It’s been a while since I’ve written about a whole season of a show rather than a movie, and funnily enough, the last one I wrote about was also a Netflix series. Sure, I’ve written about John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper‘s episodes of Masters of Horror, but those are pretty much short films independent of each other rather than one cohesive story told though multiple episodes. What am I saying, you know what a TV show is, you’re not an idiot (I hope). This show has stirred up a lot of controversy with people jumping on either side of the fence and naturally so, being a show that tackles subjects like depression, suicide, and sexual assault. Some people are adamant that the show inaccurately portrays these things and their consequences and that the show is doing more harm than good, while some others feel like this show is taking a brave stance to bring these subjects to light in a time when they’re the most relevant to our current youth culture. I’m not here to tell one side or another which is right or wrong. I’m here to just, like, give my opinion, man.
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past month and a half, 13 Reasons Why is the newest Netflix series to take the world by storm. In small town USA, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a girl who has just moved to town and started in Liberty High School has killed herself. Slit wrists in a bathtub. After her death, her classmates find a box of cassette tapes, each side dedicated to a person or an event that she believes led her to take her own life. The tapes make their way to Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette, who was quite good in Don’t Breathe), a quiet, smart kid who was a friend of Hannah’s. Through his eyes we get to see Hannah’s story and everything that culminated in her taking her own life. This show is based on the book of the same name, written by Jay Asher. I haven’t read the book and I don’t intend to. I don’t care how faithful or unfaithful it is to the source material, I just care how well it holds up on its own.
I find myself having trouble deciding where to start with this, so I guess I’ll just start at what jumps out in my mind the most. 13 Reasons Why feels artificial. Manufactured. I think that creating art (and TV can be art, fight me) about the same serious subjects included in 13 Reasons Why is important, sure, but the way you go about bringing it to the screen is equally important. Clocking in at nearly thirteen hours long, this show feels like a Netflix series more than a proper creative statement. I mean, it is a Netflix series, but it has a certain aesthetic that other Netflix series seem to have. Think of the host of reality TV shows out there that typically follow the same structure, not just as entire shows, but episode to episode. Since Netflix is now a force to be reckoned with in the entertainment industry, it’s only been a matter of time before it began getting stuck in a rut and generating its own tropes. This could easily be a four or five part mini-series, but the decision to bloat out the story by making each side of each tape it’s own hour long episode just so you can neatly pack 13 Reasons Why into 13 episodes is contrived. Some of the events descried on the sides of the tapes are of such small scale that they should have been lumped together into an episode or two. When you can barely fill half an episode with relevant content, you’re stuck fabricating drama just to meet your required run time. I wouldn’t doubt for an instant that there was some serious studio meddling going on here and while the show definitely has its merits, it’s got some serious flaws, too.
13 Reasons Why takes the fact that it’s about a serious and heavy subject matter as a way to allow it mask the formulaic and clinical heart-tugging it employs pretty much constantly. You’re already in a different state when you sit down to watch this show. You’ve been primed. You know it’s about suicide, you’ve heard that Netflix had to start putting up viewer discretion warnings because of how dark and intense the show gets; you’re ready to open up and have a vulnerable experience. When the music kicks in and characters start pouting, you can already feel the tears starting to well up in the corner of your eyes, but funnily enough you’re not sure why. You aren’t really attached to any of the characters, and you think a lot of the dialogue is kind of cheesy, but you’re getting emotional anyways. Think of every lame, family friendly comedy that tricks you into thinking the film has a heart in it’s last 15 minutes of it. Sure, the subject matter is totally different here, but the techniques employed are pretty much identical, only in 13 Reasons Why, they’re used every episode. Once the glass shatters, it’s tough to see 13 Reasons Why as anything other than a mechanical product. I’m sure there was a streamlined, cohesive show in existence somewhere during production, but a boardroom of old suits must have decided to come along and ruin it. If you’re familiar with my writing so far, you’d know that a boardroom of old suits deciding to come along and ruin things is one a surefire way to make me irrationally salty about your project.
I can laud the show for its performances and its inclusion of an incredibly diverse cast, but even something as no-brainer as including characters of varying ethnicities, sexualities, and genders still seems stilted and forced when it comes across your screen in an episode of 13 Reasons Why. Again, it feels like old, straight, white guys in suits left their greasy fingerprints all over the series. There are two openly gay characters in 13 Reasons Why, and they’re both portrayed as either extreme ends of a spectrum. One fits the old, dated stereotype from ’80s and ’90s comedies, all the way down to the skinny jeans and the lisp, while the other is a macho-tough guy with tattoos and he works on muscle cars. See how progressive we are? We have a gay character who does manly-man things. While I don’t doubt that there is a small portion of people who fit either of these archetypes there are also a whole slew of people who live in between these two extremes who I fail to see represented in 13 Reasons Why. Maybe I’m reading too far into things here but regardless, it’s something that’s bothered me since I finished the series.
So, what good things do I have to say about 13 Reasons Why? I know I’m a grumpy asshole, but honestly not a whole lot. It’s well acted and the direction and cinematography is pretty alright, but it isn’t anything special. The only part of the show I was seriously invested in was how the parents interacted and dealt with all the events that transpired. The adults, while being the best actors and actresses in the whole production were best able to work with the script and portray convincing and interesting characters with the proper amount of charisma and subtlety. I would totally watch a show about Hannah’s parents dealing with the aftermath of their daughter’s suicide, or a show about Clay’s parents dealing with a teenager already hesitant about sharing his life with them who is now thrown into something completely over his head. The parents were the only part of 13 Reasons Why that didn’t feel superficial or unnecessarily bloated to me, and so I gravitated towards them throughout the whole series. Also there’s a super cute punk chick in it, so, um, yeah.
By the end of the final episode I was seriously underwhelmed,not only by the ending which in itself is a huge problem (that in itself warrants a whole article about shoehorning in cliffhangers to set up unnecessary sequels, but I digress) but by the whole show. My partner and I watched it over a few days, and by the end of it and after having a day to process it, I felt like it was a waste of time. There are much, much better ways to spend thirteen hours of your life watching TV. You can watch things that offer a much more sincere look at the same topics, that are better made and overall leaner in execution. After having a little while to digest the whole series now, I can honestly say that I would not recommend it to anybody who is on the fence about watching it. Go watch In Bruges six times instead.