If you spend a majority of your time entrenched in teen culture like myself (in a professional sense, not a creepy sense) you probably have heard of a the Netflix show called “13 Reasons Why”. The show gives the account of high schooler Clay Jensen struggling to understand the suicide of his friend Hannah Baker, through a series of tapes she leaves behind explaining her choice to take her life. Each tape, and concurring episode, is dedicated to a specific person and the way they contributed to her decision. Each person has been given the collection in a specific order, and Clay is receiving them fairly late in the sequence, thus is playing catch up with what others already know. And he’s taking us along for the ride.
Given the nature of the series, I figure the best way to reflect on the show would be a listicle. However, I’m not proficient with gif technology, so here’s a simple list why “13 Reasons Why” is a deeply frustrating show.
ONE: Questionable premise leaves the audience uncomfortable early on
The concept that a recently deceased girl reaches from beyond the grave to tell her tormentors how they contributed to her choice is getting criticism for the potential harmful outcomes it might have on its teenage audience (a simple Google search is evidence of this). The moral that youth may get from this is not to have empathy towards all but to seek vengeance against those who may wrong you.
TWO: The characters start out SO cliche
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: intelligent, earnest, and inconspicuous boy falls for quick witted, charming, and headstrong girl, yet can’t find the means to tell her how he feels. The rest of the show seems all too familiar as well: jocks are brutish, pretty ones are ruthless, and elites are conniving. There’s even a yoda-esque teenage greaser. Cause those exist.
THREE: Characters eventually gain depth and become more compelling
As the mystery of Hannah’s death unfolds, the show exposes us to the individual struggles of her tormentors, like Justin and Jess. Bit by bit we end up sympathizing with them in ways that makes the main tension between them and Clay more compelling.
FOUR: The support characters are extremely easy to cheer for
I know it may have seemed like I was casually dismissing Greaser Yoda earlier, but he is easily one of my favorite parts of the show. Himself (Tony) and fan favorite, Jeff, have little that’s unlikable about them, and while that may seem like cheating, they serve as the moral rocks of the series, reminding the audience that there’s some good that exists in the tenuous environment that is high school. However…
FIVE: Main TEENAGE antagonists behave beyond belief
No, seriously, it’s ridiculous. At several points you would think I was watching “Game of Thrones” with the amount of unbridled hatred I harbored towards some of these characters. It makes sense that a lot of the characters feel shame and want to prevent the accounts of their misdeeds towards Hannah reaching the public. It’s when they all start conspiring to slow down Clay’s progression through the tapes that the whole thing becomes incredulous. You’d think they were planning a Red Wedding type of endgame. And don’t even get me started on effin’ Bryce.
SIX: Mystery premise is impossible to resist
Listen, I finished the show in a weekend, so there’s something to be said for that. “13RW” pulls out all its narrative tricks in order to keep the viewer glued to the screen and at their edge of their seat as they accompany Clay through the events leading up to Hannah’s suicide.
SEVEN: Show is unafraid to tackle serious subject matter
Don’t be fooled, “13RW” isn’t simply a cautionary tale about teenage suicide. More broadly, it’s a show that tries to more powerfully portray the struggles facing high schooners today. Cyber bullying, substance abuse, sexual assault and rape, even income inequality are all explored from a teenage perspective. Additionally, the freedom given on an unrestricted platform like Netflix allows it to seem rougher which enhances the realism, a crucial asset for emphasizing the positive messages contained therein.
EIGHT: Graphic depictions of certain events are potentially problematic
Shows like “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” have gained acclaim and criticism for their commitment to showing every single gory detail. And while dedication to realism is a noble aim, its borderline irresponsible to ignore the lower age of “13RW’s” primary audience. Now in the shows’ defense, disclaimers do precede specific episodes containing graphic imagery, but the shows’ reliance on its visual frankness acting as the main deterrent of risky behavior is at best naïve and at worst negligent.
NINE: Some characters seem unnecessary
Each tape (and each episode) deal with a different individual in Hannah’s life which should allow for some interesting world and story building. However, there are episodes focusing on supporting characters that by the end you ask yourself, “Is this person really needed?” (cough…Ryan…cough…Sheri).
TEN: Did I mention how damn addicting it is?
(said like Brad Pitt’s character in “se7en”) “WHAT’S ON THE TAPES? WHAT’S ON THE TAPES?!”
ELEVEN: Cast of newcomers leave their mark on the audience
I can name on one hand the names of actors and actresses that escaped the stranglehold of the fame brought on by starring in a popular teen drama. Can “13RW’s” cast be able to extend their individual longevity? It’d be a shame if not, because there is some real, young talent here. Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford especially shine in their lead roles and the chemistry between them is undeniable.
TWELVE: Adults provide mixed performances
It’s hard to be 30+ years in a youth oriented drama. Often times you get relegated to the place of stereotype. The educators in “13RW” don’t stray far from that role, and as an educator myself it’s frustrating to see such shallow, disconnected characters portrayed in that profession. The one saving grace are the parents in the show, especially Kate Walsh and Brian D’Arcy James who offer poignant and nuanced portrayals of mourning parents trying to find closure and clarity to the death of their daughter.
And finally, reason THIRTEEN why 13RW is so damn frustrating: “13 Reasons Why” knows its audience
Let’s face it: “13 Reasons Why” is ultimately a teenage soap opera in the vein of “Gossip Girl”, “Pretty Little Liars”, etc. The challenge is whether or not the show will succumb to the archetypes and characteristics that dominate the genre, or whether it will aspire for something more thoughtful in an attempt to transcend the genre. Additionally, given the premise of the story there’s an opportunity to not just entertain but to educate its target audience about pertinent issues. But, while at times the show is more believable compared to its current counterparts (I’m looking at you “Riverdale”) it too often falls into the trap of excessiveness and melodrama for the sake of compelling TV. The result is popular television, but not necessarily quality storytelling.