There’s nothing more frustrating than a show with good intentions that doesn’t live up to its potential. The adaptation of the popular young adult novel, “13 Reasons Why,” has been hailed as important. It’s easy to see why. The series, like the book, takes a rough look at teenage suicide, rape, bullying, slut shaming, sexuality and microaggressions. At its core, it’s a plea to educate teens to look beyond their own self interest and see how their actions affect one another. Unfortunately, these lessons have found a creaky, manipulative narrative to speak them. At times harrowing, other times laughably like an after-school special, “13 Reasons Why” ends up dulling its important topics.
The suicide of teenager Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) opens the series. It is here that mild-mannered Clay (Dylan Minnette) is gifted a series of tapes from the deceased. As he listens, he hears Hannah dictate who were the people responsible for driving her to suicide. Each of the persons responsible were meant to receive these tapes and pay for their actions. Every episode represents a tape Clay listens to. Each tape spotlights a person that led to Hannah’s demise. It’s a strong structure for a potentially bingeable show. Unfortunately, coming up with 13 distinct people to blame leads to heavy over-plotting. Rather than focus on one topic and see it all the way through, “13 Reasons Why” heaps every teen atrocity imaginable on Hannah.
Piling on these terrors upon terrors causes the show to spin off the rails. The series starts off slight, grows to be quite horrific and ends up wildly veering off the tracks as things get innumerably worse. It’s depression porn, ticking off every hot button issue on the emotional trauma checklist. Rather than create characters, they manufacture a supporting figure to conjure up the “trauma of the week.” The more we listen to the tapes, the more Hannah jumps off the page. If only the storytellers had as much faith in respecting the subtlety of the topic they are trying to depict.
The performances of all the teenage actors vary in quality. At the center, Dylan Minnette grows into the role of Clay, even though many times it comes off as the typical “nice, nerd kid” routine. Katherine Langford equips herself much better as Hannah. As the project clumsily moves between timelines, Langford manages to chart the slow, painful breakdown of this girl. The only adult actor given quite a bit to work with is “Grey’s Anatomy” alum Kate Walsh as Hannah’s mother. She makes a compelling case for better roles, as she wrings emotion out of her grieving mother role.
Among the other 13 or so students involved in Hannah’s death, few stand out. As the mysterious keeper of the tapes, Christian Navarro manages to carry some unique, heartfelt scenes as Tony. As Alex, a friend of Hannah’s who strives to hang with the popular kids, Miles Heizer overplays his hand somewhat, but handles the character well. The biggest problem is many of the other recipients of Hannah’s tapes, particularly Justin Prentice as rich kid Bryce, are baldly evil. Broad characterizations do little to start a discussion of these serious issues. It also makes the show feel more soapy and manipulative, rather than raw and specific.
In a lesser, Freeform-esque show, these broad characterizations would feel more obligatory and expected. However, so much of the show seems to revolve around teaching teens to look beyond their own needs and desires and notice others in need. Hannah all but screams out for some empathy. Yet, the show is unable to acknowledge how the idea and actions behind the tape exist merely to inflict emotional and physical distress on the people that wronged Hannah. In being so enamored with their wounded dove of a central character, the show misses an opportunity to look at the moral grey areas surrounding her suicide. People aren’t cut and dry good or bad. The show wants to agree with that assertion, but it would rather line up yet another horrific barrier to hit Hannah.
The topics discussed in “13 Reasons Why” spark a necessary conversation. Teenage suicide is a hard enough topic to broach. Addressing the events that cause these suicides – rape, bullying, rumors, slut shaming, etc. – are just as important. However, it’s going to need a project that is less a mawkish ABC Family/Freeform story with added rape, blood and f-words. “13 Reasons Why” has its heart in the right place. Unfortunately, that heart has seen one too many after-school specials.
“13 Reasons Why” is currently available on Netflix.