TV Review: ‘13 Reasons Why’ on Netflix

13 REASONS WHY
Courtesy Netflix

Saying that it will prompt important conversations is perhaps not the most scintillating way to describe a TV show; that formulation implies an eat-your-vegetable dryness, or a story saddled with too much lumpy sincerity and not enough engaging momentum.

13 Reasons Why is undoubtedly sincere, but it’s also, in many important ways, creatively successful: It uses some of TV’s most popular forms and accessible strategies—the love triangle, the coming-of-age story, the murder mystery and the grounded high school drama—to pull viewers into a suspenseful tale that will keep most of them engaged until the final scene fades out.

The main conceit of the series is explained in the opening minutes: Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) has killed herself, and the drama’s narration comes from audiotapes she recorded before her death. There are 13 people she thinks share a portion of the blame, and each episode concerns another character who could have helped her more, or harmed her in some way. Of course, she blames herself too — more than she should — but one of the things “13 Reasons” understands well is that apportioning responsibility after a tragedy is a messy, ambiguous project that never really ends.

Langford and Dylan Minnette give career-making performances as the two central characters, Hannah and Clay, who meet in their sophomore year of high school and, recognizing each other as shy, wry outsiders, create a formidable but complicated bond. There is not one false note or even the slightest attempt at manipulation from either actor; the honesty and transparency of their work is frequently jaw-dropping.

The darkness that enters the lives of Hannah, Clay and their friends and classmates is constantly interwoven with the natural resilience and questioning optimism of adolescence, until harder and sadder qualities creep into their eyes. Present-day scenes are interwoven with Hannah-narrated moments from the past, and “13 Reasons” shines when limning the small and large ways in which friendships come to life; the casual ways in which abuse and cruelties are inflicted on Hannah and other young women are also expertly depicted. The tone of the show is not uniformly tragic (though truthfully, it could be a bit more varied, given how tough things get by midway through the season), but Minnette and Langford handle everything that is thrown their way — from comedy to romance to wrenching pain — with impressive grace and commitment. Several members of the cast playing high school characters do similarly specific and raw work (Alisha Boe and Miles Heizer deserve particular praise).

As it progresses through the build-up to the tragedy and the complicated wreckage of its aftermath, “13 Reasons Why” wisely humanizes and contextualizes grief, depression, suicide, and the aftereffects of sexual assault through characters and scenarios that viewers will be unlikely to forget. It’s hard to think about anything else, frankly, once you’ve finished the season. “13 Reasons Why” offers a great deal of food for thought about the kind of individual passivity and group denial that give protection to predators and enablers, and sap hope and nascent joy from those with little power and status. It’s also really funny and sweet at times, and it has a killer soundtrack.

All in all, “13 Reasons Why” does an exceptional job of depicting the intense emotions — and formidable social pressures — of adolescence, without condescending to any viewers, whatever their age. When it comes right down to it, this is simply essential viewing.

Of course, not everyone will be able to engage with some of the subject matter on display. But adult and teen viewers who are able to grapple with show’s most difficult themes should try to power past its uneven and frustrating moments. Not just because of the importance of the issues “13 Reasons” takes on, but because when the storytelling works — and it often does — this show is exceptional.

In the 13 episodes, all of which were screened for critics, there are some very repetitive elements, and some mysteries and revelations are oversold. But this is not a show that can be summed up neatly or given one easily-arrived-at blanket assessment. The lows are low, but the highs are very high, and truly affecting. 

“13 Reasons” examines the ways in which adults and school officials turn a blind eye to many kinds of bullying and the worst excesses of jock-bro culture, and that is a laudable goal, but at times, it’s given a shaky execution. If there’s one thing “13 Reasons” could use less of, it’s scenes of parents and teachers being entirely (or willfully) clueless about the toxic behaviors and attitudes that percolate right under their noses; conversations in which oblivious or disinterested adults question uncommunicative and evasive teens quickly grow tiresome.

In general, “13 Reasons” criminally underuses most of the actors playing adults; the main exception is Kate Walsh, who does career-best work as Hannah’s grief-stricken mother. Her character is a ferocious and charismatic open wound, and it’s impossible to look away from her and her quest for answers (the tapes secretly circulate among the kids who are mentioned on them; Hannah didn’t leave a suicide note for her stunned parents).

The show gets progressively more challenging as the season works its way through the tapes delineating Hannah’s decline, but most of what’s on offer comes wrapped up in the standard trappings of teen drama: There’s a big dance, a few raging keggers, a number of tender kisses, some brutally clique-y behavior, and truckloads of secrets and betrayals. One thing that hampers “13 Reasons” is that its attempts to blend amped-up, soapy melodrama and naturalistic, character-focused storytelling don’t always work. From a mechanical perspective, it’s understandable that the drama latches on to a lawsuit that the Baker family files against the school, but “13 Reasons” is less convincing and nuanced when it tries to morph into something that could conceivably be called “How to Get Away with Suicide.”

The drama does have a reasonable amount of forward momentum a good deal of the time, but as Hannah’s story gains urgency, a number of predictable subplots and one-dimensional characters should have been excised. A leaner and more focused version of this show would only have helped it achieve its laudable goals. As it is, one cryptic character whom Clay calls “unhelpful Yoda” does begin to grate over time, attempts to delay certain revelations become cumbersome, and emotionally punishing installments that approach or exceed 60-minute running times can start to feel draining.

Most effective, aside from Hannah’s believable confusion and distress, are depictions of adolescents performing superficial, upbeat versions of themselves to keep adults off their backs,  as well as “13 Reason’s” examples of the ways in which the expectations of a competitive culture infused with toxic masculinity drive a number of the young male characters to the brink (and beyond). The way young women absorb the messages of that culture and, in some cases, act on its skewed assumptions in ways that injure themselves and each other is sobering, to say the least.

How can adults tell when the secrets teenagers are hiding are devastating or relatively benign? When do a frustrated teenager’s attempts to deploy healthy skepticism and reasonable detachment slide into depression, and how can a family member or friend spot the difference? How can young men and women — including LGBTQ youth — be true to who they are without fearing the most vicious attitudes of their peers and the community at large? None of these questions get answers in “13 Reasons Why” but the show is likely to provoke necessary debates about all those things.

Clay spends much of this season with headphones clamped on his head, listening to Hannah tell her story. Like him, we could all stand to listen — and learn.

TV Review: ‘13 Reasons Why’ on Netflix

13 episodes (13 reviewed); Netflix, Fri., March 31. 60 min.

Crew

Executive producers, Brian Yorkey, Joy Gorman, Tom McCarthy, Selena Gomez, Mandy Teefey, Steve Golin, Michael Sugar, Kristel Laiblin.

Cast

Dylan Minnette, Katherine Langford, Kate Walsh, Brian D’Arcy James, Alisha Boe, Christian Navarro, Amy Hargreaves, Derek Luke, Brandon Flynn, Justin Prentice, Michelle Ang, Miles Heizer, Tommy Dorfman, Ross Butler, Devin Druid, Steven Silver, Aniona Alexus

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  1. Zach says:

    People say the message is that you should think twice about the way you treat people. Thats all well and dandy but that is not the message this show sent. Especially for people in their teens. I am 25 now. In high school I thought about suicide a lot. My dad did commit suicide. I went to some pretty dark places back in those days and often felt alone and numb to the world. I put a smile on and went though the motions of going to school and for the most part I know nobody had a clue what I was going through. The thing is committing suicide is a lot easier said or thought, for that matter, than it is to actual go through with. If back then, on one of my darker days I happen to watch this show, I know exactly what I would have thought. I would have thought, oh that makes sense. If I am going to kill myself I should let everyone who ever wronged me know what they did. Then they will totally regret everything and know it is their fault I am not alive. See cause when you are in that lonely place, you want people to know how you feel. You want them to see you. The thing is, life does not work the way it did in this fantasy tale. I could see this show easily being that one last thing to stir up the emotions and get someone to finally commit the act of taking their own lives. I remember watching the death scene in this show thinking, oh my god, they made that look so easy. So easy in fact, that I am sure deaths via slit wrists are sure to be on the rise in the next year or so. The creators of this show need to get their own morals checked before trying to impose their morals on everyone else in the world. They should be ashamed. There are millions of people suffering all over this globe right now. People without the luxuries Hannah had such as parents who loved her, a sound mind, a roof over their heads, food to eat, water to drink, and so many other things. The shows all about accountability right? People should realize that their actions have unforeseen consequences? If thats the case, the creators should be held accountable and should have thought twice before delivering this trash to the public, where so many vulnerable human beings are now being subjected to it.

  2. This story is to teen angst/mental illness as a chicken McNugget is to chicken. Both started out great, but what we consume lacks the nutritional value to make it tastier to swallow. When you are a kid, you think Romeo and Juliet is tragic, when you get older you realize they were too young to kill themselves over a childish crush. You actually forget what it was like to be that kid. I feel like just the way the parents are disconnected from the kids, the writers are disconnected from being a teen and we get lost in the pink slime along the way.

  3. Marie says:

    Yesterday I binged watched “13 Reasons Why” to see what the big deal was. And about half way through it all I could think was “why did they make this?” Because in my mind haven’t we all gone through this? Haven’t we all at least gone through some of the things this girl was going through? But I kept watching and started getting pissed. It’s a good show, but there were so many things I feel were one sided or left out. For instance there’s a scene where they say that a girl wouldn’t make a list like that, and it is such feminist bullshit. A girl would absolutely make a list like that, start it and spread it around. A girl would send pics like those or a guy or EVEN a girl just to be mean. No offense to the writers, makers, or fans but it’s true. There are so many moments that are so freaking feminist. Like people saying we shouldn’t objectify, let’s stay together, girl power? Perhaps in teasing and taunting but never would those things have been said in high school with any actual meaning behind them? Another thing they left out, she talks about how gossip and list can put like a target on you. Then it’s about the guys coming after you and ever so slightly about the fact that girls are mean too. First girls are so f##king cruel it’s crazy, secondly what about teachers and the schools facility? They only time they are involved in doing something wrong is when it talks about what they failed to do. Personally I know from experience that target that list and gossip makes will attract bad teachers to try and do terrible things. It attracts bitter teachers to say hurtful things. And gives other facility members an excuse to tell you why you miss understood something, or that your just upset because they weren’t someone you like, and somehow they twist around what’s happening to you as your fault and something you brought on yourself. Yea they may have talked a little bit about what happens to girls when they try to ask for help. But that’s just bullshit, because its not just girls, and with the certain kids the facility isn’t so beat around the beat to tell you to get over it and move on. Finally I just don’t know who the show was for? Who are they trying to move and impact? Not to be a bad parent but there are parts of that show that I will show my 11 year old, so he can see someone regretting something they thought was stupid but ended up destroying someone else. So he can see the guilt and torture of people trying to decide whether or not to do the right thing. And finally so he can see what ignoring someone for no reason or not helping someone can do to them. He absolutely wont watch the whole show or all the scenes from an entire episode, but I feel like he’s the only age group who could be impacted enough to change. Adults? You think they are going to change, high school kids? Do you think this will be their epiphany that they needed? Nope needs to be young, confused growing middle school students, so they still have a chance to be humane and not turn into f##ked up monsters. In high school I took a survey of 60 students, including cheerleads, geeks, goths, punk, emo, preppy kids, just a mixture of kids more than half said they thought about committing suicide (there was more to the survey but all about suicide). Out of that half about 20% said they thought about committing suicide daily. Out of all those kids before asking them, I would have only thought it would have been one or two, not more than half. Once I realized it was that many I stopped my project. Because as lonely as you can be feeling and as much as you could want to disappear and never wake up again, your not alone in that feeling. So it’s a good show, but I guess I feel like it could have been a great show, that wasn’t just from one girls perspective.

  4. Sir Winston says:

    It beat the heck outta that stale turd “Love.” Who greenlit that baby barf, ie “Love.” Judd’s lost his mojo.

  5. DougW says:

    “Of course she blames herself, too – more than she should -” My problem with this novel, and my concern about this series, is that part of the message is that you can justify suicide – and largely blame it on others. Here’s a girl who takes the time to record 13 different audio tapes before she takes her life, detailing how she feels these people wronged her and are complicit in her suicide. They are all partly responsible, and she wants them to know it. Instead of confronting them in life, which might have made her existence better, she does it from the grave, which will really make them feel bad, so there.
    The message the author wants readers to take away is that we should be more thoughtful about the way we treat people, and how it may be affecting them. That’s good. Unfortunately, another message it gives is suicide is a justifiable option if life and the people in it treat you badly enough.

    • Ebrahim says:

      I haven’t read the book, but have watched the series and I agree with you.

      Something else that bothers me about the show is that many of the characters never accept the outstretched hand of either friendship or concern. Instead they react with disdain, rudely dismissing people who are only showing concern or who might genuinely want to help.

    • Jay says:

      It must be nice to live in a world where horrific things that change your view of the world and wreck your soul happen, while people around you watch and gossip about it. A lot of other characters dumped their crap on Hannah and when you’re a teenager, everything feels out of control already without life-changing pain, such as rape, making it even harder to breathe or feel any sort of optimism that you can keep going or it’ll get better. Unfortunately, not everyone lives in your world.

    • James Joyce says:

      I am pretty confident that your version would have made a horrible screenplay.

    • Hopeful... says:

      Your concerns are legit. I am not sure I think the story, without seeing the show, that suicide is a option as much as what your point is, it doesn’t need to be the answer. If that makes sense? You have to remember this a story about a young girl in High School. When you are in High School you don’t always have the strength or mentality to understand how to have a conversation/confront issues, especially if there is a chance it could make your issues bigger. What I took away from the book was she just wanted people to understand how something that seems so small, could be life ending to someone who is dealing with it everyday already. If she would of looked harder, she would of seen there is always someone there. So, don’t give up. It’s sad it has come to this but, society needs to view itself. It is never fair to put your choices on other people but, it isn’t fair for other people to ignore how they treat people. If we all filmed our behavior throughout the day, I am sure we would all see how cruel we can be. Bullying is real so, largely it could of affected her choice. Is it easier to say this because its a show or do you really believe that all the kids in reality that kill themselves because they feel hopeless due to the treatment of others is wrong, too? That when they are so bullied every moment of their life that the people doing it should not have any accountability? Not everyone is a powerhouse who can handle bullying the way you feel it should be, especially teenagers and children.

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