Netflix's 13 Reasons Why Is Hard to Watch, But a Must for Everyone
It is never easy to talk about suicide—even less to binge-watch a show about it. But “easy” is not the point of Netflix’s newest hit teen drama 13 Reasons Why. Nothing about the show or the realities it seeks to address is easy or comfortable—and it is not supposed to be.
Teen dramas, for all their juvenilia, are no strangers to tackling tough, complex and often taboo social issues. Even with their high school setting, adolescent angst, and propensity for stereotypical characters, teen series never shied away from telling stories with sensitive themes.
Amid young love, friendships, and coming-of-age narratives, high school series like Veronica Mars, Friday Night Lights, Glee, and Skins, to name a few, have also explored stories about misogyny, violence, drug abuse, homophobia, sexual assault, teen pregnancy, and depression, among many others.
13 Reasons Why, based on American author Jay Asher’s 2007 young adult novel, follows in its predecessors’ footsteps, but it is no ordinary melodrama about troubled high-schoolers acting out and behaving badly.
The premise of the series is told in the first 15 minutes of the pilot: Over a week after teenager Hannah Baker (Australian newcomer Katherine Langford) died by suicide, her classmate Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette, Scandal, Awake) comes home to a small package on his doorstep. Inside are seven cassette tapes in which Hannah detailed the various reasons that contributed to her decision to kill herself. On each side of the tapes, and consequently each episode of the series, she name-drops one by one all of the people involved in her death—and Clay is horrified to learn he is one of them.
It is advisable for everyone to heed the trigger warnings in the beginning of some episodes, as the show can be brutal, though not exploitative, and straightforward in its treatment of certain sensitive scenes.
13 Reasons Why, much like the novel it is based on, is a grim look at the harsh realities teens face in their everyday lives. Bullying, slut-shaming, sexual assault, rape and rape culture, toxic masculinity, depression, stalking, and alcohol and drug abuse—these are but some of the issues the series addresses in the course of 13 episodes.
Book-to-screen adaptations often pale in comparison to their source material. We’ve all heard (and said) the argument that “the book is better” when discussing literature-based films and television shows. But Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why is proof that adaptations can surpass their origins—thanks to the adept handling of the original story by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Brian Yorkey, the sensitive direction of a slew of skilled directors, including Spotlight’s Tom McCarthy and Oscar-winning documentarian Jessica Yu, and the portrayal of the mostly well-rounded multicultural and gender-diverse characters.
13 Reasons Why may be a faithful adaptation of Asher’s New York Times bestseller, but by the third episode, it’s clear that this not the exact same tale. The beats are there, but it’s a richer and a more nuanced story. Yorkey and his pool of writers were wise to expand the story when they translated it to the small screen. The narrow focus of the book on Hannah’s story has always been a double-edged sword.
On one hand, Asher’s decision to make Hannah the narrator upended the dead girl trope. Often, dead girls in literature (and on screen) are used as a mere plot device, a means to drive the narrative forward. The story starts because of their death but it never becomes about the girls themselves. It’s more of a murder-mystery, a classic whodunit where the dead are necessary for the character growth of the (often, male) living protagonist. But 13 Reasons Why is no crime drama. The mystery here is not the who, it’s the why.
In the series, Hannah remains the force driving her own narrative. We hear about what happened in her own voice and in her own words. We see the world as she saw it, skewed as it may be. But the show’s writers didn’t stop there. What the book forgets in its desire to put Hannah in the center is no life story exists in a vacuum.
The show reveals how people’s words, actions and even indifference can inflict pain and snowball into something even more treacherous.
Similar to how the people around Hannah influenced her decision to end her life, Hannah’s actions—especially her death—also have a resounding effect on the people she left behind. Not only do we see how her suicide has affected Clay, the other people who listen to her tapes, her classmates and teachers, and her parents, we also get an understanding of who these people are and why they did what they have done. And this is where 13 Reasons Why truly shines.
The show reveals how people’s words, actions and even indifference can inflict pain and snowball into something even more treacherous. How minor incidents—from seemingly superficial betrayals to casual cruelties—can contribute to a tragedy. It breaks down the idea of complicity in the advent of a suicide. And how adults—from school administrators and teachers to parents themselves—can often be blind and deaf to the struggles of the children they are supposed to guide and protect.
The two leads, Langford and Minnette, are the clear stars of the show. The duo’s portrayal of the shy, awkward star-crossed lovers are flawed, believable, and sympathetic. Their chemistry is unmistakable on screen, so much so that even if we know from the get-go how this tragic story ends, we can’t help but hope they find their happily-ever-after.
Harrowing and gut-wrenching the show may be, the story it tells is sincere, ruthlessly honest, and very, very powerful.
Langford is careful to portray Hannah as the flawed person that she was—smart yet naively romantic, impulsive, sensitive and even vengeful—and not as a suicide statistic. Minnette, on the other hand, effectively dismantles Clay’s “nice guy” stereotype, showing us that though he is relatively kind and well intentioned, he is also terribly insecure and can be vindictive.
Of the supporting cast, Kate Walsh (Private Practice) as Hannah’s mom deserves the highest praise. Walsh is superb in the role, delivering a heartfelt performance in every tense moment she’s on screen. Her anguish and anger are palpable as she portrays a grieving parent trying to make sense of her daughter’s death.
Though its expanded storylines and cast performances are commendable, 13 Reasons Why is by no means perfect. It feels bloated in the middle as it amps up tensions and urgency in revealing of the truth behind Hannah’s death. Several scenes (and certain characters) can be repetitive, which become frustrating to watch given Netflix’s preference for marathon viewing. The episodes also seem a couple of minutes too long, particularly as it drags out several subplots that don’t really engage.
We are also under no illusions that a show like 13 Reasons Why is enjoyable to watch. It may very well be the first Netflix original program that isn’t conducive for the video-streaming service’s binge-watching model. Watching its 50-minute episodes back to back can be emotionally and mentally exhausting.
Impressionable audience members may also find its graphic and detailed portrayal of suicide too disturbing. Something that series writer Yorkey has defended in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter: “We wanted to confront the fact that suicide is messy, ugly and it’s incredibly painful. There’s nothing peaceful or beautiful about it at all. It’s horrific to endure and it’s horrific for the people that a person who commits suicide leaves behind. We wanted to tell that story truthfully.”
The scene showing Hannah’s suicide isn’t at all gratuitous or glamorized, this we agree, but the drawn-out step-by-step depiction could be problematic. It is advisable for everyone to heed the trigger warnings in the beginning of some episodes, as the show can be brutal, though not exploitative, and straightforward in its treatment of certain sensitive scenes.
We should also remember that 13 Reasons Why, as compelling a show as it is, is no academic study on suicide. Though the show did bust the myth that only individuals who have mental disorders are suicidal, suicide remains a complex public health issue. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, “there is no single cause” for it, but mental health conditions do play a part in increasing the risk for suicide.
13 Reasons Why, though not without its criticisms, is too important not to be given a chance. It is arguably one of the most, if not the most, significant teen series of 2017. Harrowing and gut wrenching the show may be, the story it tells is sincere, ruthlessly honest, and very, very powerful.
It raises important questions about and demands frank discussions on the issues and themes it tackles throughout the show. It pushes us not just to talk about suicide or bullying or to examine the various ways we hurt each other. At the end of the day, 13 Reasons Why wants us—like Clay and the people Hannah names in her tapes—to start listening, even when the person who’s hurting hasn’t spoken, and ultimately, to care.
The complete season of 13 Reasons Why is available for streaming on Netflix.
Hopeline is Philippines’ 24/7 suicide prevention hotline. Seek help by calling (02) 804-4637, (+63917) 558-4673, and 2919 for Globe and TM subscribers.