Content Warning: Mentions of suicide, sexual assault, rape and mental health.
Let’s start with the obvious shall we? 13 Reasons Why is not your average American teenage drama: it is much darker, and tackles issues rarely portrayed on screen in greater detail than most.
Yes, there are house parties, unrequited crushes, cheerleaders, jocks, and that kooky teacher who tries really hard to be ‘down with the kids’. But on a more serious note, Netflix’s adaptation of Jay Asher’s novel deals with the topics of suicide, sexual assault, mental health, and rape.
The title links directly to the plot, as we slowly learn the 13 reasons why Hannah Baker – a student at Liberty High School – decides to take her own life. Rather than a simple chronological plotline, the show’s twist comes in the form of us learning why she killed herself along with the other main protagonist, Clay Jensen, as he listens to the cassette tapes she left behind so that those guilty could know what they’d done. Believable, no. Intriguing, yes.
With subtle filters used to help differentiate the sunnier past from the greyer present, the flashbacks are a more interesting form of narration that could have been achieved merely by voiceover, but thankfully that technique is not overused, just.
Despite the weight of the memories that are what the show is based on, the events following Hannah’s death are what provide the great intrigue and motivation to keep watching. As she outs those who pushed her over the edge, we are drawn in by who will be next. Perhaps most significantly, we wonder how Clay fits into all this, forcing us to keep watching as we search for the same answers at the same time as he does.
13 Reasons Why still struggles to be a great show however. Despite obvious plot holes – something which is hard to avoid with such a complex story – there is also some ropey acting and screenwriting. For people who have just had one of their friends kill themselves, the main characters seem remarkably chill about it all, so obsessed with the tapes than her death. Only Hannah’s parents put in performances of grief that you can believe.
More detrimental however is the pacing. While the first couple of episodes give enough mystery to encourage further viewing, this intrigue is soon replaced by frustration that we couldn’t perhaps roll a couple of these episodes into one. The amount of times Clay is bluntly told to “just listen to the tapes” when asking what’s going on seemingly numbers in the thousands. Christ Clay, for someone who’s so fixated with Hannah and the tapes, how does it take you so bloody long to listen to them all?
Ultimately, these flaws do not detract too much from the enjoyment of the show – although ‘enjoyment’ is probably not the right word. It raises important topics, whilst still managing to build a plot around them that creates a compelling story, even if Clay does his best to hinder it at every turn. As high school teenage dramas go, it is one of the better recent offerings, but without more believability (and a better editor), the harsh realities of what it is trying to portray get lost, leaving 13 Reasons Why with more style than substance.