I promised myself when I started 13 Reasons Why it wouldn’t end up a Netflix Pick. I made this claim only 3 episodes in when it was very much an angsty teen drama with a narrative hook. It felt like something that belonged on the CW and wasn’t a DC comics property.
I was wrong. Not only in that it wouldn’t be a Netflix Pick (obviously) but in boiling the show down to a base thing.
13 Reasons Why is based on the book series written by Jay Asher. The story follows high schooler, Clay (Dylan Minnette) as he navigates his high school through a series of cassette tapes left behind by his close friend and love interest, Hannah (Katherine Langford). Hannah had tragically killed herself two weeks prior to the series start. The tapes, 13 of them, outline the specific reasons, and people, that led to Hannah making this permanent decision.
The series takes place in two different times. Hannah and Post Hannah. The first focuses on the girl and her life. How things spiraled the way they did and why she ultimately made her unfortunate decision. Post Hannah focuses more on Clay, though he is a big part of Hannah’s life as well. The two time lines are defined without words on the screen, obnoxious transitions, or any other heavy handed approach. There are a few things that give you a tip, even when Hannah isn’t on the screen, and the soft barrier between the two works perfectly as Clay dives deeper and deeper.
Having Hannah start the series deceased does a lot for the series. First and foremost it sets the tone. The show is a downer. There is no way around that. As Hannah goes threw her life, not every single aspect is a downer. There are a lot of things that would’ve turned her short life the other way. With the tone being set before the audience even sits down every moment that should be happy is all the more tragic. The point is really hammered home when not only the audience knows, but the characters within the 13 Reasons Why world begin to understand.
Hannah, having made her choice, before the series started also gives an all knowing narrator without the age old storytelling technique feeling like a crutch. The narration isn’t done in the first omnipotent. Hannah doesn’t know and narrate the events that went on after her death. The form of the narrator is Hannah’s recordings. The recordings exist wholly in their world as real things. A testament to the strength of the writing is that there are no jarring show breaking moments where Hannah knows something on the tapes she couldn’t know or the script has to lean on her to tell what should be shown.
The young actors have a lot of weight to carry in this series. The subject matter is rough at the best of times. When the more heinous acts come about their strength really shines. Most of the core characters are not only actors playing their roles but the roles they are playing are often acting as well. Almost everyone has something to hide. The tightrope walk is intense for the full run of the series.
The way the series is shot should also be noted. It’s subtle, but spectacular. You will get so wrapped up in the story, the characters, and the emotion, you may not realize the settings, surroundings, color, and camera. Cinematography is often something that, if done right, isn’t noticeable at all; but when done wrong, ouch.
Stick with 13 Reasons Why. At first it will feel typical. It will seem like been there, done that. It isn’t. 13 Reasons Why is actually something special. In the overly sensitive world we live in with far too much inter-connectivity bullying has become a problem. Maybe the term is overused, maybe the issue doesn’t get enough attention. Whatever your standing is it is something in our world for sure. 13 Reasons Why tackles this important issue, as long as numerous others without being heavy handed or gross about it. The show never feels like a PSA. The message is never slammed down your throat but with the way the message is delivered you are sure to get the point.
A quick word on the ‘controversy’ part of it. A lot of online articles have been popping up about some scenes being too gratuitous. Namely scenes of sexual assault and suicide. To say showing these scenes was over the top ruins the entire message of the show. The scenes aren’t sugar coated for a reason and the overall narrative, as well as the audience, is better for it.