13 Reasons Why, based on a YA novel by Jay Asher (which I have not read), details the suicide of a high school junior and causes and consequences of her death.
It’s one of the most powerful shows to stream on Netflix.
The series premiere opens with a shot of a locker turned memorial (complete with students taking selfies in front of it) before following Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) through a weird encounter with Jason (Brandon Flynn)and into his next class where the topic is what to do if you’re thinking of killing yourself.
Then he heads home from school to find a parcel on his porch. Inside is a set of thirteen cassette tapes and a list of names. Curious, he begins to play tape number one and is shocked to discover that the package is from his friend Hannah (Kristine Langford) – who committed suicide weeks earlier.
She establishes the reason for the tapes – she wants everyone who played a part in her decision to know how they contributed to her suicide – and the rules: listen and pass the box of tapes on.
That’s quite the list, too: Jason, the jock with whom she had her first, sweet, kiss; Jessica (Alisha Boe), who became her friend when the school guidance counselor paired the two new girls together; Valentine’s Day date Marcus (Steven Silver); Courtney (Michele Selene Ang) and even Clay, who fell in love her but never quite worked up the nerve to tell her. In short, the list encompasses almost every clique imaginable.
While there are a lot of characters, we really only get to know a few well: Clay, Hannah, and Hannah’s mom (Kate Walsh) in particular – all filtered through Clay’s point of view.
What Clay hears on the tapes is disturbing – enough that he tries to talk others on the list, though they’re not open to it. His friend Tony (Christian Navarro) seems to know a bit more about what’s going than he does – but Tony refuses to share.
Kate Walsh’s Mrs. Baker adds to the grim aspect of the series with her unceasing determination to figure out why Hannah felt that she had to die. Walsh is staggering in the role – she wants so much to understand.
Some of the kids on the tapes want the whole thing to go away – some resort to implied violence and claiming Hannah lied. The more Clay hears, the more a mental picture of what happened begins to coalesce – and it’s not pretty.
13 Reasons Why is a prodigious achievement. It treats the subject of suicide, and its causes, with gravity and nuance – and deals honestly with the effects suicide has on those who are left behind.
It would have been so easy for the series to be little more than a series of After School Specials, but instead, the seven writers and five directors who have brought 13 Reasons Why to life have opted to take a much more difficult path. There’s no glossing over; no by rote talking points, no fear for presenting the subject accurately and in depth.
Which is not to say that there’s no humor or with here. There are moments that are hilarious and even a few that are genuinely romantic.
The Netflix adaptation was created by Brian Yorkey and his writers’ room included writers from The Fosters, United States of Tara, American Crime, Shameless, Recovery Road and Covert Affairs among others. He also enlisted directors like Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin) and Tom McCarthy (Spotlight).
While there are a couple of arcs that feel tacked on – like the lawsuit sub-plot that seems to wither away – 13 Reasons Why is compelling because it’s real. It does not flinch and play it safe at any point.
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