Creator: Brian Yorkey
Starring: Dylan Minnette, Katherine Langford, Christian Navarro, Alisha Boe, Brandon Flynn, Justin Prentice, Miles Heizer, Ross Butler, Devin Druid, Amy Hargreaves, Derek Luke, Kate Walsh, Brian d'Arcy James, Josh Hamilton, Michele Selene Ang, Steven Silver, Ajiona Alexus, Tommy Dorfman, Brandon Larracuente, Steven Weber, Mark Pellegrino
Original Airdate: 2017
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
In a recent interview, actress Molly Ringwald stated that if they were going to remake The Breakfast Club today, it would just be two hours of texting in detention. While she brings up a reasonable point, I'd like to have more faith that the creative forces would never let it come to that. And now there's a reason to believe it won't. Actually, thirteen of them. Netflix's much buzzed about, controversial 13 Reasons Why (based upon Jay Asher's 2007 best-selling YA novel) shares little in common with that seminal 1985 film, and yet her seemingly throwaway comment stayed with me long after its conclusion. High school is so often about labels and hierarchy and that movie was really the first to openly acknowledge it, for better or worse.
|TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY|
In just the first few episodes I cringed at the implication that the doomed girl at this story's center could even have the wheels set in motion for her eventual suicide by winning "nicest ass" and having what most would consider a pretty commonplace, if admittedly hurtful, start to her sophomore year. And that was the last trace of skepticism I remember having for the remainder of the episodes, which comprise an absolute thrill ride full of twists, turns and storytelling mastery not seen in this genre since the first season of Veronica Mars, from which this undoubtedly finds some of its inspiration.
Character by character, the layers start to peel away to reveal a situation darker and more morally complex than originally perceived. And no, there isn't anyone staring at their phones since the electronic device of choice is a SONY Walkman, used by our put-upon protagonist to begrudgingly listen to the thirteen cassette tapes he's now in possession of, detailing the series of events that led to a terrible tragedy. Or, if you're counting, multiple ones.
|Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker|
Shy, introspective loner Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) comes home from school to find a mysterious box on his porch. In it are seven double-sided cassette tapes recorded by his best friend and unrequited crush, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), who killed herself two weeks earlier. The tapes serve as sort of an audio diary detailing the reasons for her taking her own life, implicating each of the thirteen people at school who will receive the box as a reason for her eventual suicide. After listening to the tapes they must pass the box on to the next person or risk breaking the chain, causing a separate set of tapes to be released to the public.
Of the recipients, Clay was closest to Hannah and is most shaken by the revelations found on these cassettes, his mind set on punishing those she singled out on them. It also puts him in the crosshairs of his considerably more popular classmates, all of whom have devastating secrets they'd rather keep buried, despite an impending lawsuit from Hannah's grieving, financially struggling parents, Olivia and Andy (Kate Walsh and Brian d'Arcy James) With no knowledge of the tapes that could potentially be the smoking gun in their case against California's Liberty High, the Bakers angrily demand answers from administrators such as Principal Gary Bolan (Steven Weber) and school counselor Mr. Porter (Derek Luke), both of whom are put in the awkward position of legally placating them while protecting the school's academic reputation and its students in the face of unimaginable circumstances. And that's the problem. It should have been very imaginable from the start.
|"Tape 1, Side A"|
Plagued by the guilt that he could have done something more and under constant threat by his classmates, Clay reluctantly listens to the tapes at the urging of his friend Tony (Christian Navarro), who may know a lot more than he's letting on. When he ejects that last tape Clay will have his answers, but it's what he chooses to do with it that could have a lasting impact on all their lives.
The series makes a strangely bold choice early on, not depicting Hannah as a "good girl" or immediately attempting to solicit audience sympathy for her. She also wouldn't seem to be anyone's top candidate for bullying, which is precisely the point. She eventually gets there on all fronts, but does so organically as small events and tiny moments start to add up, magnifying in size and scope with every episode. She's a good person, but not an instantly likable one because of the poor decisions she often makes, frequently stemming from her desire to just be liked and accepted. At times, this borders on desperation despite her best efforts to cooly play it off. It's only when she's hanging out with Clay or they're working together at the Crestmont movie theater that we're exposed to a different side.
|What Could Have Been: Hannah and Clay|
Essentially the prototypical teen, Clay is neither popular or unpopular and we get the impression that his possession of the tapes in the wake of Hannah's suicide is probably the most attention he's ever received. It's tough to depict a teen romance, or even tease the idea of one without sappiness, but this one is done just right. By refusing to put a halo on her or suit him up in armor and then denying them anything close to a happy ending, we can just sit back and appreciate how their time together is handled, lifting the simplest of "boy meets girl" stories into this doomed tragedy.
We're left with the impression that even if Hannah had lived, there's simply no way she'd end up with Clay, or even someone like him considering the head space she's at. The point of no return in the series comes when even she starts to acknowledge her issues, realizing she needs help. And it's when she reaches out to her classmates that they instead pounce like animals. Australian actress Katherine Langford's performance as Hannah starts with this wide-eyed optimism we can't imagine shifting gears until it slowly does, as she's put through the wringer in a series of events that allow us to eventually see that life and future slowly drain from her eyes with each traumatic encounter.
|Gone, but far from forgotten|
Whatever flaws Hannah may seem to have become minor in the broad scheme of things when we meet the subjects of those tapes and learn that her classmates, some of whom she'd call "friends" at one point, are ten times worse because they project their issues onto everyone else. Some do it consciously, others by accident, but all share culpability in how they treated her. While Clay claims that getting revenge on those who are on the tapes is all for Hannah, as his journey progresses a good enough case can be made that he's really doing this to absolve his own guilt over not telling her how he felt when she was alive. In fact, everyone's preoccupation with the drama surrounding the tapes often causes them to miss things that are right in front of their faces, this time hurting each other in many of the same ways that drove Hannah to end her own life.
It's around the fourth episode or so that the series starts settling in and finding its groove, as the format of dedicating each tape to a person who somehow qualifies as a reason for Hannah's tragic act starts ingeniously paying off. You start to realize that the first couple of inciting events set into motion a series of incidents that lead to much bigger, damaging ones that spiral out of control, a "butterfly effect" of sorts that's directly referenced by Hannah in her narration, but may as well also apply to the show as a whole. Only adding to the intrigue and mystery surrounding her death is the fact that nearly all these actors are unknowns, creating a freshness and unpredictability that may have otherwise been absent with a cast full of major stars bringing baggage and preconceived notions to their roles.
|Alex (Miles Heizer) goes for a swim|
While it would be impossible to get into all the intricate backstories and motivations behind these characters without spoiling the show's surprises, the two that most stand out aside from the co-protagonists are the reckless Jessica Davis played by unquestionable future star Alisha Boe and Hiezer's dark, moody Alex Standall. Where they start when Hannah initially meets and befriends them compared to where the material ends of taking them is kind of staggering, with both actors proving themselves more than up to the task.
While all the acting has been widely and justifiably praised, when you think of the heart and soul of the show and the possibilities of it continuing past the immediate aftermath of Hannah's death, it's Jessica and Alex who immediately come to mind as having already gone to the most challenging places, but still having story left. Of the supporting cast, Boe and Heizer's performances may just travel the furthest in helping anchor the series as something that far transcends the genre constraints it breaks free from.
|Hannah with mom Olivia (Kate Walsh)|
The adults on the series are occupying an entirely different plane of reality than the teens, frequently oblivious to what's going on in their kids' lives. It's especially true of Clay's parents, Lainie and Matt (played by Amy Hargreaves and Josh Hamilton), frustrated by their son's uncharacteristic behavior that consists of coming home at odd times beaten, bloody or drunk, skipping school, getting suspended and having random visitors over. It's possible that for no one else at Lincoln High or any real or fictional high school this would raise as many red flags as it does for the straightlaced Clay, and they know this. They just haven't figured out the cause and how it relates to Hannah's suicide, or their relationship, which they know nothing of. Lainie's leading the charge while her more laid back husband smothers him with kindness, but her complicated link to the school and its faculty may soon make for an uncomfortable conflict of interest.
All this serves to further build anticipation for when Clay arrives at his own tape, while continuing to cast suspicions on Tony, the one person who seems to know everything about them, acting as an eyes and ears for the audience and a guardian angel to Clay. Played by Christian Navarro (who should remind some of a more likable Wilmer Valderamma), his scenes opposite Minnette are some of the best, with his character only growing in impact and importance as we head down the final stretch.
|Clay and Tony have a talk|
The direction, editing and acting from those involved in the suicide sequence truly make it a nauseating, disturbing moment that feels like it lasts for hours, as it should. That I could barely watch tells me they did their job. If this is "controversial," then we can only hope that all shows are capable of courting controversy in such a brutally honest way. It's one thing to show someone killing themselves on screen, it's quite another properly handle everything that comes along with it. We're left not thinking about Hannah Baker's suicide, but instead how achingly close she came to not going through with it if only this or that happened differently.
I don't know how we get another season without Langford or the central mystery element that drove these thirteen episodes, but we will, and its impossible to not remain curious as to how. While there are many lingering threads and questions, you can't help but again be reminded of the Veronica Mars comparisons and worry given how that series never recovered once their mystery wrapped. As a standalone project it's so impressive that you'd just hate to see something this special limp on for multiple seasons to become "just another show." The question will be whether enough was done here to expand the universe and give the numerous remaining characters enough to move forward and work off of. Then comes the bigger question: Now that we have gone through all 13 thirteen tapes, will we see or hear from Hannah again?
|Hannah reaches her breaking point|
If recording and distributing audio cassette tapes seemed far off when Yorkey's novel was written a decade ago, that time has added another layer aside from its now cool, nostalgic, old school appeal. It builds this bridge between the past and the present, giving the story a comfort and universality that speaks to everyone, reminding us that for all the complaints about cyber technology and social media ruining lives, at the end of the day we still bare the ultimate responsibility for how we treat each other, in seemingly even the smallest moments.
Netflix somehow does it again, producing a season of TV every bit as worthy of entering the cultural lexicon as Stranger Things and House of Cards before it. But what's more noteworthy is the steeper climb this had due to the added pressure of being taken seriously in a genre that rarely is. It's avoided here by not making a teen show at all, but a compelling adult drama with universal themes that happens to revolve around younger characters. Of course, that's easier said than done. As for the controversy? All it reveals is that this hit a chord by not holding back and daring to ask the tough, ugly questions no one's interested in going near. Those who find that morally reprehensible or disturbing would probably be better off not watching 13 Reasons. But those who do should be warned that once they start, it'll be impossible to stop.