Liam Hoofe reviews the first season of 13 Reasons Why…
I should probably make it clear from the word go that I have not read the young adult novel on which the TV series 13 Reasons Why is based. The book has never really come onto my radar, though I can only imagine, due to the book’s evident success, that it is a lot better executed than the TV series it inspired.
The story, for those not acquainted, is about a young high school girl named Hannah who, having killed herself, leaves behind 13 tapes detailing her reasons for doing so and naming those who led her to make that fateful decision. The show’s protagonist, Clay, receives the tapes at the very start of the season, spending the next 13 episodes trudging his way through them, eventually becoming a kind of detective/angel of vengeance, until he stumbles across the tape that he is mentioned on.
The show, despite starting out with good intentions, often feels reckless and juvenile. While the show features graphic depictions of rape and suicide – two very real issues – and it presents its central premise as something of a fantasy revenge story, with the fallen Hannah going back to get revenge on those who have wronged her. Hannah is not a sympathetic character – she’s a martyr for teen angst and never comes across as particularly likeable, largely due to her questionable actions post-mortem.
Take, for example, Episode 10 – the episode where we see Hannah’s former best friend Jess getting raped while Hannah, paralysed by fear (understandably so) watches on from a cupboard. Now, it is not Hannah’s decisions at the time that is the problem, but rather the fact she then decides to recount it over her tapes to at least 13 different people in such a suspenseful way, no doubt messing up the victim’s head even more. She also found it appropriate, despite knowing what Jess had been through, to make a tape for Jess (tape 2), telling her what a terrible friend she was, and how she played a part in her death. It’s a vindictive decision and one that left me feeling cold.
The show is full of questionable moments – especially in the earlier tapes, where Hannah comes back to torment those who really, don’t deserve all the abuse they are getting for stuff. She becomes a lady of vengeance, first, through the emotional impact her words have on the person, then through the actions of Clay as the series rolls on (damage to personal property, on two separate occasions). Undoubtedly scarring all of those people in the process. Teenagers are reckless, and they make mistakes, Hannah not only takes her own life but ruins that of others in the process.
See for a show dealing with such real issues, the characters involved never feel that real. While the show boasts an impressive range of diversity, it still can’t steer clear of teenage drama tropes – the sensitive jock, the troubled cheerleader, the strange girl who carries a knife around, the conservative parents, the list goes on. They all become caricatures as the show continues, largely due to how long the show opts to linger on Hannah and Clay. Hannah’s omnipresent narration takes the focus away from anything else, and there are clearly more issues present in the series that just go wildly unnoticed. ‘You just have to make everything about you’ Clay tells Hannah in one emotional exchange – he’s not wrong. The show really wants to deal with important issues surrounding teen suicide but it never really offers any new insight – at the end no-one really appears to have learned anything, they are just more damaged themselves. At times we see the impact that her decision has had on other people, the effect it has taken on her community and the damage it has left behind, but these things are often brushed over as the show really wants us to focus on Hannah’s downfall and the tapes – pushing us at the end of each episode by ending with Clay inserting another one.
Hannah’s slide towards suicide never truly gets beneath anything. We are constantly told by the show, and the characters, that perhaps they should have spotted the signs – perhaps we should all be more aware of the effects our remarks have on other people, which is something I wholeheartedly agree with, unfortunately the show never really shows us these signs, it just bastardizes characters for not having seen them. It plays out more like a bad public service announcement than a tangible drama about real people.
One of the more bizarre episodes in the show sees teenagers chucking bricks through a young photographer’s window, because of what he did to Hannah. He’s a strange kid who takes pictures of Hannah through her bedroom window – which is messed up. When Hannah confronts him about this he reaches out to her for a friend, he is lonely and he needs someone, quite clearly. Hannah then proceeds to tell him he is a weirdo, so acting out of anger he publishes pictures of her. The whole situation is messed up, but the show only gives her insights into this, painting him as just a stalker guy who wouldn’t leave her alone. He ends up getting his windows bricked every night, while still presumably suffering from the loneliness that plagued him prior to his encounter with Hannah. The show misses a golden opportunity here and does on many occasions throughout the series. The closeted homosexual who is scared of the impact her coming out would have on her gay parents? Swept under the rug after one scene. The jock who is being abused at home and who takes it out on those around him? He’s an arsehole. The show shows us that it has these characters with interesting stories that should be explored, and then just shoves them aside after a brief interlude with them.
It’s these character inconsistencies that really damage the show. Hannah, at times a sensitive soul sent into a tailspin by someone’s smallest actions, is at other times a selfish and wholly unlikeable character who is just as much of a bully as the next person. Clay, the squared jawed geek, seems to flick between being socially uncomfortable one minute, and James Dean the next. It becomes tiresome trying to figure out the show’s intentions.
The show has picked up some serious heat over the last week or so, with some saying that it glamorises suicide. It’s a difficult argument to weigh in on, but the show certainly deals with the issue in a troubling way. While the show encourages us all to be kinder to our friends/family and to keep an eye open for signs of trouble – it also takes away a huge deterrent that should exist against suicide – silence. Hannah, in life, is mistreated and silent about it. In her death though, she gets a chance to be listened to and take revenge on those who have wronged her, it’s a very mixed message to be sending to people. Hannah is effectively portrayed as a voice of the voiceless, and the only way she has achieved that status is through killing herself. It fulfils the teenage fantasy of ‘will everyone talk about me when I’m dead’ and does very little to deter the idea that suicide is the de facto end of one’s life. It’s a dangerous message to send to young people who will no doubt be attracted to the show.
13 Reasons Why has undeniably found an audience, it taps right into the emotional problems that live in the modern teenage psyche, but it never offers any help or insight into them, instead just wheeling off clumsy cliche after clumsy cliche. The scenarios are all so familiar and tired by this point, – the high school dance, the questionable house party, drugs being planted on a student, a big emotional talk on the top of a hill, complete with a big shout to let out all of one’s problems that the whole thing plays out like a teenage high school drama penned by Morrissey and Gerard Way.
I normally binge my way through a new series and have a review ready fairly quickly. 13 Reasons Why has taken me nearly three weeks. Sitting through the show is a challenge, its messages are questionable, its structure is clumsy, its script reads like every bad Facebook post you’ve ever read and the end result is incredibly underwhelming. Some people may find something useful, or insightful in 13 Reasons Why, I found it cold, juvenile and utterly unlikeable.