Once in a while, a TV drama series comes along that is genuinely important – and Netflix’s offering 13 Reasons Why is one of them. Teen dramas seem to be notoriously hard to get right – they are either light and airy with no substance, or they are so intent in getting “messages” or “issues” across that they lack dramatic substance. 13 Reasons Why isn’t perfect by any means, but it does manage to straddle the categories of “issue” TV and “effective drama” for the most part.
Hannah Baker, a teenager, has committed suicide. Two weeks later, a box of cassette tapes winds up on the doorstep of her friend Clay. Over the coming days, Clay listens to the tapes, each side of which gives another of the “13 reasons why” Hannah took the step of killing herself. The series is based on a book I haven’t read but, by all means, is decidedly less bloated than the near 13 hour Netflix adaptation. But the adaptation benefits from showing the stories of the present day stories of the people mentioned on the tapes, and the affect that the airing of their stories and actions has on them.
What is key here is that 13 Reasons Why is an intelligently written, superbly acted piece of television that deals with bullying, depression, sexuality, assault, and suicide. A bundle of light-hearted fun it isn’t. And yet the structure of the series (showing the post-suicide stories) allows for it to be more than just a worthy after-school special type programme.
One would argue that this wasn’t even made for teens at all – indeed, inexplicably the BBFC in the UK have given this an 18 rating. This is, presumably, because of the two rape sequences which, while uncomfortable, are certainly not of the ilk we are likely to find in an 18 film. It seems totally counter-productive to have a series dealing with teen issues in an intelligent way being branded as unsuitable for teens under 18! Perhaps there was a fear that, somehow, the option of suicide would look attractive to the viewer – but anyone seeing the final episode where we see the act itself will know that isn’t the case either. Thankfully, the series is on Netflix and younger people will no doubt have access to it anyway – but a 15 certificate would certainly have been more apt and appropriate.
But 13 Reasons Why is most important because it deals with mental health issues – with depression and suicide – without lecturing, and without talking down to the viewer, and without trivialising it. In fact, the term “depression” is barely mentioned at all. But this is the topic that dare not speak its name, of course. We don’t talk about mental health. But here it is “discussed” along with teen issues “responsibly.” A number of episodes have warnings about the content before they start. The first episode has helpline numbers before it. And there is a documentary appendix episode dealing with the issues featured in the series.
All of this, and yet any adult who has gone through mental health issues has to ponder quite what the point of those phone numbers are. We should seek help if we are going through the problems featured in the series, we are told. And yet there are thousands of us with mental health issues who have come forward and asked for help with our condition and yet cannot receive any. We are told on the NHS in the UK of a year-long waiting list for counselling, for example. It is rather scary that a TV drama can be more responsible about the damage mental health issues can do than our own health system or our own government in recognising its failings.
But I have written about that at length elsewhere, and this is about the series. The “13 reasons” are spread over 13 episodes and, as some others have noted, this is too many. Quite easily, there are occasions where two reasons could have fitted into one episode, for example. The central episodes, directed by Gregg Araki, are bloated and move very slowly before the series gathers pace again around episode 10.
As much as I admire and “liked” the series, though, there is a feeling that the final instalment is unsatisfactory. The realms of possibility are stretched, as not one, not two, not three, but four students in the same group of friends get their hands on guns – and we’re not told of the consequences of this in most cases. Instead of giving us a neater ending, the series makes the mistake of making sure it is left open for a second season. It’s the one thing that lets the programme down. All of this good work, this great writing and wonderful acting, is jeopardised because the programme makers/Netflix wanted to make sure they still had a story to tell if a second season was decided upon.
Sometimes a story just needs to be told and then finish – especially when adapting a novel, which obviously does have an ending. In fact, the problem here is that, rather than giving the viewer the idea that there is a second season in the offing, it gives the impression that someone forgot to make a final episode – because episode 13 acts like a penultimate one, not a final one. And this is such a shame.
But even this error of judgement can’t undo the good work here. Dylan Minnette gives one of the best performances in a TV series I have seen for a very long time – and one of the most nuanced accounts of a “troubled teen” I’ve seen in film or TV. Everything about the performance rings true. The same is true for Katherine Langford as Hannah, although she, ironically, has less to work with – not least because of those bloated episodes in the centre of the series, and the fact that she is only on screen for around half of the running time.
As a final note, Netflix chose to release all of the episodes of the series in one go – and this was possibly a mistake. This is not binge-watch television, and it really doesn’t work well when watched in that way as it slowly numbs the viewer to each new event that is revealed in the story of Hannah Baker, and nothing becomes shocking. While there is a “thriller” – even a “whodunit” – element to the story, that isn’t what this is about, and a weekly episode format would have worked better. But it is what it is – an intelligent, gripping, and responsible series that deals with teen life in an undeniably adult way, and in a way that most dramas simply don’t have the balls to do.