Netflix recently released a series called “13 Reasons Why,” based on the novel of the same name. The general story of the series is a girl who commits suicide leaves 13 tapes detailing the reasons she killed herself and each one is about a different person and/or event. I don’t want to say much more about the plot and I’ll attempt to avoid major spoilers, but it is my belief that this series transcends recommendation and attains a “Must Watch” status. Since watching it (over the span of two days if you care to know, I was that obsessed), I haven’t stopped thinking about it. Here’s my 13 reasons why.
1. Rich and Intriguing Characters
Every character in this show is fantastically written. They all have clear motivations and developed backstories that make all of them realistic and believable. Even more important is the fallibility of them all; none of them are “good.” While we clearly have protagonists and characters we like and/or root for, none of them are simply good or simply bad. The worst (least likable) characters have redeeming qualities and the best (most likable) ones have moments and qualities that make you question them. No character is innocent and the relationships between every single character is riveting. It’s part of what makes watching this series so damn hard.
2. Stellar Acting
To compliment the characters, all the actors did a fantastic job in bringing their characters to life. This subject matter is ultra personal and is frequently very ugly, which means some of the actors have to be the bad guys. Can you imagine what it’s like to play someone who commits sexual assault on a regular basis? What about playing a character that is repeatedly sexually assaulted? I know it’s acting, but I can’t bring myself to imagine ever touching someone or being touched by someone the way these actors did. Not only that, some of them were required to enjoy it. Even still, the majority of the actors do fantastic jobs, but Katherine Langford (Hannah) and Dylan Minnette (Clay) really smash it. I could name scenes, but I’ll keep them to myself to avoid potential spoilers. These two were fabulous.
3. Diversity of Characters
I have always been someone who thinks that diversity isn’t the most critical thing to the success of anything, at least not in the traditional sense. I don’t believe diversity is directly related to race, but for those who feel differently, this show has quite the diverse cast. Numerous black, latino, and Asian characters are present, but that’s not all. Perhaps disproportionately, there is a large number of gay characters. These characters fall across the spectrum and really represent a large variety of different themes and stories. What makes it even more interesting is these characters are all interacting together, sometimes positively and other times not. Regardless, I think it’s nice to see a diverse group of people from all different kinds of students, popular to unpopular, interacting (for the most part) authentically.
4. A Willingness to Be DarkIn a show that revolves around the suicide of a teenage girl, you can tell that it might involved some heavy topics. From the first episode, practically the first moment, you know this will not be an easy show to watch, and that’s what makes this show so powerful. Frequently, we avoid talking about things like rape, suicide, drunk driving, or anything that might be considered painful or hurtful. We ignore it until it becomes a problem, and as the series shows, ignoring the problems leads nowhere but to tragedy. I’ve seen a lot of people complain about different shows and movies for “showing too much” and having either gratuitous sex, violence, language, etc. This show holds nothing back, and that’s important. If we treat these things as unworthy of being seen or acknowledged, how on Earth can we ever have an honest discussion about it? The violence and “gratuity” present throughout the entire show is entirely necessary not only to the authenticity of real life, but to our understanding of it all.
5. Justice for Difficult Subjects
Related to my last point, this show goes beyond just being dark; it does the subjects justice. I can’t speak from firsthand experience on certain issues, but there was nowhere I felt the handling of anything was inappropriate or fake. The mere presence of these events and themes is powerful, but it’s made more powerful by taking them seriously. The viewer grapples with these decisions and events almost as much much as the characters do themselves. I have experienced many of the same struggles as the characters, and I felt I could see myself in many of them. I behaved the same way as many of them, and I felt my struggles were given justice for more than just acknowledging their existence. I hope the same is true of others who have personally experienced some of the problems I myself have not, like death of a friend or sexual assault.
6. Powerful Camera Effects and Editing
As Clay goes through the journey of figuring out what happened to Hannah, he relives it. It would be easy to just flashback to certain moments, and sometimes it does, but often times the camera editing does more unique actions. Like in the picture above, it overlays the past and present into the same scene, as if Clay is seeing a ghost. At other moments, character and camera movements may be the transition between past and present or vice versa. For example, a character falls and then it shows the character falling into a chair, as if he magically fell through a wormhole, but instead ended up in the past/present. Other times the camera will rotate behind a character’s head and on the other side of the head is an entirely different character’s head in the same place, but in another time. The editing is fluid and seamless and does a fantastic job of weaving together the story. It might sound rather trivial, but the fluidity of Hannah’s story is made even more potent by the fluidity of the transitions. Watch and you’ll see what I mean.
7. Depiction of Grief
In one of my favorite moments of the show, Clay loses it and cries. He’s been wanting to cry for a long time and he finally does. There are fantastic performances and portrayals of grief from all the different characters at different points, but this is my favorite. Male characters almost never have the opportunity to be weak, show emotion, be vulnerable, and/or cry. This is so rare that this moment would’ve caught me off guard if it wasn’t also the thumbnail for episode five. But regardless, a seventeen year old man was shown crying. He was naked and alone in the shower and started to cry, which just screams vulnerability and I loved seeing a male character get to experience grief in a real way. Aside from this scene, there are plenty of other moments where characters cope with grief in different ways and all are as valid as the next. Some drink their problems away or have sex or get high, some shut down completely. Some lash out in anger and some try to hide it. All are real and all are essential portrayals of the variety of ways humans deal with pain and tragedy. We need to understand that ALL of them are acceptable, especially unorthodox ones like men crying.
8. Parent-Teenager Relationships
Even though the show is focused on the teenagers, the parents get a lot of screen time as well, which is really important. Hannah’s parents are reeling from their daughter’s suicide and for almost the entire series are kept in the dark. Almost all the parents are. Some parents see certain things wrong with their kids but are entirely dependent on the child stepping forward to get anywhere. I found myself the entire time begging Clay to just open up to his parents about how much he was struggling because it was obvious his secrets were slowly killing not only him, but his parents. The interactions between him and his parents mirrored experiences I’ve had with my parents and made me realize that I was no different. It’s really easy to see in a TV show where you see all perspectives clearly, but I was also reminded that I behaved the exact same way. Even between all the secrets and drama, there were still good moments between the parents and their children. I feel a lot of television and movie media likes to paint teenagers as constantly at odds with the adults in their lives, almost like they’re biologically incapable of communicating in any way but anger and miscommunication. This isn’t always the case, and I was really happy to see the mixed bag of parental interaction.
9. High School Drama Isn’t Diminished
It’s so easy and so common for everyone to be fed up with high school drama. Everyone who survives adolescence can pretty much concur that high school drama doesn’t matter in the long run, but that’s entirely not the point. People talk about high school drama and teenage angst with such condescension and scrutiny that nobody takes it seriously. Can you really blame teenagers for feeling like their problems don’t matter to people when all the world does is diminish them? I’ve been taking a theater for young audiences class for school and one thing I hear over and over from professionals in the field is the idea that people only value children because they’re the future. We hear it all the time, right? Children are the future? Well let me ask you something: do children not exist right now? Are they useless until their 18th birthday when suddenly they miraculously have value to the world? No, children are alive and present TODAY, which means they have immediate value. The same is true of teenagers. “Tomorrow” doesn’t exist. All we have is now and while teen problems may “pass” in the future, it doesn’t matter. All of our problems will pass. If you want to argue taking a girl to Prom doesn’t matter in the long run, neither does paying your mortgage. Some day you’ll die and that house will go on to the next person and paying your mortgage won’t have meant anything. Teenage problems are real and important and we can’t keep talking about them like they don’t matter. Especially in that formative time in their lives, it absolutely does matter. All of this is to say the show takes these problems seriously. Most people won’t commit suicide, but some will and it’s because their problems were trivialized by (many) someone(s). It’s time to stop being a part of the problem and become a part of the solution, which starts with acknowledging the legitimacy and seriousness of “typical teenage drama.”
10. Musical Score
One of the things I liked about this show is its score. There are several moments in the series where nobody talks and it just plays songs over the characters’ actions. If you have the subtitles on, Netflix will even tell you the name and lyrics of the song. I recommend this because it helps draw attention to how selective the songs are. They’re almost like dialogue from the writers. Every song was carefully chosen to play in the exact moments they were and they emphasize certain themes currently at stake. Not only are they important, they’re good. I can’t remember any of the songs except for one, but the songs were actually pleasant to listen to. The one I’m thinking of is called “The Night We Met” by Lord Huron. It’s just spectacular and emotional and evocative. The rest of the soundtrack is really poignant as well.
11. Prominence and Responsibilities of Schools
So much of this story starts and ends with school. Hannah is new to the school, her parents sue the school for students bullying her at school, the school commemorates Hannah, etc. It’s the central hub for the entire series, which is more or less accurate for most high school students. While the primary plot is Clay uncovering what happened to Hannah, there’s the really important sub-plot of Hannah’s parents fighting the school. The school tries to claim they had no idea Hannah was being bullied, which is laughable. A central character is Mr. Porter, the guidance counselor. He’s trying help the kids move on with life after Hannah’s suicide and also meets with Hannah and other students on several occasions leading up to her suicide. One of the most regurgitated lines in the show is some variant of “F*ck this school.” That’s a pretty common attitude for high school students, but it’s sad that’s the case. A school should be a positive place and should be held responsible for what happens while the kids are there. Mr. Porter makes efforts to understand, but never very good ones. He’s very incompetent (in my opinion) and is unable to help the students. It’s interesting because school is frequently thought of as a place, but often times it’s an entity and a force in the show. This show really draws attention to the importance, impact, and responsibilities of schools.
12. Little Things Are Important
One of my other favorite scenes is the winter formal where Clay finally has a good moment with Hannah. Knowing the premise of the show really makes everything tough to take because you know not even the good moments help in the end. You watch her progressively get worse and worse and can’t do anything and know the characters can’t/don’t do anything. Regardless of this fact, I found myself still pushing for the good moments in a foolish hope it might change her mind. The good moments are so precious in this show because there aren’t a lot of them and it teaches just how critical the little moments are. As sad as Hannah’s suicide is, I can rest slightly easier knowing that she had a beautiful moment with Clay and that she experienced joy rather than endless torment. When all that’s left is tragedy, the little happy moments become so much more special. It also inspires me to pay more attention to the little things that might be all I have down the road.
13. Starting Conversations
This show opens so many conversations. Not only does it put issues like suicide, sexual assault, school, alcohol, bullying, and others into popular culture, it is pop culture. It will generate talk about the issues and talk about the show itself. I’ve been seeing that this show is the most popular streaming show (not actually on TV) in history. While I want to talk about the issues raised in the show, I really want to talk about the show as a show because of how much it impacted me. Not that this is extraordinary, but I was moved to tears and near tears on several occasions. This show is powerful for all of the above reasons and I’m shaken. I seriously love this show and as of right now, it has a 9.1 on IMDb and a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes which shows us near universal praise from fans and critics. This show is starting conversations left and right and I want to talk about it! It’s phenomenal and I wouldn’t be surprised if this show goes down in history for some cultural impact. I think time will remember it as one of the greatest shows of all time, even if it has only been two weeks. Maybe it will fade, maybe it won’t, but at this point in time, it’s essential viewing.