Every so often, game-changing media pops out of nowhere – quite literally, as buzz regarding new films and shows is proliferated across social media in what seems like micro-seconds. I’ve stopped jumping on bandwagons too quickly but am very glad to have binged Selena Gomez’s passion project, 13 Reasons Why, early. It’s the kind of show you can’t be spoiled for. You should of course be warned for all the triggering material present in the show – it’s a huge part of the narrative and the show has a no holds barred approach to portraying all of it. (Click here for a list of warnings for the most triggering episodes, but I’d say be careful watching the entire thing. Triggers crop up at various points in the narrative.)
From a technical perspective, and from a character perspective that goes beyond the depictions of abuse and suicide, this is a well-crafted show that is – to an extent – sensitive of adolescence. But it is frank and blatant, and stylised and gratuitous, and that can and should be fairly alarming.
The acting is fantastic across the board. So much of this cast comprises newcomers, with a few seasoned wonders like Kate Walsh, Brian d’Arcy James and Keiko Agena thrown into the mix. Dylan Minnette absolutely shines as quiet ‘nerd’ Clay Jensen. He’s very naturalistic in the role, but holds a kind of likeability that makes him the perfect mix of the unremarkable Jensen and hints of someone more, fighting to bust out. Katherine Langford is a real star. Her voice carries us through the narrative and whenever she’s onscreen, the audience is immediately led to fall in love with her; to feel a real sense of indignity and anger and anguish over what ultimately happens to her. Hannah Baker comes alive with each episode, only for that facade to come crashing down by the finale, and it’s all because Langford is a gorgeous, charismatic young woman who translated this complex, nuanced character onscreen perfectly.
Every single young person in this cast is phenomenal, but I specifically wanted to focus on Minnette and Langford because they are what make the show for me. They are also the kids – along with perhaps Christian Navarro’s Tony and Brandon Larracuente’s Jeff – that I loved or even just really liked throughout. But that’s part of what makes 13 Reasons Why so compelling – it’s real. Kids do terrible things to one another. Although I don’t always relate to what goes on in shows or films about the American high school experience, this story feels much more universal than most. It’s even applicable beyond high school, because abuse can happen to anyone. That’s what makes it so difficult to stomach, but so important to acknowledged, particularly in such a bold faced manner.
If done right, a show like this should make its audience feel anger and injustice, yes. But it should also make us aware of the insidious nature of societal influence. This show attempts to undermine problematic and harmful norms and behaviours by reinforcing them within the narrative.
Edit in hindsight: it’s not perfect representation, but the discomfort generated by that unabashed tone is worth noting – is it indulgent or is the honesty important to show? Perhaps not to the full extent of some of its most violent scenes, particularly as it’s implying to know exactly what characteristics of mental illness look like.
Quite literally nobody in this show is perfect, and despite that being made clear in the first episode, I’ll admit to being sceptical as to how far the narrative would take those imperfections and outright atrocious behaviour. However, it does go even further than I anticipated – at least going off of what I’ve seen onscreen all my life with reference to ‘teen issues’.
The editing is another aspect that’s worth mentioning, because it’s seamlessly transitional, and sometimes purposely misleading in such an expert fashion. It goes along with how the show repeats then dismantles myths surrounding assault and suicide. Questions of adolescence and adulthood, and of responsibility and consequence are impeccably woven in with those heavier themes. A symbiosis that’s very reminiscent of real life is thus created. I would say 13 Reasons Why is one of the realest shows I’ve seen in a long time – not because it looks gritty or anything like that. It refuses to sugarcoat a painful message and make it typically palatable. Beyond the overarching storyline are characters you can care about, which builds a rich perspective throughout the show.
More edits in hindsight: But is it possible to separate a show’s undoubtedly singular portrayal of a struggling girl and its high quality technical achievements? It’s definitely one of those shows that feel better as you’re watching it and seems incomplete or even incorrect in the aftermath. And from speaking to other people who’ve watched the show and didn’t identify with it as quickly as I did, the gratuitousness did manage to allow them to disassociate with the content, and the more subtle narrative cues were lost.
That’s probably down to the viewer and what they’re looking to get out of the show.
The series is both absolutely binge-able and difficult to watch because of its dark content. It’s shocking and fleeting; languid and memorable. Tenser than most thrillers out there and fascinating in its unwavering conviction. It makes a good story, but separating it from its subject matter and calling it just that might not be enough. It feels so real that it might very well be dangerous, so watch with caution.