Over the last number of years, it has become evident that Netflix is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to TV Series. Shows like Stranger Things, Making A Murderer and the Marvel Cinematic Universe series such as Daredevil and Jessica Jones have all been met with positive feedback and become well recognised in popular culture. The latest addition to the online streaming platform comes in the form of an adaptation of Jay Asher’s young-adult novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, brought to us from Brian Yorkey, The show is also credited with Academy Award winner (Spotlight, 2015) Tom McCarthy as executive producer along with pop star sensation Selena Gomez.
However, it is important to acknowledge beforehand that the show has earned its recognition largely concerning the show’s serious subject matter, which has been heavily surrounded with controversy. Gomez herself has openly defended the series’ depiction of its difficult content, stating that they were simply staying true to the original source material and none of the show’s portrayals of these events were meant to be in poor taste. Having not read Asher’s novel I am unable to draw comparisons between the two. With all of this being said, is the show any good? It is also important to note that there will be a few minor spoilers included in this review.
Relating back to what is mentioned above about the show’s subject matter, the focus is on a young girl named Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) who for reasons that are revealed throughout the course of the series, takes her own life. Before she commits suicide, she leaves behind a collection of tapes, thirteen to be exact, all intended for specific people in her life and each revealing a crucial piece of information. These individuals range from failed romantic partners, jocks and more importantly Hannah’s close and only friend Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) and how her actions have left an impact on them.
I must admit, I was intrigued by this element of the show, with each episode focusing on a tape, feeding us more and more information about Hannah and her relationships. This is also a disadvantage for the series as it is forced to overuse the flashback narrative framework (Hannah is no longer alive in the present day); we constantly jump back and forth to the past and present day, making the story feel very repetitive and also a little convoluted. That being said, the performances by the leads are solid, with both Langford and Minnette developing great chemistry with each other as well delivering some emotionally powerful scenes. The same can’t be said about the other characters however. Their performances aren’t terrible, they all do a fine job. The issue lies with the writing. A vast number of the supporting characters were thinly written, ranging from the meat-headed jocks, the creepy stalker, the closet teen. These characters are more like archetypes and there isn’t that much to them other than the stereotypes traits. To be honest, aside from the leads, I forgot what the other character’s names were.
Acting and narrative aside, how does the show handle its controversial subject matter: at times very well. It must be advised that this is not an easy series to watch and as a result, certain countries have enforced bans on the show (New Zealand for example). There are two sequences in which there is the display of a sexual assault, which I felt were far too graphic especially in the sequence where Hannah eventually decides to take her own life. These moments are intended to shock but I do feel that they would have been far more impactful if they had shown less. Another form of criticism that the show has faced is that it offers a ‘romanticised portrayal of suicide’ by showing that characters who have suicidal tendencies are merely a burden to those around them.
I do agree with this statement to some extent as the very idea of someone leaving behind such messages is completely far-fetched and it can be perceived as being insulting to families who have experienced situations like this. There are also moments in which it feels for a second as though we have been transported into a horror film such, as a moment in which Clay imagines Hannah’s bloody corpse in the middle of a high school basketball game. For me, I felt this moment was completely out of place for the series’ tone and it seems as though they were included simply for shock value and felt far too unpleasant.
Thirteen Reasons Why certainly is a rough watch and I wouldn’t advise anyone who is upset or disturbed by content on display here to give it their viewing time. However, Minnette is fantastic as Clay Jensen as is Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker and they help to overcome the show’s inconsistent plot structure and tonal inconsistencies. I wasn’t in love with the series and I wasn’t enraged by it. There are some truly effective emotional moments but I couldn’t help but be left with this sick feeling in my stomach after watching the final episode and to be honest, I can’t see myself following up with the proposed second season. Sean Moriarty