“13 Reasons Why” is the stuff of good teen drama, and the stuff of parental worry. It has at its center that cauldron of hormones and emotions: high school. Since the series premiered on Netflix on March 31st, there’s been growing concern among parents and even mental health professionals that the show engages in a romanticized view of revenge fantasies — in addition to graphic depictions of suicide, rape, body shaming, and bullying. For young viewers, having those things at the center of a drama can be suggestive — and not in a good way. On the one hand, I agree. The series doesn’t pull its punches and it can be disturbing to see these things play out on screen — especially for teens and pre-teens. On the other hand, Netflix is the distributor of the show and the company doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to their original content. If the story is about the suicide of a young girl, you’re not going to get a G or PG rated version of it on Netflix. All this is to say that if you have pre-teens and teens in the house, and you notice they are watching “13 Reasons Why,” you might want to watch it too. Scratch that. You should be a few episodes ahead of them if they are watching it so you’ll know some of the more graphic scenes that come later in the story.
The series, based on the popular teen book by Jay Archer, stays faithful to its source material. The plot centers on Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) — a junior in high school who commits suicide at the beginning of the story. Although we don’t see her taking her life until later in the series, she leaves behind seven cassette tapes (yeah, cassette tapes) where she goes into great detail why she killed herself. The thirteen reasons in the title are people at her school who contributed to her misery. Each person gets a side of a tape where Hannah talks about the hurtful things the featured person did to her. Because Hannah is dead when the series begins, we need a protagonist who listens to the tapes along with the audience. That protagonist is Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), a smart, somewhat shy boy who befriends Hannah while working with her at a local movie theater. Clay is one of those guys in high school who isn’t a jock, or part of the student council, or really part of any of the cliques that pepper almost every high school. He keeps to himself, but everyone knows him at school since he’s lived in the town his whole life. In episode one, Clay comes home to find a box addressed to him containing the tapes Hannah recorded and a map. He fishes out his father’s boombox from the garage and figures out how to work the “ancient device” that reveals the people and events that led to her taking her life.
It should be noted that Hannah is no wallflower. Yes, she’s a new kid at Liberty High School, and through a friendship forged with another girl (Kat), she’s introduced to many of the kids who collectively contribute to her loss of self-worth. They include fellow new students, Jessica and Alex — who become a couple for awhile and freeze Hannah out of their group. Justin, a jock — who after a date with Hannah — shares a crotch shot picture he accidentally takes of Hannah with the entire school via (what else?) a group text. And then there’s Bryce — the big man on campus who is a star athlete, comes from a rich family, and whose future is set as long as he keeps his nose clean. For a guy whose parent’s money keeps him both comfortable and entitled, the world is his playground without consequences.
Given the number of students who in one way or another harm Hannah, each episode chronicles the betrayals, insults, embarrassments, and eventual rape of Hannah in a way that builds to its tragic conclusion. And while Clay is the moral core of the story, he’s struggling with his own feelings for Hannah — who he truly loves — while trying to understand why he is on one of the tapes. That’s the hook that propels the story. I mean, a show about cruel kids who gang up on a girl isn’t all that novel or compelling. But a show where cruel kids gang up on a girl while one of the kids has been nothing if not a prince to her is compelling.
Thrown into the mix is Tony (Christian Navarro) — a kind of tough kid from the other side of town who seems to know more about why Hannah killed herself than he’s letting on. He acts as a kind of guide for Clay by encouraging him to listen to the tapes or luring him into “finding out more” by offering him vague carrots about the mystery Clay is trying to understand. Not only do we as viewers want to know why Hannah — who is pretty well grounded, has loving and supporting parents, and seems pretty confident — killed herself, but why Clay is implicated in her decision, too.
It would spoil the ride for those who haven’t seen this series to give away too much, but I would like to point out that Hannah is not a reliable narrator. We’re supposed to believe everything she says on the tapes is true — or her truth. However, there are points in the series where Hannah clearly says something unambiguous to a character’s face, only to have her revise (or reveal) her true sentiments on tape. Sorry. But what kind of bullshit is that? It’s okay to have an unreliable narrator in a story, but this seems really manipulative to the point of unbelievability in the way it’s done in “13 Reasons Why.” Or to put a fine point on it: a narrative contrivance that gets the character from point A to point B, but does so without being consistent with that character’s behavior, is a kind of cheat. It helps the author move the plot along, but does so by cheating the audience with an out-of-left-field twist that’s less “A-ha!” and more “WTF?”
Using the death of a teenage girl as the jumping off point for a show is nothing new. “Twin Peaks” was built on the death of Laura Palmer. Only through a long investigation did we find out who killed her — while also being introduced to many people who participated in Laura’s double life. In “Twin Peaks” one character says “Laura had secrets.” And later in the series, when the question of “Who killed Laura Palmer” gets asked in public, the answer was “We all killed her.” Both of those lines were uttered in “13 Reasons Why.” Hannah had secrets, and the whole town killed her. No, there were no dancing midgets, pale giants, or rapturous exclamations about coffee, donuts, and pie, but the presentation of teenage life as a mystery was inconsistent in a way. For example, adults in the story are often clueless (or too eager to help). But teens? Well, their lives are a complicated mess that no one understands. This stereotype has been used since “Rebel Without a Cause” — and not without reason. Teenage life can be a mess, but not so much that parents (who were once teens themselves) can’t understand issues their kids are going through. And while the parents in “13 Reasons Why” are generally involved in their kid’s lives, there’s still that knotty issue of how the teens hide part of their lives from adults — especially in an age of helicopter parents.
Netflix certainly has a hit on their hands with “13 Reasons Why,” and there’s a high probability that the show will get a second season. What that story will look like may be different from season one. One reason why: the writers will be liberated from the novel. Much in the same way HBO’s “The Leftovers” got better in the second season (also because the show was free from the constraints of the book), season two of “13 Reasons Why” could potentially be a more consistent and powerful examination of a tragic event like suicide.