Reviews: Thirteen Reasons Why

Like An Inspector Calls, Only 11 Hours Longer

It's an important part of discovering our place in the world that we, as teenagers, have self-indulgent fantasies about how sad everyone would be if they died suddenly. Thirteen Reasons Why is a dour, prolonged examination of exactly that, in which a girl, Hannah, kills herself and leaves behind a bunch of cassette recordings of herself explaining why.

Our protagonist is Clay, as in "feet of", because it takes him an entire season to listen through all of the recordings, whereas every other one of Hannah's friends else got through them in one go. Gradually, Clay discovers how each of Hannah and his friendship circle played their role in bringing her to suicide. It's An Inspector Calls, except that communicated its point in a two hour stage play. Clay meanwhile takes thirteen to learn how bullying, slut shaming, and things far worse can drive someone to take their own life.

At the heart of Thirteen is some genuinely shocking and saddening moments that have shaken me up more than anything I can remember watching recently . But I find the cassette tape framing device to be contrived, the ping-pong, nonchalant dialogue implausible, and Clay's constant angst to be far too grating for me to take this show as seriously as it so desperately needs to be. Not helping matters is how the movie treats Hannah as an omniscient narrator with endless articulate, worldly wisdom to share. Movies love to portray dead or dying teenagers as ineffable geniuses who speak from a crystal clear perspective, which sends a bad message to any genuinely troubled teenagers looking to use self-harm as a form of taking control.

There is a part towards the end where Hannah, genuinely terrified, gradually kills herself onscreen. Movies rarely show us actual suicides, they keep it out of sight to spare us the grisliness of it, but here it is a hugely effective and humanising thing, and its a scene that deserves to be in a better show. Sadly its stuck in this frustrating vehicle.

A Compelling, Emotional Tragedy

I would say I enjoyed this series, but "enjoyed" isn't really the right word to use for something so heavy and tragic. 13 Reasons Why is a very upsetting show, but it's upsetting in the best way possible, and thought provoking at that.

One of the greatest achievements of this show is how good it is at creating an emotional response. I've seen few other series that are so frequently stirring. This is thanks to many factors, but the two most important are the great performances given by the show's leads: relative newcomers Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford. Both of them do a fantastic job selling the show's more dramatic moments.

Other factors that make the series so compelling and powerful lie behind the camera, however. The show's use of color, cinematography, and music, while sometimes a bit on the nose, does a good job conveying emotion and story without dialogue. Casting the "past" storyline in oranges and reds and the "present" in blues and greys is serves as helpful visual cue to the viewer and contrasts the vibrancy of life with the emptiness of death. Additionally, the show makes a smart decision by leaving most of its more intense content for later episodes, ensuring that the audience is invested enough in the characters to empathize.

This brings us to another major strong point of the 13 Reasons Why: the characters. The writers go to great lengths to deconstruct caricatures and stereotypes. Even when the characters do frankly horrible things, you frequently sympathize with them. Rather than just being straw bullies, predators, and exploiters, most of the characters have real depth and complexity to them, which makes them far more interesting.

The show also deals with some heavy themes, such as empathy, depression, and the Butterfly Effect. The latter is the most effective, as the show goes to great lengths to show how small acts of carelessness or selfishness can have disastrous consequences down the road.

However, I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the show's significant flaws. One is the pacing; the series feels drawn out in places, especially in the early-middle episodes, where there's plenty of filler. There's also significant Narm in certain parts of the series. This is mostly due to the writing, which sometimes struggles in the dialogue department; the actors mostly do a good job no matter their material. The show suffers from the "teen dialogue curse": the dialogue either sounds too adult for teenagers on one hand or trying to hard to be "hip" on the other. However, it's only occasionally distracting (or at least it only was for me).

Despite these significant flaws, I would very much recommend the series. While not perfect, the show is ultimately a beautifully told tragedy that is consistently engaging and engrossing. Few shows have had an effect on me like this show did, and that's saying a lot. I really look forward to seeing what everyone involved does in the future.