Plot Summary: After a teenage girl’s perplexing suicide, a classmate receives a series of tapes that unravel the mystery of her tragic choice (via Netflix).
Suicide is a subject that is rarely at the forefront of any popular piece of film or television. It is a touchy topic, and one that requires a certain amount of tact in order to do it justice. Netflix recently released a series titled 13 Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher’s novel of the same name, that examines suicide and its effects over the course of 13 one-hour episodes. Despite some questionable writing and pacing issues, 13 Reasons Why rises above the conventions associated with young adult content to deliver an uncommonly mature, disturbing portrait of high school life.
I would be remiss if I did not mention my initial hesitance to watch this show. The plot, a girl who creates 13 tapes for 13 people explaining how they contributed to her suicide, sounded like something that belonged on Freeform rather than Netflix. (Yeah yeah calm down. I’m sure there are some good shows on Freeform but the trailers for The Secret Life of an American Teenager still haunt me.) In other words, I expected something more juvenile and TV-14 instead of a TV-MA, Netflix-distributed adaptation. I had it very wrong.
13 Reasons Why earns its TV-MA rating. The series’ Netflix distribution gave it an edge over similar cable fare, providing the developers with more freedom to accurately convey what adolescence can be like. There is nary an episode where “fuck” is not used, a refreshing element as most creators would have gone for more tame profanity. This is a show about high school students and they should talk like high school students.
But where the series truly benefits from its rating is in its depiction of rape and the death of Hannah, the girl who commits suicide. 13 Reasons Why features two depictions of rape and both are very well-handled. The scenes, particularly the last one, are appropriately graphic, as they should be. Rape is a brutal act and it should be portrayed for what it is. Hannah’s death scene is also chillingly realistic. It is the most unapologetically gruesome depiction of suicide that I have ever seen in television or film. Rarely does a piece of art genuinely shake me due to violent content. This scene managed to make me queasy, and I doubt it will leave my memory anytime soon. Some have said that this part goes too far and that it does more harm than good. Even if there is truth in these sentiments, I cannot ignore how this scene impacted me. I am not an expert on how suicide should be portrayed in art, and I can only comment on the artistic value of this scene. To my mind, it is the best moment of the series precisely because of how it stayed with me.
It does take a few episodes before the series hits its stride. 13 Reasons Why tries to balance two different genres, teen drama and mystery, and mostly succeeds. Clay Jensen, the protagonist and eleventh recipient of Hannah’s tapes, is instructed to listen to all 13 tapes and then pass them on to the twelfth tape subject. This plot device forms the basis for the show’s structure, with each episode being devoted to one tape. While this works most of the time, it does feel like the developers are stretching this narrative to its limits. The novel is not a terribly long read at 288 pages. While the show expands on its source material’s content and gives each of the tape subjects more depth, a 10-episode season probably would have provided for a leaner, improved experience. Clay really takes his time to listen to the tapes, and while I can sympathize with his anguish, it can become a bit frustrating.
This plot device is also where I can possibly see the validity behind some reviewers’ criticisms of the show being exploitative. Using a young girl’s suicide as the foundation for a whodunit-esque narrative muddies the waters in regards to the show’s true intentions. But with the fine acting, strong technical presentation and admirable writing on display, it is difficult to dismiss 13 Reasons Why solely as an attempt to cash in on a serious societal problem. This is the rare teen drama that features a high school populated with non-archetypal characters and a candid examination of how our actions, or lack of action for that matter, can deeply affect those around us. That is worthy of commendation.