13 Reasons Why is Netflix’s first attempt to offer up serious, engaging drama for its teenage audience, tackling such weighty issues as school bullying and suicide. But it’s a show that grown-ups can enjoy just as much, if not more, than teens.
After all, we’ve left the chaotic, hormonal world of high school behind us (hopefully) and can look back on it with a slightly more objective perspective. All that drama and craziness we went through during high school seems a lot less important now, but watching 13 Reasons Why, I’m reminded of how enormous every little problem seemed at the time.
In any case, here are some reasons why you should add 13 Reasons Why to your binge queue (followed by a few more reasons why it’s still not a perfect show.) This is not a spoiler-filled post, but I do discuss some basic plot elements and characters.
1. It’s a compelling mystery
I’m a sucker for a good mystery, and 13 Reasons Why is certainly that. It’s not a cop drama or a detective story, though. The mystery unfolds as Clay (Dylan Minnette) listens to a set of cassette tapes recorded by a classmate, Hannah (Katherine Langford) who committed suicide. The tapes give reasons why she killed herself, but a lot of details are left shrouded in mystery, slowly coming to light as we watch. It’s a very unique kind of mystery and one that will keep you playing episode after episode late into the night.
2. The characters are great
The sprawling cast in 13 Reasons Why is pretty fascinating. There’s some stereotypes (the jerk jocks and popular mean girls) but overall the characters are treated as complex people leading complex lives. They’re not all they seem on the surface, and as you get to know them over time your compassion for everyone (not just Clay and Hannah) grows. Even really awful characters like Justin have a good side, and characters who you thought were great at first turn out to be flawed.
3. The way the show handles time is clever
13 Reasons Why takes place in the present as Clay listens to the tapes, but also in the past at various points on the timeline before Hannah’s suicide, which can be a bit confusing at times (on purpose, to embellish the mystery.) It’s how this is shot that makes it so clever. Often a scene will play out almost like Scrooge revisiting his past. Clay will “watch” as the past plays out, like a silent observer painted into the scene. Time is murky here, and the way this is handled on screen is powerful.
4. The music is wonderful
Good music can make a world of difference in a TV show. One that’s about teens risks bombarding us with the latest teeny-bopper pop garbage, but not 13 Reasons Why. It has a surprisingly good mix of tunes you may or may not recognize, both new and old.
5. Hannah is an unreliable narrator
Without spoiling anything, I think it’s great that the narrator (Hannah) isn’t necessarily right about everything. Just because she’s telling her story and the way she saw the world doesn’t mean that’s the way the world actually was. Having an unreliable narrator not only makes the mystery more interesting, it adds to the humanity of the characters. After all, when you’re in high school you simply don’t see the big picture.
6. It’s more than just a high school drama
Not only are the characters complex and sympathetic, the story goes beyond simple teen drama. This is a suicide story, but it’s also a story about a community affected by loss. Parents, teachers, businesses. It’s a story that grown-ups can relate to, not just a story directed at teenagers. At the same time, as someone who remembers being a teenager very well I think the show will really speak to kids that age or about that age. And I think that for all its flaws (see below) that it will ultimately be a really profound and important TV show for many young people.
7. The acting is top-notch
The entire cast is fantastic, but both Langford and Minnette really carry the show. These two both deserve high praise and recognition for a job well done. You’ll spend a lot of time with both Clay and Hannah, and these young actors do not disappoint. But the rest of the cast is also fantastic, including Christian Navarro as Tony, Brandon Flynn as Justin and Kate Walsh as Hannah’s bereaved mother.
8. There’s nothing else like it on Netflix
At least in terms of Netflix original programming, this is a unique gem. There’s comedies, there’s superhero shows, there’s all kinds of stuff, and much of it is very good. There’s nothing quite like 13 Reasons Why, however, which gives us this incredibly unique blend of mystery and teen angst and character drama. It’s worth watching just for something different.
Now, as promised, let’s look at what the show doesn’t necessarily get right. Honestly, this isn’t really a problem in my book. I like that shows can be great and worthwhile and still not do everything perfectly. If there is a season 2 (and I’m really not sure there should be) it can learn from mistakes.
1. There’s not enough humor
Look, I get that this is a show about a Very Serious Issue. But even shows about such macabre issues as teen suicide benefit from humor, even if it’s gallows humor. 13 Reasons Why is altogether too serious. I think of a show like Breaking Bad, which was often incredibly horrific and shocking, but what really made that show great (beyond the great writing and acting and cinematography) was the humor. I wish 13 Reasons Why was funnier.
2. 13 episodes, like the thirteen bullet points in this post, is probably a stretch
Yeah, you caught me red-handed. I liked my headline so much that I didn’t anticipate that I might run out of reasons before hitting 13! You might notice that some of these are flimsier than others, such was my commitment to writing a post with this headline. Well, the same goes for the show. Thirteen episodes feels a bit stretched out, and maybe…Ten Reasons Why, however less poetic, would have sufficed.
3. Sometimes the show feels too outlandish.
Teen drama is one thing. It’s real and the magnitude of the drama can be enormous, no matter how petty or profound a situation. But there are times watching the show that it feels almost too much. There are so many secrets. There are such high stakes. Even the premise, Hannah’s elaborate tapes and map setup feels a little out there for someone on the edge of suicide; likewise, that these tapes even make the rounds between students without being handed over to grown-ups is a little far-fetched.
At times it can all start to feel too unrealistic for its own good. At the same time, the mystery element is so engaging you can usually forgive its excesses, though it does enter the realm of melodrama a bit too much as the show progresses. I think this is largely a result of bloat (perhaps 13 half hour-episodes would have sufficed.)
4. I worry about the subject matter
Along the same lines, I worry about how this might impact potentially suicidal teens. I worry about copycat suicides. I worry about how the whole thing is framed as a revenge story, since people really do kill themselves to exact revenge, and it’s awful. It’s art, and I fully support the creators’ decision to tackle this issue, but at the same time it kind of makes me nervous. Still, Netflix has mostly done an admirable job here. I hope it has a positive impact on teens in the real world.
5. Mental illness is glossed over
The really weird thing about this show is its treatment of mental illness. Suicide isn’t always caused by mental illness, but depression and the way depression can lead to things like suicide is often much more complicated than just how other people impact someone’s life. Bullying can lead to suicide, but often there’s other issues at play, including physiological reasons that have nothing to do with heartbreak. To a disturbing degree these reasons, the less dramatic but more realistic reasons, are given short shrift in favor of a mysterious conspiracy. That’s good for entertainment but it leaves many of the harsh realities of teen suicide on the sidelines.
Watch 13 Reasons Why. There will be many things you love about it, and a few that you will probably hate. That’s okay. Not every show can be as great as Stranger Things. For all its flaws, 13 Reasons Why is a lovingly produced, well-written and beautifully acted teen drama for all ages. Whether it always handles its subject matter perfectly will remain a point of contention for everyone, but it’s a worthy effort.
Trivia: Netflix had 30 original scripted TV shows streaming by the end of 2016. The company plans to add 20 unscripted shows, plus new scripted programming, in 2017, doubling the amount of original programming on the streaming site. Where will we find the time?