A note to adults in the audience: ‘13 Reasons Why’ is not Netflix’s next ‘Stranger Things’. Based on Jay Asher’s 2007 novel of the same title, the series should be of interest mainly to the same age group that put the book on the children’s and young-adult best-seller lists. It’s unlikely to cross over to their parents.
In tone and style, it resembles a more serious, grimmer cousin of Freeform (formerly ABC Family) series like ‘Pretty Little Liars’ and ‘Twisted’. Like them, it literalizes the idea that teenage life is a mystery, one that adults can’t hope to solve.
Young viewers may find the combination of thriller and morbid teenage melodrama in ‘13 Reasons Why’ addictive, though parents should be aware that it contains startlingly naturalistic depictions of rape and suicide.
The rest of us won’t have as much patience for the show’s excessively convoluted, repetitive and unlikely story, or for the narrative gimmick reflected in its title.
The action begins a few weeks after the death of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a junior at a suburban high school. Clay (Dylan Minnette), a socially awkward classmate who had a crush on her, receives a shoe box full of vintage cassette tapes (Maxell 60s, if you’re a nostalgist).
They contain Hannah’s descriptions of 13 traumatic events that led to her decision to kill herself, each addressed to the schoolmate or adult who caused that particular trauma. She’s left instructions that the box be passed from one tormentor to another, and Clay is late in the list, so most of the other people she accuses have already heard the tapes before he receives them.
The novel began the same way but took place in one night, as Clay listened to the tapes while visiting the scenes of Hannah’s downfall. The TV show’s developer, the screenwriter Brian Yorkey, has expanded the story to 13- hourlong episodes by beefing up the present-day portion of the narrative (which continually shifts between the past as seen by Hannah and the present as experienced by Clay).
Clay now becomes a detective and avenging angel, confronting other students in a campaign to get to the truth and, in the process, repair Hannah’s reputation. The show also makes more room for adults (goosing the drama by having Hannah’s parents file a lawsuit against the school), which means that the largely anonymous cast can be supplemented with more familiar and accomplished performers like Brian d’Arcy James, Steven Weber, Keiko Agena and Kate Walsh.
You can understand why the book would, almost inevitably, become a 13-episode series, but the inflation has several unfortunate consequences. Reading a young-adult novel in one sitting, it’s easier to suspend your disbelief regarding Hannah’s copious misfortunes, which include broken friendships, a fatal auto accident and sexual violence.
We’re meant to see that there’s an emotional and practical order to these events — Hannah’s diminished standing and waning self-confidence lead to new incidents of bullying or abandonment. But the show doesn’t make her downward progress convincing. It too often feels artificial, like a very long public service announcement.
Another problem is a storytelling contrivance that quickly becomes irritating. To parcel out the surprises and stretch the drama, the Netflix Clay, unlike the novel’s Clay, chooses not to listen to the tapes in one sitting — as any normal teenager would, and as the other fictional teenagers in the show do.
Instead he listens to the recordings one at a time, and keeps confronting the other characters — quizzing them, arguing with them, fighting with them — without knowing the whole story, or his own role in it, even though he could find out with just a few hours of binge listening. It makes no sense as anything but a plot device, and you’ll find yourself, like Clay’s antagonists, yelling at him to listen to the rest of tapes already.
If you stick with ‘13 Reasons Why’ — and the watchful, smart performance by Mr. Minnette (‘Scandal’, ‘Awake’) is one reason to make the effort — it builds up some cumulative force. In the last four episodes, two directed by Jessica Yu, one by Carl Franklin and one by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, it achieves a momentum and gravity somewhat equal to its subject matter. (It also throws in a groaner of a pretext for a possible second season.)
You might find yourself skeptical, though, despite the undeniable veracity of some of the show’s depictions of high school angst. The overall message — one that probably appeals to teenagers — is that it’s possible to figure out why someone takes her own life, and therefore to guard against it happening to others. But the beleaguered school counsellor played by Derek Luke may have it right when he tells Clay, you can just never tell.
The New York Times