Warning: Many spoilers ahead.
13 Reasons Why is a dark-toned, tragic sort of drama that aired on Netflix in March 2017 about a teen girl’s angsty high school journey which eventually leads to her (un)timely suicide. Not much of a spoiler alert if you’ve watched at least 5 minutes of the pilot.
Each episode goes through the typical motions with a somewhat predictable arc, only there are dual protagonists, sort of like a Romeo + Juliet dynamic (but high school cliques rather than opposing families). These characters, Clay and Hannah, take us on an audio-visual journey of disheartening events, pre-recorded on technologically-advanced for 1988 – wait for it – cassette tapes. These events lead up to the eventual suicide of Hannah, as seen through both Clay and Hannah’s perspectives.
Though Hannah is the reason for the season, and Clay is more of a bystander or witness to her ongoing depression, this dual protagonist setup doesn’t actually do much for moving the plot forward. This is mainly because each episode features a new bully or antagonist to Hannah’s internal crisis, their relationships (or lack thereof) overshadow any real reason for shared realities between Clay and Hannah, seeing that all roads point to Hannah.
The main problem with 13 Reasons Why is that, as the audience, we never really know how she is seriously ill until the final episode, which – if you made it that far – means you had to sift through 12 other cassette tapes of her otherwise upbeat, nonchalant ramblings which could easily be compared side by side with Degrassi or My So-Called Life. While it is understandable that many individuals who suffer from depression do not show their symptoms, providing the story in such a way lends itself to two major issues with the story which go hand-in-hand, one, victimization and two, denial.
The reason why this is such a problem is because it leaves impressionable viewers with the notion that help cannot or should not be sought out, and rather, we are left to simply “deal with it” which is more often than not, very unlikely given the rise of resources and critical attention to mental health issues these days.
My best guess is that the overall theme of this show other than the obvious, bullying, is quite clearly the opposite side of that relationship: the victim. As a victim of bullying, I am in no way, shape, or form making light of the subject or generalizing how hard it can be. The purpose of pointing out this show’s flaws is to help others recognize the imminent danger folks may be facing, self-perpetuated or not. If you or someone you know hasn’t been themselves lately, it doesn’t hurt to reach out to them or be a friend, even if they do not imply a need for it. There is a lot of denial that comes with depression, and because of that, it can be a very isolating situation for anyone at any age.
Anyway, here’s why 13 Reasons Why was a bust:
15. We Never Really Get To Know Hannah
As the audience, we get no real sense –at all– of what Hannah feels internally, only externally. This is just bad character development, and of course, the main reason victimization stands out rather than other characteristics we can relate to such as pain, confusion, or loneliness. Plain and simple, Hannah’s character is portrayed as the person she least wants to be: unnoticed. While that very well might be the case, it doesn’t help the audience connect with her on a deeper, more personal level. Each episode is nothing but a recount of troubling events that happened to her over the course of two years. Even in the final episode, my grasp on who Hannah truly is, is just simply not there.
14. Awareness And Shock Value
Suicide and depression are MAJOR issues in general, especially with teenagers, and this show leans more towards exploitive content for shock value rather than educational value through an emotional journey – especially when told from an adult’s perspective. The main problem with the awareness factor is that the only folks we see giving a sh*t about Hannah are her superiors. Understandably, she has lost her way, but given the primary basis of human emotion and relationships, it makes little to no sense that even her discarded friends and acquaintances would ALL feel the same, negative way about her. The adults respectively are mere talking heads who give us information albeit disconnected context.
13. Clay Was The Worst
Our other “dual protagonist” Clay truly does not have a backbone or any strong wants or opinions, for that matter. This becomes evident when it is eventually mentioned near the end of the tapes. Why does it take us 13 episodes to learn that? Any clued-in, intelligent viewer would be able to recognize his traits, and thus the natural sequence of those traits, after the second episode. The show goes on to defeat his entire purpose and prove that Clay was a terribly weak character and bad friend – so much so that Hannah leaves him as her final tape before she kills herself. This can only mean Clay must be the worst “friend” of the bunch. Was there any logical reasoning to this? Was Hannah’s intention to persuade Clay into committing suicide because his character sucked so much? We’ll probably never know.
12. Who Was Tony?
Remember that cool guy who seems a little older than everyone else and drives a cherry red vintage car? Yeah, that’s Tony, the ominous guy who sort of floats around giving senseless advice that seems meaningful at the time. Who is he, always appearing at just the right times? Is he a metaphor for death? We never truly find out who TONY is or his function in the show. As they say, in stories, each character should “be the star of their own movie” and Tony was definitely not the star of anything, let alone a superficial side or minor character. We never do learn what Tony’s purpose is other than to guard a set of cassettes and pop in at random times with obscure messages.
11. Novel Expectations
It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that 13 Reasons Why the series was derived from a novel by the same title. Most of the time, books are far superior to films and series, and this seems to be the case here as well. 50 Shades of Grey is an exception to this, of course. But obviously, being such a popular teen book, a lot of people had expectations of how the show would turn out. It seems to have respected the source material for the most part, but the book will always be better than the adaptation.
10. Lack of Perspective
Halfway through the series, it is pretty clear that the way this particular story was told, or rather, was exploited, isn’t definitive of Hannah’s perspective and the crushing effects of her environment on her. At this point, it is left up to the audience to construct the missing pieces and put those concepts together. While we do see the effects and end result, we end up missing out on the most important piece of the story: her perspective on it.
This begs the question that perhaps this was intentionally done by the show creator to reveal the isolation felt by depressed individuals. Still, we do not see this struggle and it’s disappointing. As the audience, we want to go on an emotional journey, be it good or bad. This journey falls slightly short of superficial without much personal information we can connect with or be inspired by.
9. Unrealistic Dialogue
It’s a pity watching a show only to hear the same lines of dialogue over and over, as to appeal to the audience as a murder mystery, which quickly becomes trite and annoying. When I hear the same lines of dialogue repeated, I expect there to be some weight or emphasis to what the character(s) are saying. In this case, repeated dialogue did not have any impact in that regard, and if that was the point, it was lost due to the lack of connection throughout the show.
Let’s talk about victimization and the plight of women, especially young women, for a moment. Slut-shaming is a hot-button issue in this series which is unfortunately, quickly skimmed over and left to die. Pun intended? Hannah deeply wants to feel loved by her peers, or so we are led to believe, but as we watch her journey she doesn’t exhibit signs of insecurity or lack of confidence at all really. As the viewer, we are given a special key called dramatic irony which allows us to peer into the daily inner life of our protagonist. This is an element that is simply non-existent in this series. What we do see is the exterior, that Hannah has a stable home life and is generally accepted by her peers albeit pressured by relatively rudimentary high school experiences. For example, jocks tease her; needless to say, this is kind of completely expected for a high school, let alone a high school drama series on Netflix. Later, we see that Hannah is being stalked by a nerdy photojournalist which escalates a hook-up between Hannah and another female classmate, but nonetheless, still doesn’t give us insight into Hannah’s emotional journey.
7. Dull Acting
I’m looking at you, Courtney Crimsin. This series was filled with sub-par acting that easily could have been transformed into world-class performances if only there were stakes or relationships to build off of rather than recounts of various levels of bullying. You often see bland acting in teen shows, but for a show with such a deep, important message, you would think we would see a more emotional performance from the show’s stars, but no.
6. Believability (Or Lack Thereof)
No high school is that tight-knit. The other students seem to have perfectly normal relationships, so much that they spend all of their time together talking sh*t about Hannah. What a coincidence. Interaction between the students tends to be conflicting, which is standard, run-of-the-mill high school drama, but is also completely unrealistic. Why? Because you have two opposing ideas: tight-knit and persecutory. Name one school in the U.S. (or world) in which the entire student body is out to get one student. I’ll wait.
At the start of the show I wondered if this was intentionally done to skew the audience’s perspective and heighten the isolation factor, but I was sorely mistaken. There was a scene where the collaborative effort of putting up of posters was officiated by students –not the school staff– which would have been most natural in nearly any human school system on planet Earth. Unless they are living in some utopian fantasy where students gather together to do otherwise pointless tasks, it simply doesn’t make sense. Again, this comes back to creating a believable world which 13 Reasons Why fails to do.
5. Clay’s Mysterious Cuts
Clay is nearly always seen with some kind of cut on his face. How long does it take for a guy to realize he keeps making the same mistakes?! What is he doing to continuously keep hurting himself? And why isn’t it ever brought up? There’s one scene where Clay nearly throws himself off a cliff in the company of Tony, too. Realizing this, it would only be safe to assume that Clay is suicidal as well, or at least inclined to self-harm. Perhaps this would have made for a more intriguing storyline. Sure, it was said they put the never-healing cut on his face to help differentiate between the past and the present, but was it really necessarily, or realistic?
4. Cliches On Cliches
High school stereotypes galore. Where to start? Jocks, outcasts, “burn” books, mean lists, and of course bullying in it’s most overdone form. It’s as if the audience never went to high school. Did they have to be so obvious with all the cliches? We see the same thing in every single teen drama, and 13 Reasons Why was no different. Why can’t they stray from the norm a little bit? They could’ve told the same story without indulging in as many overdone stereotypes.
3. Hannah’s So-Called Friends, Or Lack Thereof
Events which happen to Hannah’s friends tend to be more traumatic than her own experiences. What am I not getting? Is it that Hannah is so altruistic (towards people who do not give a damn about her) that she just suddenly becomes so overwhelmed with her peers’ high school drama? Again, it’s hard to believe given the emotional context (or lack of) in the story. We have only superficial clues about Hannah’s inner turmoil, so it really doesn’t make any sense to care about her actions towards the other students. There is one episode where Hannah witnesses a friend’s rape which is by far the most disturbing scene in the show, even more so than the big finale, her own suicide.
Sure, the writers touched on each supplemental character and her explicit interactions with them, leading to her eventual suicide, but what they did not explore was what most of what people watch TV for: the warm, fuzzy, bonding-type of relationships we as humans have with one another. Overall, I had a difficult time empathizing with Hannah at the end due to the lack of intimacy revealed throughout the entire series.
2. Unmemorable Music
The music is the heart and soul that guides us through the characters’ emotional journeys. Lack of a good score or any music at all, can often leave us subconsciously wondering what we’re supposed to care about. If the show had put forth a more pronounced soundtrack, perhaps we could have found some way to identify with these otherwise faceless characters. Besides, what kind of teen drama doesn’t have a killer soundtrack? Come on!
1. She Had A Pretty Good Life, TBH
Despite all of this, Hannah had two loving parents, a roof over her head, friends, and what seems like a very vanilla suburban school filled with all of the lovable idiosyncrasies one would expect. Like I already mentioned, we don’t get much of a sense for what was really going on in her head, but from what we saw, we really don’t know how this could have lead to her suicide. We don’t blame the victim, but her life seemed pretty great to us, besides the typical high school drama.