13 Reasons Why is arguably the most talked about show in America right now. Everybody and their mother has an opinion on the dark mystery/teen message show, split right down the middle between those who find its themes and story highly important and those who feel it is dangerous to those with mental health issues. Some people have started on one side of the debate only to switch to the other, and some are so passionate they’re cursing others out on social media. Whenever something has become so controversial to the point it is the country’s biggest conversation starter, it is the job of the critics to make sense of it all with an unbiased eye, judge it on its own merits, and wade through the sh*t without letting the various opinions affect you. “Hot takes” are a plague on this country, ruining entertainment and so much more, and it is my job and my duty to formulate an educated opinion without the influence of these parasites on intelligence. So for these reasons, I sat down to formulate my own opinion. And, quite frankly, in the end, I didn’t find my final conclusions represented in any of the various think pieces on the show.
Let’s address what the show’s about before I get into my opinion. Based on the novel of the same name, the show follows the small town of Crestmont, California as it is thrown into disarray after seventeen year old Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) commits suicide. No one understands why, her grief-stricken parents are suing the school, and many of the kids want to move on and forget the whole awful ordeal. All except Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), an awkward boy who was distant friends with Hannah, as well as secretly in love with her. So imagine his shock when a box appears on his porch with a series of cassette tapes recorded by Hannah, listing the thirteen people whose mistreatment of her resulted in her death. A horrified Clay delves into the mystery, uncovering several secrets the popular kids of the school would rather keep secret, on a desperate quest to find out why this girl did what she did, as well as figure out the reason his name belongs at all.
So I’m going to jump right to the heart of the controversy and discuss the most serious moment of the show from the get-go: the depiction of Hannah’s suicide. There has been some debate over whether this scene was necessary at all, with some saying it was an important artistic choice while others feel it was dangerous to mental health around the world, and with therapists and consultants split down the middle over how much the show actually took their advice (some say they followed to the letter while others claimed they were ignored). Undeniably, it is a difficult to watch scene, and I think that’s the point. The show clearly details Hannah’s process as she slits her own wrists. Now, if I’m being honest, I’m onboard with the depiction of suicide, if it pertains to the themes of the movie and is handled as tastefully as possible. I don’t think The Shawshank Redemption, An Officer and a Gentleman, or Boogie Nights pack the same punch if you don’t make a point of what this world has done to the characters to push them to their limits. And that’s what 13 Reasons Why is attempting to do with its scene. The message here is not an “it gets better” thing, even if that’s where the hope lies. It’s about who we are as people, and why we need to be better to everyone around us, let alone the people with mental health issues that we often take for granted. It’s not meant necessarily to save the life of someone in a similar situation (although it does have that as a tertiary goal). It’s meant as a wake-up call to the rest of the world, in a quest to make them better people. I respect that message, and I will defend the show’s choice in depicting it. However, there is one major issue that bugs me about the scene. Regardless of intention, it is a known rule in film, television, and literature that the longer you depict something, and the longer it takes you to cut away, the closer you get to sensationalization and, eventually, fetishization. I don’t think that was the intention of the showrunners at all, but as the scene goes on for almost four minutes, showing a painful, heart-stopping buildup followed by horrifically detailed death shakes, it reaches a point where it stops feeling important and starts feeling romanticized, which is a very dangerous thing. I feel they could have gotten the same, if not better, impact if you shorten the buildup and cut the shakes. And I’d also feel just a bit less likely to throw up immediately after watching it, which I would greatly appreciate.
So now that I’ve established my opinion on the questionable scene, I guess that means I must be coming down on the positive side, right? Well, not so fast. Here’s what the people debating this show are overlooking. It is undeniable that this show is trying to grapple with serious issues facing teens. And I can’t think of two better creators than Tom McCarthy and Brian Yorkey to create art out of pain. McCarthy is fresh off an Oscar win for the fantastically cathartic Spotlight, while Yorkey almost single-handedly is responsible for the greatest piece of art about mental illness, the musical Next to Normal. With their keen eyes and steady hands, it should be a no-brainer that this show would handle serious issues realistically and honestly. Instead, we get the indie scene’s version of Degrassi. What do I mean by this? Well, Degrassi is a teen soap opera from Canada that is something of a pop culture staple. The show deals with a variety of serious issues, just like 13 Reasons Why. However, they have no understanding of how teenagers operate, their caricatures of cliques and stereotypes are ridiculous at best, and the writing and dialogue will make your head spin. Somehow, this is what we end up with on 13 Reasons Why. Each episode follows the most absurd layout: Clay begins to listen to one of the tapes where something awful happens to Hannah, Clay remembers the awful thing, which he made worse by saying something dumb to Hannah, the bullies show up to threaten Clay, Lane from Gilmore Girls (real name Keiko Agena) shows up to give a lecture that pertains to the themes of the episode, Clay doesn’t think he can continue with the tapes, Hannah’s friend Tony shows up to tell him to finish the tapes, and then Clay begins the next tape. In between, it is revealed that the writers never conferred with each other over characterization, because their motivations change from episode to episode. In one scene, Justin Foley, the school bully, is planning to literally murder Clay, while in the next episode he is one of the most sympathetic on the show, with no sign of growth. Nothing about this dialogue feels real, and every choice feels like it could have been easily preventable. I read the book several years ago, so I can’t remember if it was that hokey from the get-go or if the anti-millenial influence of recent years got to the creators, but either way, this is not the hill for anyone to die on, whether they think it is an important look at mental health or are offended by its portrayals.
Meanwhile, Hannah is an interesting character, and not just because the show revolves around her death. There’s a lot to praise about this portrayal and performance, especially because of the 21 year old Katherine Langford, who is an absolute joy (and pain) to watch. The writers do an excellent job of mapping out her journey, as well as helping the audience connect with a girl they know is going to die by her own hand. It’s no small feat to make an audience actively root and hope for an outcome they know can’t and won’t happen, and the fact I kept praying for something, anything to go differently so that she could finally be happy and continue to live is a testament to what the creators have managed to pull off here. However, there are a few flaws with this portrayal, and most have to do with the writing. As I mentioned above, there is something of an inconsistency in the way this episode flows from one episode to the next. While I believed Hannah’s journey and what led her to her death, I never actually felt like she was becoming depressed. In fact, I often felt the opposite. People in Hannah’s position usually blame themselves for the horrors that befall them, and are rarely ever lucid in their issues. Not only is Hannah able to perfectly pinpoint the people responsible, she never once shows signs that she blames herself, except for one line where she says “I guess I’m the slut everyone’s taken me for” after being raped. And that line feels so out-of-place without proper buildup that it stands out to the ear as false and ill-conceived. Oh, and I always found it odd that her “endearing trait” with Clay was that she mocks him about what is very clearly Asperger’s. I have no qualms with Langford’s performance-it really is the best thing about this show-but for some reason the writers never do her justice.
There are, however, some positives to the show. The last five episodes real kick things into gear. Director Jessica Yu is a name to watch out for, because episodes 11 and 12 are two of the best television moments of the year. Yu has a clear vision on how to depict things, using fantasy sequences and flashbacks to great effect, and demonstrating a clear understanding of not only what someone who feels unlovable is going through, but what it’s like to be living in regret when you feel like you could have stopped someone from hurting themselves. Furthermore, her depiction of rape in Episode 12 is one of the most painful in film history, and yet it is undeniably necessary, removing any sense of fetishization that is often seen in other shows and films and focusing solely on the pain being inflicted without ever crossing over into more graphic territory. Perhaps the director of Episode 13 should have watched what Yu was doing when working on the portrayal of suicide, because that is how you handle unwatchable subject matter down to a T. Other episodes try to touch on similar ideas (Episodes 5 and 7 also use dream sequences to depict Clay’s Survivor’s Guilt), but usually devolve into campy melodrama, even if I give them props for trying. Stick to the Jessica Yu episodes if you want to watch something truly substantial.
As with almost every teen soap opera (which is what this is, no matter what the creators and fans want to call it), the performances are all over the board. Some are future or current stars with a litany of talent. Katherine Langford is a name to watch going forward, making a sad character narrating from the dead into a beloved high school character on par with Molly Ringwald. She’s lovable and feisty and a great character and performance, and I think we can expect to hear Langford’s name for years to come. Alisha Boe is well-cast as the popular Jessica who slowly comes apart in light of the revelations. Ross Butler is likable and hateable and altogether realistic as Zach Dempsey. Arguably the best performance outside of Langford comes from the artsy but cool Miles Heizer as Alex Standall. And of the adults (who are all decent actors, regardless of how irritating their characters’ stupidity is, from Brian d’Arcy James to Steven Weber), Kate Walsh stands out as a grieving mother who just wants to do right by her late daughter. It’s the same kind of role she played in Perks of Being a Wallflower, but amped up to 10. Meanwhile, some of the performances are deeply flawed or irritating, but have some promise in scenes or performance. Since I mentioned Perks earlier, I should point out that lead actor Minnette spends the course of the show doing a poor impression of Logan Lerman in the 2012 classic. However, he does have some great moments, including two phenomenal meltdowns, a few good fantasy sequences, and almost any time he and Langford feel natural opposite each other (they have great chemistry). I also thought that Brandon Flynn and Michele Selene Ang were inconsistent and over the top characters, but when they had solid material to work with, they could really land it. And then there’s the terrible performances. I didn’t think Devin Druid was terrible as Tyler Down, the class creep/conspiracy theorist, but the way his character was treated was so offensively bad I could never feel anything but hatred for the writers when he was onscreen. Sosie Bacon plays a goth girl and successfully proves that she was only cast because of her famous parents. Justin Prentice isn’t necessarily bad as Bryce Walker, the school assh*le, but he is so over-the-top, and looks so much like a 30 year old, he never feels right alongside the rest of this cast. And then there’s Christian Navarro. Everything goes wrong with the characterization of Tony. The contradicting characterizations of Tony (Italian, gay, muscular brawler, sensitive poet) are made more confusing by Navarro’s performance. I can’t tell if he’s a bad actor, miscast, in a terribly written role, or all of the above, but it is such a mismatch I grew annoyed every time he’s onscreen.
Listen, I really appreciate what the show is attempting to do. These are serious issues, and attempting to talk about them in any medium is incredibly important. And I respect Tom McCarthy and Brian Yorkey. I don’t blame them at all for the flaws in this show, because they are truly impressive creators. However, this is overall a lackluster attempt to deal with mental illness and teen drama. Outside of the promise of Jessica Yu’s talent and Katherine Langford’s performance, and with the exception of the last few episodes, the show never comes close to the promise of its premise or the change it wants to bring about. I appreciate the effort, but the people this show wants to help, as well as the people that need to be changed by this show, deserve so much more. Oh, and if Season 2 goes the road it seems to be headed towards, odds are things aren’t going to get any better.