Teen dramas tend to be a double edged sword as a genre. While most series of this genre are considered more of a time pass, there is a reason why shows like “My so-called life” and “Freaks and Geeks” continued to be relevant even today, despite not being a financial success then. The same way, I feel “the breakfast club” has to be a mandatory watch for everyone. Because teen drama when done well can be extremely powerful and be a positive and lasting influence on a person, a group or even a generation. “13 Reasons why”, the TV show hits on some targets, but misses out on some significant ones.
So, to summarize, in “13 Reasons why” a 17-year-old girl, Hannah Baker kills herself. She leaves behind 13 sides of cassette tape, on which she has narrated those who have hurt her. Each side concerns the actions of one of her friends (?). They are supposed to listen, then pass the tapes to the next person, in order to learn what they’ve done. Hannah is a martyr of teen angst. we see her story over two timelines, one showing how it all came to be, and a present-day story in which Clay, a nice guy with a crush on her, attempts to understand what happened and tries to come to terms with it.
Now “13 Reasons why” is not without its merit. The production value is brilliant. It is cast really well, and the actors do a really good job with the material at the hand. For me, the stand out HAS TO BE Dylan Minnette as Clay Jensen as he fumbles through this nightmare and Kate Walsh as Olivia Baker in a powerhouse of a performance as she acts around everyone as the distraught mother.Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker does a good job too. And so do almost everyone on it. You DO end up hating everyone you are supposed to ( which is almost everyone) and you do get the gravity of everything that is happening. Each episode ends with a cliffhanger, making you go for the next one. “13 Reasons why” nails the teen angst and the confusion that runs rampant at this age, and it does hit its central point well – how everything that you do has consequence and how we all could do with being more sensitive to other, being more helpful and understanding of the other side of the conversation.
However, all is not sunshiny in the show. Unlike the book, where he listens to the tapes all at once, Clay takes his time over it, confronting those whose secrets are revealed as he discovers their part in it. This is a 288 pages book, so something like this had to be done to stretch it to a series. but maybe a 6-8 episode format could have been better. The result is a dragged out story that made me want to fast forward so many times. The book is a pauseless story that keeps hitting you till it ends with a tragedy and never lets the tension release. The show keeps letting the pressure leave again and again.
While Clay’s journey itself is pretty interesting and Dylan makes it work to such an extent that the show ends up more about the story of Clay reacting to this tragedy than the tragedy itself.And not in a good way sometimes. And despite being stretched, it is still a one sided conversation most of the times and that creates a problematic presentation.
See, one of the things about “13 Reasons why” is no one is blameless. Unfortunately, this applies to Hannah too. She is a person I can sympathize a lot and pity a lot, but cannot like. She is a textbook on what NOT TO DO. Most of the decisions she makes are highly questionable and unlike the book, here she has support structure of her mother ( who despite being busy in her troubles, seems like someone who definitely would have stepped up) and Clay, who was generally there for her ( except once when he was dealing with something terrible). And THE WORST DECISION SHE MAKES, IMO, was to make the tapes themselves. you ask why? here it is.
One of the things about committing suicide is that you no longer exist. Your voice ends. In a move that swings between deserved and vindictive, Hannah clumps 13 people together who have done her some harm and make them responsible for her death. She acts as if her suicide was unavoidable and she has clear reasons, but there aren’t. She doesn’t even seem to have gotten all the facts right. For example, she seems to have thought that a boy tore up an emotional letter she wrote but the fact is the boy carries it with him even after his death, with him always. How much do we trust her narrative? Something the show itself once wonders and then just lets it pass.
Plus she makes all the crimes committed against her as the same. Some of her reasons are quite routine things happening in school life ( not saying they should be excused, but still) and some things are serious assaults and crimes. She makes everyone equally responsible for her death. Her reasons for including Clay in this are a mess. And even though she absolves him of it, but there is no way Clay can come out of this without taking the blame. I know that “13 Reasons why” is trying to say everything matters and has consequences. But IS THIS THE MESSAGE YOU WANT TO GIVE? That everything that happened to Hannah is a valid reason for suicide?
And this is another thing. One of the things the show does is validating the choice Hannah makes. While her choice is understandable, it should not be presented in this way. For all intent and purposes, Hannah goes out in a blaze of glory. In fact, she seems to be RELISHING thinking about what these tapes will do to her tormentors. And the seems to bring actual damage to everyone involved, something that Hannah could not achieve in her life. This is a VERY dangerous message to give. This makes it look like suicide is something that can be inevitable AND fulfilling.
Another similar issue is the depiction of sexual assault and suicide in this show. Now, this is a dicey situation. being silent about this certainly, doesn’t help. And this is a message that needs to be given with some force. But the show does seem to take a no hold bars approach to it, which begs a VERY IMPORTANT QUESTION.
WHO IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE HERE?
Now as well made this is, this is clearly aimed at teens, especially people going through this kind of situation. I have very serious doubts that adults would respond well to this protracted teen angst series, and would actually work against adult viewers ( as in 30+) and feed into their stereotypes. ( another shortcoming IMO) If it is the teens, then this might be too much.
Mindframe, a media initiative, recommends that reporters do not make explicit reference to the method a person may have used to take their own life. Research has shown that graphic and/or sensational portrayals of a method can increase suicide risk among audiences. And research has also shown that teens, especially with similar issues are even more susceptible. Contextualizing the story with information about risk factors, and to avoid stereotyping those involved is also important. A Vienna-based study has found that suicide rates decreased considerably after media outlets committed to ethical reporting guidelines.
“13 Reasons why” fails on multiple fronts on this. It definitely goes no holds bar on the description. Which might be defended as part of a more effective storytelling, fine. But the show does make the error of sensationalizing every trouble Hannah faces and the effect of her tapes. The show also plays on every single stereotype there is, which I found very unfortunate.
I am not sold on Clay the avenger either. For stretching the story, he listens to parts of a single tape at times, goes up to each person and demands answers from them or threatens them or does actual damage. Like all the other characters keep telling him, him not going through all tapes at once like the book creates more problems than solutions, even for him. All this, at the end has done some serious damage to his promising life IMO. It especially makes very little sense why he would not even listen one tape completely, giving him a better picture on at least one crime. There are times when I felt that Clay is as much of a weapon of Hannah, as the tapes – whether she intended it or not.
“13 Reasons why” even ends with a cliffhanger that doesn’t exist in the book. And you can see its is to keep open end for a season 2 -which I just hated. There is no justification of the said event in the show. Which means the second season will justify it in an even more morbid way.
On a side note, book Hannah was more a victim. And that drives what everyone does to her with little actions on her side more poignantly. Show misses out on that.
The show is a really well made and well-acted performance that is largely gripping in nature for most parts. And despite having pacing issues, and has a penetrating message. But it is certainly an irresponsible presentation, which most health care professionals are calling it on. Its methodology may be flawed considering it’s target. And its misses out on a part of the message that book carries. Despite having stretched like bubble gum, “13 Reasons why” misses out on the chance to make the other side of conversation be heard. Which IMO in some cases would have been really great. ( some cases don’t need that, agreed)
I hope this show is received by the target audience as what it should be ( because this will be HUGE), a cautionary tale. And not what Hannah seems to think it is, a fantasy of revenge…
With some great performance and production value, but with an irresponsible presentation, I rate this at 6/10.
Recommendations: Please watch “freaks and Geeks”, “My so-called life” and “The breakfast club”. They are true gems on teen psyche, even though they are no way this morbid, and less shocking/penetrating.