Between all the hype around the newest Netflix offering and my affinity to teen dramas, giving 13 Reasons Why a shot was a no-brainer. And if you want to talk first impressions, the show seemed pretty good in the beginning: great opening titles, nice soundtrack, a clever premise that puts a different spin on an otherwise common theme, and I’ve loved Dylan Minette in everything I’ve seen him in.
And then I kept watching. And the more time I spent with these highschool kids, the more annoyed I became. General outrage from uptight “concerned parents” aside, I don’t see this as a show that “glamorizes” suicide – but that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. My main problem with the show is that it just wasn’t that good, and here’s a few reasons why:
The only reason why this show is 13 episodes long is because the title demands it. There is hardly enough plot to stretch out into 13 hours of television, so we are subjected to repetitive, angsty voice-overs by Hannah and recycled scenes of Clay agonizing over each tape he listens to but not really doing anything about it. Whatever actual plot advancement happens in each episode could have been dealt with much more tightly and spared us the torture of sitting through the same damn storyline over and over.
This is a separate complaint but along the same lines of the first one: how many days does it take for someone to listen to a few tapes, for fuck’s sake? The panic attack/nightmare excuse would be valid if it were actually portrayed on screen, but aside from a handful of choppy montages alluding to Clay’s bad dreams, he doesn’t seem to be freaking out nearly as much as we’re meant to believe. Hell, Alex, Justin and Jessica all appear much more distraught than Clay does throughout the majority of the episodes, and they all went through the tapes pretty damn quickly. He’s being told over and over again that he needs to listen to his own tape, but, for a guy so hell-bent on uncovering the truth and punishing those “responsible” for Hanna’s death, he is the king of procrastination when it comes to finishing the damn tapes.
Clay’s own tape may have had a huge impact on him, but was it really the shocking revelation we were led to believe it would be? Hardly. Tapes #12 and #13 had much more powerful content but for some retarded reason his buddy Tony had to make Clay climb a rock and risk his life so he could steel himself for listening to Hanna’s account of the night she almost slept with him. And then the entire tape turned out to be a huge guilt trip that Clay doesn’t deserve in the least. So yeah. Boo.
Still on the subject of the tapes: while I appreciate a bit of nostalgia in my pop culture, I am having serious trouble believing that recording herself on an old-school cassette recorder, using an actual microphone, would be a teenage millennial girl’s method of choice. I can get on board with the handwritten journals, but leaving notes and sending letters instead of texting or emailing certainly raises a few eyebrows, especially when nothing about Hannah’s character arc before the suicide seemed to suggest she was ever big on analog media, or anything vintage, for that matter. If we’d seen her listening to vinyl records, for instance, it might have been a slightly more believable choice of suicide note, but as things stand, I call bullshit. Same thing with the map: It contains a couple of locations that tie in to the narrative at first and then we never see it featured again. What is the point of the map, exactly, other to remind us of a time before Google Maps and GPS phone features (which none of these kids were alive to remember anyway)?
I don’t know if this is a casting error or if it’s deliberate, but the result is the same: most of the actors seem incredibly inconsistent with the stereotypical roles their characters are assigned with. While I applaud the choice of abandoning the classic blonde-bombshell-type in favor of the asian kid, I am having trouble believing type-A, nerdy Courntney with with perfect GPA would be the among the most popular girls in her class. Ditto Tony: I love the gay twist for the latino tough-guy persona, but are we meant to assume that in a highschool where pretty girls get bullied for less, no one bats an eye about the fact that he’s gay, and his close friend really has no idea? And then you have Alex, who looks like the stereotypical gay guy, but is actually straight. I would have loved this if not for Ryan, the actual stereotypical pretentious gay character of the show looking and talking exactly like he’s supposed to. Jessica doesn’t really strike me as the cheerleader type. Bryce is less douchey beefcake jock and more just douchey asshole.
The rest of the characters aren’t any more believable: they are either caricatures of every teen show character ever, or have some singular attribute that’s supposed to make them COOL or UNIQUE but ultimately just makes them ridiculous. The parents are way too cool with their kids drinking or doing drugs. Skye is the requisite ‘weirdo’ – she even reads tarot cards! Clay is nerdy to a fault (although cute) but hardly gets bullied by any of the popular kids, even though he seems to have no actual friends or much of a social life outside of school. Normally he should have a huge target on his back. It would be far less surprising – commendable, even – if not for one glaring inconsistency: the pretty girl gets bullied for no plausible reason, really, to the point where she commits suicide.
Hannah’s tapes begin with Jessica and Justin, who are probably the least to blame, if at all, for what happened to her. Jessica slapped her (boo hoo) over a misunderstanding. And a few months later she got raped by her boyfriend’s best friend as Hannah stood there watching and crying helplessly. Yeah, I’d say she pretty much paid for whatever wrong she did. And then some.
Justin didn’t actually “allow” it to happen. As much as he is to blame for leaving his girlfriend, in that vulnerable state, alone in that room, he’s not the asshole jock we’d come to believe in the beginning: his family life is tragic and his awful friend had actually been the one person he could always count on. Obviously this doesn’t excuse the actions of a despicable rapist, but it seems to me that the guilt-ridden Justin was already being punished enough for what he did or didn’t do.
If the point of Hannah’s narrative was to show us that maybe things aren’t always as they seem, then I guess they did a semi-decent job of painting Justin a few more shades of grey by the end of the show. But surely the whole point is to also feel some sympathy for the dead girl as she describes all that was done to her, and this entire storyline weakens that point significantly.
Which brings me to my main gripe with this show: Hannah. Could she be less likable? I could maybe get on board with a typical highschool drama queen whose whining actually has some merit. But everything about this girl is rubbing me the wrong way. Her entire narrative up until the final heartbreaking revelation is moronic.
Even the way this whole story begins is ridiculous. Her first kiss (really?) was with a guy she didn’t even know, a typical jock who, if we’re to believe everything pop culture has taught us, wants to brag to his jock buddies about his most recent conquest. And somehow, during all the fondling and making out, she has no idea he stopped to snap a photo of her? Ugh. And then she falls for the same thing TWICE, with two more jock types who basically do the exact same thing. So is she desperate or just plain dumb?
The way the story continues doesn’t make Hannah any more endearing. She is devastated because her two friends hooked up, even though the reason they started hanging out in the first place was because Alex was staring at Jessica. Alex makes a stupid list and nominates her for the ‘best ass’ category and she’s *outraged*, as if this sort of thing isn’t commonplace among highschool kids – boys and girls alike. (Besides, being nominated for having the nicest looking butt is not exactly insulting – just sexist and politically incorrect – and, let’s face it, that’s basically the average highschool experience).
She and Courtney are supposedly waiting for her “stalker” to arrive but end up making out, in full view of her window, and she’s somehow surprised the photo starts making the rounds at the school after she confronts the guy who took the picture. She shares her intimate writings with another new friend and is, again, shocked that he’d publish them in his zine? Worst of all: she witnesses her former best friend being raped and does nothing, but somehow Jessica’s boyfriend, Justin, who is visibly broken up about the whole thing, gets a second tape because he’s somehow at fault, and yet we have to wait until tape #12 for an account of her encounter with the most despicable character in all of this?
Still on the Hannah train, because she’s that annoying. Are we meant to view her as a walking contradiction? Throughout her narrative, we hear about her hardships and betrayals, but no mention of the one seemingly decent person she interacts with until tape #11, and absolutely no mention of the other person she apparently trusts with the tapes.
She constantly feels “lonely”, even though she’s nowhere near outsider-level, and would probably have no trouble relating to other students if she actually tried. We hear about how everyone called her a slut but hardly see any evidence of it other than her the inner circle of people she knows.
We see her otherwise perfectly normal, loving parents argue once and cut to the tape where one minute she complains that she’s all the school talks about and the next she feels “invisible”. Are we really supposed to believe the dead girl has any real insight into the teenage psyche, what with all her poetry and flowery intros to her tapes, when she isn’t even self-aware?
Let me throw in a general disclaimer here: I don’t doubt that even the smallest thing can seem like a huge deal to a hormonal teenager; I’ve been one, I should know.
Nor am I one to blame the victim, but doesn’t Hannah obviously have a hand in precipitating most of what happens to her (or around her)? Either that, or she’s simply the most unlucky individual to ever go through highschool. I could chalk the over-the-top reactions up to teenage angst or her (not unfounded) reputation as a drama queen, but it still doesn’t make her character any less unlikable or more relatable, which ultimately takes away from the feeling of sympathy I assume we’re supposed to feel for the dead girl. Especially considering that those poor parents, who don’t seem to have done anything wrong, don’t even get a suicide note. For the vast majority of the episodes, she’s not even someone I can feel sorry for, really. Before we hear what’s on the last couple of tapes, she just comes off as a selfish, insensitive, entitled idiot who can’t handle her suburban middle-class white girl life.
I’m sorry but it bears repeating: Hannah is a ridiculous character, right down to her awful haircut midway through the show (is it supposed to be edgy?). It’s actually baffling that only one person actually verbalizes what needs to be said: the largest part of Hannah’s story is nothing different than most kids go through in their highschool careers. She comes off as a selfish, whiny brat, but what’s worse, none of the other characters are any less unlikable. Even Clay, who’s instantly sympathetic, quickly turns into a sanctimonious jerk (and then we’re back to sympathizing with him again because of the gigantic guilt trip Hannah lays on the one person she supposedly thinks is good). Hannah is no less guilty of sanctimonious bullshit, culminating in her yelling at Sheri to report the broken stop sign when she neglected to report a fucking RAPE she witnessed just minutes before.
Her bad decision making reaches an all time high when she stupidly loses her parents’ cash deposit (You had one job, Hannah!), crashes a party that just happens to be at a rapist’s house, and remains in the hot tub alone with him as he starts to make a move on her. She never says no, she never yells stop, and YES it’s still unequivocally rape, but she does nothing to prevent it. There are people in the house, at shouting distance, for fuck’s sake.
Hannah’s self-destructive behavior in no way excuses the rape itself, and at least she acknowledges that she could have tried to stop it, but that’s not my problem with this: it’s the fact that the most traumatic event in Hanna’s journey is the one she focuses on the least. Having just sat through 12 hours of her pompously condemning her former friends for far less serious sins, I find it utterly aggravating that Bryce’s share of the blame is made to appear so small – and, of course, incredibly infuriating that the one adult she turns to gives her the worst advice on the planet: move on. Really? How is this not the focal point? Why do we have to suffer through endless whining about a stupid list or a compliments box when the protagonist asks for help and receives useless platitudes? Why does Clay need to feel the slightest bit guilty for 13 episodes but the counselor is almost a throwaway mention at the very end?
The entire point of Hannah’s tapes are to outline the avalanche of events that led her to take her own life, right? By the same logic, if we are to evaluate the events of the show on the merit of the actual results, rather than the various characters’ intentions, what we have is someone who takes the easy/cowardly/callitwhateveryouwant way out and damaging several lives in the process: her parents are destroyed; Clay is guilt-ridden and heartbroken, and even the small ray of light at the end doesn’t erase what she put him through. Jeff is dead, and she’s indirectly responsible for that one too. Alex might be dead, even though his was one of the few character arcs that led to some kind of redemption.
The show touches on almost every single issue highschool kids face today, but instead of dealing with it in a realistic way, it almost trivializes it due to the exaggerated reaction the characters have to relatively tame problems. I don’t agree with those who believe it glamorizes teen suicide and everything that apparently leads to it; as far as I’m concerned, the general outrage is misguided. If anything, I feel like the show trivializes important issues. Not only because there are so many kids out there dealing with far worse stuff than being voted for the ‘best ass’ category, but also because, instead of focusing on the issues themselves, it mainly deals with the effect they have – not on the subjects/victim themselves, but those on the periphery.
I kept waiting for the twist that never really came, and when it sort of did, it was largely anticlimactic. The conclusion didn’t offer much in terms of redemption for those who needed it, nor actual punishment for those who deserved it, which would have been fine if it had made me care about Hannah a bit more, but in the end she never became likable. Maybe it’s just my cynical view of the world poking through, but I fail to see how suicide is anything more than a weak person’s way out, a coward’s way of putting an end to their troubles rather than facing them head on. Had Hannah taken responsibility for some of the things that happened, it would have been a much more tragic ending to her story; but the impression she gives through those tapes is that of someone who can’t handle life, and remorse or guilt doesn’t really factor into it. My cynical self tends to find that infuriating rather than sad and pitiful.
Bonus reason: I worked my way through the episodes pretty fast, but not in the I-can’t-wait-to-see-what’s-next kind of way. I just wanted to get to the end and see if this was actually worth the thirteen hours I just invested. I’m pretty sure that’s low on the list of reasons why you stick with a show, right? In the end, I feel like the buzz created around 13 Reasons Why is mostly due to the subject matter, rather than the actual quality of the writing or the plot line itself. Still, Netflix, HBO etc have raised the bar too high to satisfy our appetites for great shows by serving up mediocre stories that just happen to deal with controversial issues.