Despite excess drama, Netflix’s ‘13 Reasons Why’ tackles difficult topics, illustrates authentic adolescent experience

"13 Reasons Why" | Netflix Grade: B+
Beth Dubber/Netflix/Courtesy
"13 Reasons Why" | Netflix
Grade: B+

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Adolescence sucks. Hormones, crushes, bullies, high school: Everything is uncomfortable and awkward and annoyingly difficult to articulate. Because of its universality, the adolescent struggle has become an overdone popular culture trope. From “Grease” to “High School Musical,” “Pretty in Pink” to “Paper Towns,” it seems as if every story has been told, every struggle deeply explored. Yet, even as an addition to the “Young Adult” trope, the new Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” stands on its own, telling an incredibly heart-wrenching story while still authentically conveying the teenage experience.

Based on the best-selling book by Jay Asher, “13 Reasons Why” follows the story of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) who, before committing suicide, records a series of cassette tapes calling out the 13 people who contributed to the decision to end her life. She leaves directions for the tapes to pass from the first person to the next, divulging secrets each teenager desperately tries to keep hidden. Though Hannah’s narration unifies and helps to organize the story, the main plot revolves around Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), the “nice guy” who seems to be different from the assortment of basket cases on the tapes. The story follows Clay as he listens to the recordings and grapples with the Hannah he knew and what role, if any, he played in her death.

The series is split into 13 hourlong episodes, one for each side of a tape, each “reason.” The episodes themselves transition between the past, as narrated by Hannah on the tapes, and the present, as Clay reacts to and tries to create a sort of vigilante justice for Hannah. In trying to blend into the genre of ABC Family teenage mystery drama, the series keeps the audience as in the dark as Clay, slowly dropping clues and dramatically picking them up in later episodes. This mystery often goes too far, at times becoming so confusing that even readers of the book may find it difficult to follow all the different plotlines and secrets. Additionally, several times, the series introduces plotlines and character details that are never mentioned again, seemingly to create drama, but often only leaving the audience as more lost.

Though the telling of the story may be convoluted and overdramatic at times, the importance of its message far outweighs any minor digressions. “13 Reasons Why” tackles issues such as sexual assault and suicide head on, not shying away from disturbing and difficult-to-watch scenes. Many criticize the graphic nature of these episodes, but, as series creator Brian Yorkey notes in the 14th episode (“Beyond the Reasons,” a cast and crew interview episode), “We worked very hard not to be gratuitous, but we did want it to be painful to watch, because we wanted to make it very clear that there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide.”

Despite the inclusion of such uniquely devastating and painful experiences, “13 Reasons Why” stays true to the common adolescent experience by placing emphasis on the little things. Several of Hannah’s “reasons” seem unable to justify her suicide, and many are criticized as trivial and petty by the adult characters. This is one of the most authenticating details in the show. “Teenage brains don’t work the way adult brains work,” Yorkey explains. “Trauma and pain feel like they are going to last forever, and I think (adults) forget that sometimes.” The adults within the show, mainly parents and teachers, help to articulate the invisibility of suicide, depression and mental illness. Heartbreaking performances by Hannah’s parents (Kate Walsh and Brian d’Arcy James) and Clay’s (Amy Hargreaves and Josh Hamilton) prove that even earnest, kind, observant parents can miss everything.

With such difficult topics as suicide, rape, mental illness and domestic violence, the series sometimes gets bogged down in the drama and heartache. Yet through these topics, the show still sends a strong, uplifting message­: Anyone could have saved Hannah Baker had they looked a little closer, cared a little more or said the things they were most scared to say. In the end, “13 Reasons Why” provides a subtle reminder to take the time to reach out and say, as Yorkey puts it, “Hey. What’s up? You matter to me, I’m happy you’re in my world.”

“13 Reasons Why” is currently streaming on Netflix.

Contact Rebecca Gerny at [email protected].