by Coop Cooper
Netflix continues its winning streak by releasing the adaptation of Jay Asher’s best-selling 2007 young adult novel “13 Reasons Why” into a thirteen episode series, all of which are now available online. Executive produced by pop star Selena Gomez, the heart-wrenching story about the consequences of bullying and teenage suicide is possibly the most well-crafted and thoughtful exploration of the subject. However, I’m afraid that its difficult, R-rated subject matter may cause it to miss the age group it was intended for.
After the tragic suicide of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), grieving introverted high school student Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) mysteriously receives a box of audio cassette tapes. As Clay listens to the tapes, he hears the voice of his friend Hannah chronicling the painful moments that lead up to her her taking her own life. Through flashbacks, she identifies thirteen other people in the school who bullied her, betrayed her, disappointed her, used her or broke her heart. As Clay slowly processes the painful information, he confronts those mentioned in the tapes in an attempt to right the wrongs done to Hannah, but as more information is revealed, Clay realizes that not everyone mentioned in the tapes is a villain, and comes to the shocking realization that Hannah may blame him as well.
This melancholy story may be one of the most emotionally devastating TV series I’ve ever experienced. The structure of having Clay go through one side of each tape per episode lets the story unfold like a mystery. Each episode reveals a tragic gut-punch that adds to Hannah’s emotional anguish as we discover who hurt her and what may have pushed her over the edge. What’s more tragic is Clay’s realization that Hannah’s downward spiral could have been stopped early on by acts of kindness, but towards the end, Hannah’s damaged mental state compelled her to push away any help offered, making the blame game complicated and morally ambiguous. Also, we see some of her tormentors as damaged souls themselves. It is fascinating how the story presents gray areas as we learn to identify with some of the students who caused Hannah the most grief.
The acting all around in “13 Reasons Why” is both skillful and compelling, especially from the two leading roles portrayed by Langford and Minnette. All of the up-and-coming actors in this show could potentially have bright futures in Hollywood. Some of the acting from the supporting adults wasn’t as developed as I hoped but it’s nice to see former teen actors such as Josh Hamilton, Amy Hargreaves, Derek Luke, Steven Weber and Wilson Cruz return to the screen as middle-aged adults to tackle such difficult subject matter.
While “13 Reasons Why” comes from the ‘young adult’ novel genre, the Netflix adaptation falls squarely into R-rated territory. Besides the frequent profane language there are vulgar descriptions of sexual acts and a bit of partial nudity. No less than three episodes begin with warnings about graphic depictions of sexual assault and/or suicide. Those episodes are the most difficult to watch as the series does not shy away from the ugly moments in the story. The filmmakers did this intentionally in order to eliminate any titillation or glamorization of these acts and they are admittedly very difficult to watch. They achieved the intended effect but I can’t imagine many parents would approve of their underage teenagers watching this if they were aware of the content of those scenes, despite the well-intentioned context.
Although Asher’s novel stands by itself with no obvious intention of continuing, Netflix may have other ideas for the adapted series. It lists these thirteen episodes as ‘Season 1” and leaves a few plot threads open-ended… One of which hints at a mass-shooting being planned by one of the students. This could lead viewers to believe a second season is forthcoming and it very well may be. Even if it doesn’t, “13 Reasons Why” is a powerful, stand-alone series that skillfully addresses a serious issue amongst American youths, but may be too intense or graphic for those under the age of seventeen to gain the parental permission to watch. Unfortunate considering this is precisely the demographic who needs to understand and process these issues the most.
Rating: 4 and ½ out of 5 stars