The story revolves around high schooler Hannah Baker, who commits suicide and leaves behind a set of tapes detailing 13 traumatic events, each caused by one fellow student, which caused her death- equal parts quasi-revenge and cathartic confessional. But here begin the first shadows upon the show’s storyline: by leaving these tapes, Hannah submits to playing the exact blame-game she mentions in the story, whether ironically or unknowingly. Our other major (alive) protagonist, Clay Jensen, is a classical pastiche of every nice guy in every movie/TV show ever: awkward, bike-riding, confused around girls, watches Lord of the Rings on repeat. And like every nice guy ever, he falls for a girl who seems way out of his league- Hannah Baker.
Clay spends forever listening to the tapes (which are delivered to him since one apparently revolves around him) for no logical reason, and somewhere around the show’s sluggish middle you’ll find yourself wanting him to finish them in one night, as most of the others did. When he finds himself a recipient of Hannah’s tapes, he can’t imagine what he did to deserve a place on them- and, as we find out, his only fault was that he had no faults. The series is a commentary upon commentary- serious themes like gun control; grief and rape are layered upon those perhaps of a classic high schooler, like dates, cyber bullying and sexuality. With a narrative split between a “before” and “after” her death, perhaps to bloat the story into thirteen hours, the characters seem inordinately under-expanded: Bryce, whose character is perhaps best summarised early on in the series by Justin as having money, but no class, seems to have zero redeeming qualities- making him a flat portrait of a monster. The other ‘villains’ are ironically more developed as characters than Hannah ever was- and maybe this is a moral in itself, that her life was cut too short for her to have to take the sort of character-building decisions this lot is making- but it makes the show seem artificial somehow. Without many major character details on her part, and an odd empathy reversal in the others, we find ourselves sceptically asking how much one girl and one high school can realistically take on.
The further the show spirals into the blackness- following fatal car accidents, drug abuse and more- the empathy the show has cultivated for the characters takes a trip out of the frying pan and into the fire. They may have committed minor offences against Hannah, and yes, all of them compiled together made the girl an isolated target, but one could still empathise with say Jessica, a new girl just trying to be popular by any means necessary. We don’t blame her for being angry that Alex put Hannah’s ‘ass’ ahead of hers on a list, because, well, she is his girlfriend. Maybe she shouldn’t have lashed out at her best friend, but hey, emotions. We feel even worse for her when Bryce rapes her- and yet, all this empathy is thrown out the window when we realise that she’s been covering up for Bryce even though he is clearly taking advantage of other girls as well; and may continue to do so in the future. The protection of a serial rapist to prevent taking blame for minute offences in Hannah’s death is so despicable and so clichéd of a high-school pack narrative that it disgraces the entire point of the show; which was that everyone has their own struggle, and no matter what they seem to be doing, books shouldn't be judged by their covers . By making all these teenagers complicit in the crimes, desperate to cover up for Bryce though their own offences are minor in his wake, the characters take on a twist too deplorable to be realistic, forget empathetic. 13 Reasons Why has further faced criticism for its romanticism of suicide, with numerous mental health organisations calling out ‘triggering’ scenes that normalise suicide and may have negative mental repercussions on watching teens- but Kate Walsh, who plays Hannah’s mother, clapped back to the haters saying that talking about suicide in any way is still better than burying it under a rug (http://www.seventeen.com/celebrity/movies-tv/news/a46707/13-reasons-why-actor-kate-walsh-defended-the-controversial-suicide-scene/)
The simple fact that Selena Gomez was a producer on the show and that it was released on Netflix lead to the phenomenal hype about it on social media- add to this formula the basis of an extremely popular young adult novel, and you have a blockbuster along the lines of Stranger Things or Riverdale. The show is also watchable for its highly charismatic cast: Clay (Dylan Minnetteof Scandal fame) and Hannah (Katherine Langford) are powerful in their roles, with Minette selling us on the fact that yes, Clay is a nice guy, but he will damned well take whatever revenge he wishes to. Langford’s endlessly emotional scenes as friends stab her in the back and classmates bully her, convince with regards to Hannah’s damage, sarcasm and internal naiveté. As a couple they are reminiscent of 80s rom-coms in all their quirks, easy banter and awkward chemistry, as Vanity Fair pointed out (http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/04/13-reasons-why-review-netflix-teen-movies-tv-shows-say-anything). The adult storyline- perhaps larger in comparison to the book to add star power to a largely unknown adolescent main cast- has Hannah’s bereft parents, portrayed in the beautiful raw by Kate Walsh (Grey’s Anatomy) and Brian D’Arcy James, suing the school for their lack of action in Hannah’s case. Adding a dose of reality to a romanticised narrative, we have Derek Luke as the counsellor, only adult featured on the tapes, and the Principal (Steven Weber) fighting the lawsuit with the defence that they “didn’t know” anything happening in their students’ lives with the help of a litigator, Clay’s mother, Mrs. Jensen.
Amongst the teens, Miles Heizer is angst-filled and shadowy as Alex Standall, Devin Druid perfectly unsettling, and Justin Prentice revels in the charcoal character of Bryce. Brandon Flynn is a jock with a troubled home and heart of gold; Alisha Boepulls off a vulnerable and yet closed off Jessica with ease. The cast is phenomenal: their off-screen chemistry the talk of many a BuzzFeed article, and the series has apparently set itself up for a second season by branching heavily from the book material, with a second suicide attempt and a potential school shooting by everyone’s favourite outcast. Questions arise as to whether a second season would demean Hannah’s message, and whether there really are enough loose ends to make one after all- only time will tell, thought the cast and producers seem eager to take the project further.