There is a strong lack of films centered around teenagers. Or at least there is a strong lack of films that take teenagers seriously. Still, we are stuck with the “teen party” movie that deals with the same clichés that have been around since the 1980s. TV has many teen shows. There are some that are well done but I’ve always felt that there was an edge missing to a lot of these. A lot of shows (especially those on the CW) have the appearance of what High Schoolers are like but in reality, are written but those who only think they know what high schoolers are like; the authenticity isn’t there. The market feels devoid of high school or teenager films that take the subject of being a teenager seriously. We always refer back the John Hughes days of high school movies as the benchmark with “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller”. But, those are over 30 years old now, there needs to be a new wave. Last year’s “The Edge of Seventeen” did help fill some of that void with its sharp wit and impeccable drama.
With all that in mind, I was somewhat intrigued with “13 Reasons Why” but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was going to be Netflix attempting to be a CW show. But as I struggled to get through Marvel’s latest Netflix show “Iron Fist” (seriously when does it get interesting?) I kept getting recommended “13 Reasons Why” by friends so I finally decided to give it a shot. I binged it in a short span of two days. “13 Reasons Why” is the series I’ve been waiting for. This deals with the life of suburban high schoolers with earnestness and respect. It develops an intriguing mystery that equals part frustrating but addictive at the same time. “13 Reasons” deals in the realm of ambiguity and nuance. Its small flaws are easily forgivable but just how well-realized the final product as a whole actually is.
The show centers around the suicide of a young teenager named Hannah. Before her death, she made 13 cassette tapes revealing the 13 reasons why she committed suicide and these tapes fall into the hands of her friend Clay. He listens to the tapes to find out what happened but only to discover others have heard it and have their agendas and to the shock of Clay, he might be on the tapes.
show is clearly going for. “13 Reasons” wants to delve deep into the lives of high schoolers. It does accomplish that by creating real, interesting and involved characters around a highly conceptualized premise. The premise of the show gives the series it’s binge-worthy appeal. It’s an interesting storytelling device that allows the writers to jump back and forth in time to tell its unique story. Each episode is a new tape and you learn a bit more about all the pieces to the puzzle as to why Hannah committed suicide. The writing is able to tease the audience enough for them to want to learn more. How does Clay fit into this? What are the lives of these teenagers like? Why are some of the teens afraid of their secrets getting out? There is a lot of teasing the audience and it does ride up to the point of frustration because you have to wait so long to get all the answers that you’re teased. However, I think since this is on Netflix I’d almost give this series a pass on that frustration. With Netflix you get all 13 episodes at once, you don’t have to wait (and you can be like me and watch this in two days).
What’s nice is in all that mystery and it’s 13 episode run the teenagers are written realistically and compellingly. There are many characters to try and keep track of (sometimes it’s hard when everyone has the most generic name possible) but having each episode revolve around a new tape it means nearly every character gets a moment to shine or at the very least be fleshed out. Characters that seem bad can be humanized. There is a nuance to the actions they take on the show. There is ambiguity. The nice thing is no one is infallible, even Hannah. You can have a debate and discussion surrounding the characters and their actions. Also, the series doesn’t hold back on the lifestyle of teenagers. They curse, they have sex, they do drugs, they drink alcohol, and they go through horrible traumatic situations. They live in a bubble where high school and their social hierarchy are important and even the smallest things can lead students down a dark path. In hindsight, the things that upset us high school may not now as adults but the series takes the perspective of being in the middle of that social fire. Most adults want to convince themselves that this doesn’t exist (which makes me question if they ever went to high school) but the fact of the matter is it does. “13 Reasons” isn’t gratuitous but it doesn’t hold back either and doesn’t shy away from difficult and disturbing subject matter. There are more than a few scenes that were tough for myself to watch and there more than a few emotional moments that are genuine. It’s refreshing for the characterizations of teenagers being dealt with in an earnest way without succumbing to genre clichés or being looked down upon.
The cast is large and numerous. Too many to mention everyone but nearly everyone did a good job. There are few moments here and there when a line delivery was off but when it really counted all the actors really delivered. A few of the standouts are Katherine Langford as Hannah (who is actually British in real life), Christian Navarro as Tony, Miles Heizer as Alex, Dylan Minnette as Clay, Alisha Boe as Jessica, Brandon Flynn as Justin, Amy Hargreaves as Mrs. Jenson, and especially Kate Walsh and Brian d’Arcy James as Mr. and Mrs. Baker. There isn’t really a weak spot just some standout more than others.
Is the series flawed? A little bit. There are some storylines that hit lulls in the middle of the season and the constant teasing does get frustrating from time to time. Also, some of the dialogue could have used some polishing. Most of it is good but there are cringe-worthy lines in the first couple of episodes especially.
I never read the book so I couldn’t say how true to the novel it is or not (or if there is enough material for a second season) but as a series, I think this work very well. It surprised me and went far and above my expectations. Part of me doesn’t want to see a second season because there is a sense of closure but at the same time, there are some open plot threads that are not resolved that feel like are needed to be resolved. Whichever direction they take the show it will be a difficult task to create something as addicting and real as this first season was. Perhaps this will start a new wave of well-developed teenager lead dramas