A raw, gut-wrenching, and emotionally draining portrayal of just how cruel being a teenager can be
At first, anyone would think 13 Reasons Why is going to be just like any other teen drama. Instead it is something more. Served to us by Netflix, 13 Reasons Why is an incredibly faithful adaption of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel in which Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a high school student, commits suicide but leaves behind a series of cryptic audio tapes for a certain few classmates who she says all played a part in her death. Each classmate has one tape that was specifically about them and how they contributed to their classmate’s suicide. We mainly follow Clay Jenson (Dylan Minnette), a socially awkward 17-year-old who had a secret/ not so secret crush on Hannah when they were at school together.
Apart from the odd friendly banter between Clay and Hannah or the recurring joke about Clay and his fellow students being completely puzzled by the concept of cassette tapes, there’s little humour to be found in this dark, and heavy adaptation. I would have to say I found 13 reasons why to be a completely emotionally draining experience. Although I watched the whole first season in one day, I would recommend taking breaks between each episode to allow yourself to emotionally adjust.
The series focuses largely on bullying and how it mentally effects a person. Hannah experiences just about every form of humiliation high school life could possibly throw at a person – from social isolation and many forms of petty gossip to sexual harassment and much worse. The outcome is inevitable, so it’s more of a story about how and why so many of those close to Hannah failed to save her before it was too late.
Although she’s new to the acting scene, Langford shines in the lead role as Hannah. There’s a bright spark to Hannah that begins to fade over the course of the series as she becomes increasingly worn down by life’s obstacles. Langford embodies that optimism and that deep sadness well in my opinion. Minnette’s portrayal of Clay is of a solemn reserved character. Clay, as we watch him listen to the tapes, is practically a walking zombie tormented with grief, confusion, and fear equally about what he’ll learn when he eventually reaches his tape and hears what Hannah will say about his involvement. Even in the past, Clay obviously struggles to express his emotions and open up to those around him including Hannah. Minnette does a perfect job in what’s a difficult role, though the show does rely a little too much on shots of Clay gazing contemplatively into the distance as he recalls his interactions Hannah when she was still around.
In general, 13 Reasons Why brags a strong cast that tends to make the most of the characters they play. Initially, Clay and Hannah’s classmates seem to fit into the usual high school stereotypes -jocks, cheerleaders, preppy overachievers, slackers, etc. But as each member of the thirteen is exposed in turn, they show a real depth and anguish that reminds viewers that Hannah was hardly the only one who suffered from loneliness and a deep sickness or depression. Standouts include Alisha Boe who plays the psychologically disturbed cheerleader Jessica Davis and Brandon Flynn as her equally tortured boyfriend, Justin Foley.
It’s definitely possible that 13 Reasons Why would have benefited from a lesser approach, with a slightly smaller episode. I found that it took a bit too long to reach the series climax and what we were all waiting for (Clay’s tape of course). But regardless, it tells a very important story about the disturbed secret lives of modern teens and the many ways the world and the system can fail them, ultimately elevating the Young Adult genre to new heights. The show always feels authentic rather than preachy in its attempt to teach us the important lesson of listening to people when they may be trying to reach out for help. Even in the final episode, as most remaining loose ends are resolved, the show does not provide any easy answers or complete closure for us. Like Clay, viewers are left to decide their own truth about Hannah Baker’s unfortunate death.
In conclusion, 13 Reasons Why is far from the most enjoyable viewing experience Netflix has to offer, but it is definitely a very powerful and hard-hitting series. The show explores the build-up to and aftershock of a teen’s heart-breaking suicide with great care, painting a considerable portrait of one teen broken by life and another determined to find answers, and easily ranks among the best high school dramas of the 21st Century.
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