into alcoholism and comes to grips with an unpleasant incident. Flynn also delivers on a good arc, taking a character who is quite unlikeable in the first episode and making him more sympathetic by the end. Some characters take a little more predictable route, like Tyler’s hidden stash or Alex’s choice of action in the end.

While it is good that the show is unflinching in the face of its nastier themes, showing graphic depictions of rape and Hannah’s suicide, it stumbles in presenting any positive alternatives for the characters. The school sets up a suicide prevention program after the fact, more seeming as a response to heading off a lawsuit rather than a genuine concern for its students. The other thing I found curiously missing was why weren’t we shown any of the students being interviewed by the police? As someone who did experience the loss of a friend due to suicide when I was in ninth grade, I know that the local law enforcement officials would have conducted an investigation, which would have included interviewing the students. Of course, this would have made the existence of Hannah’s tapes more dicey, as they would have been considered evidence and could have led to criminal charges being filed. This seems to be omitted in favor of Clay being the detective and the one to seek out justice for Hannah, making it more of a plot contrivance than a realistic approach. It stands out in the face of how other incidents are realistically portrayed. I also have to question as to why the school counselor failed to pick up on things after his meeting with Hannah. Again, it seems his negligence was more to serve the plot than anything else.

It was also curious as to why Netflix didn’t post a hotline or website prior to each episode for those wanting more information on teenage suicide or even those who felt they may be heading down the same path as Hannah. A thirty minute supplement following the series, entitled 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons, does provide a link, as well as giving us some insights by the cast, showrunner and creator Brian Yorkey, author Jay Asher, and executive producers Selena Gomez and Tom McCarthy (who also directed a couple of episodes). There is also some commentary by psychiatric professionals, and does its best to have people get help and give some positive reasons why to keep on living. Some of that would have been nice to be included in the main series, instead of waiting until the final episode for any semblance of a positive alternative to come through. The series does at least end on some sort of positive note, even though there is a hint for a possible second season (something it may very well get due to the positive reactions the show has garnered, though it truly doesn’t need one).

In all, 13 Reasons Why does a fairly good job at handling such a sensitive issue, and it does so in an uncompromising way, showing events in an ugly light, as they need to be. While there are some missteps, the performance by the ensemble cast is worth the price of admission, with the standouts being Minnette, Boe, and Walsh. It doesn’t quite succeed as a mystery, but it does work as a character drama, more so with those affected by the suicide than the suicide victim herself. It certainly is a show bound to prompt necessary discussions, and viewing with teenage children may help parents to open lines of communication. For some this will have a powerful impact. Others may be less impacted due to some plot holes. But the series does avoid just being another teen angst melodrama, and works as an interesting and fairly well done show, even though parts are quite unsettling to watch, as they should be. 13 Reasons Why may not hold all the answers, but it does provoke the questions that need to be addressed. And if it gets that type of dialogue going, then the series will have achieved its goal.

About the Author

Thomas James Juretus