'13 Reasons Why' Season 2: TV Review

The reasons not to watch number more than 13.
5/18/2018

The second season of Netflix's teen suicide drama is a frustratingly unnecessary mess of bad courtroom antics, stale mysteries and clumsy efforts to bring back Katherine Langford.

The first season of Netflix's 13 Reasons Why was already a precarious thing.

Carried by the rigid structure established in Jay Asher's book, sensitive work from a tremendous team of directors led by Tom McCarthy and an exceptional cast of young actors, the show's first season tells a harrowing tale of teen suicide that depicts darkness with earnestness, honors its characters and only rarely wallows in misery. Even as it was driven by the best of intentions, the show was a lightning rod for controversy, and although I felt that most of the negative conversations about the show obscured its ideological point and confused depiction with endorsement, concern was widespread enough that it couldn't be ignored.

Like Asher's book, the first Netflix season of 13 Reasons Why has a conclusive ending; the little that is left unresolved isn't enough to require a second season.

That completely unnecessary second run premieres Friday on Netflix, and say what you will about it, but at least it doesn't begin with a character rushing into a room yelling, "Guys! Guys! I just found a new box of cassette tapes explaining 13 more reasons why Hannah Baker killed herself!"

Instead, with Brian Yorkey writing and Gregg Araki directing, the new season begins a few months after the tapes left by Hannah (Katherine Langford) turned Liberty High School upside down and pushed the people who loved her, including Dylan Minnette's glum good guy Clay, to the brink.

As we return, Hannah's mother, Olivia (Kate Walsh), is leading a lawsuit against Liberty, alleging that the school's failure to curb bullying and institutional negligence in response to Hannah's myriad cries for help were responsible for the girl's death. The coming trial provides the season with its primary focus, as all the kids and faculty who received Hannah's tapes are called to the stand. Even though no additional tapes surface, rest assured that what is on the tapes is merely the beginning.

Enough time has passed for eternally mopey Clay to have embarked on a  relationship with Sosie Bacon's Skye, a spirited but fragile girl who proves that the boy definitely has a type. Clay hasn't been called to the stand by either the prosecution or defense, and he's confused over why nobody wants him to tell his mopey truth. Meanwhile, those who have testified or are about to testify — including pervy photographer Tyler (Devin Druid), psychologically fragile Jessica (Alisha Boe), deeply conflicted Zach (Ross Butler) and, returning to school in a diminished capacity after what happened last season, Alex (Miles Heizer) — are getting threats and warnings about what will happen to them if they reveal secrets. Who is issuing the threats? Is it increasingly evil Bryce (Justin Prentice) or one of his interchangeably sniveling baseball team cohorts? And who is responsible for the distribution of scandalous Polaroids showing that Hannah was only one victim of a rampant Liberty problem with sexual assault?

One of the charges against the first season was that it makes suicide look like the only option for Hannah. The second season overcompensates aggressively. The first episode opens with a 45-second PSA, every episode ends with a call-to-action resource website, and multiple episodes feature prominent trigger warnings at the beginning. The parents, dopey, clueless and unable to communicate with their kids in the first season, have been scared into an abundance of "Is there something you want to discuss with us?" caution. Guidance counselor Mr. Porter (Derek Luke) is haunted by the things he should have said and done.

As much as I don't think a second season was ever necessary, after watching all 13 episodes, on an intellectual level I can take a step back and see what Yorkey and the writers want to do as they expand this universe beyond the story in Asher's book.

The audience has been turned into Clay from the first season. The frustration and betrayal he experienced was the gradual upheaval of a narrative he thought he understood, as he learned that the Hannah in his mind was just an artificial construction. The frustration and betrayal that we're supposed to experience in the second season is the gradual upheaval of the narrative we saw in the first season, which was an artificial construction of its own. Between the things we remember from the first season, new flashbacks and the on-the-stand testimony of different characters, the truth becomes much more of a Rashomon thing. Some of the new information comes from previously unused details from Asher's book. Other times, glimpses of unremarked-upon relationships and events undermine vast stretches of the first season. The sixth episode, which some readers/viewers are going to feel is an especially exhaustive piece of retroactive continuity, features multiple characters yelling at one another about stuff that wasn't in the tapes and why it might have been left out, bending over backward to excuse the very existence of the whole season.

I'm also prepared to acknowledge that the second season has a greater attempted topical reach than the first season. The broader focus on sexual assault and the double standards placed on women, especially young women, in contemporary society puts 13 Reasons Why squarely into the #MeToo and Time's Up wheelhouse.

Unfortunately, the season's execution is frequently dismal. And although I didn't feel that the first season engaged in sadness porn or exploitation, I can't say the same for the second. It wallows, especially in later episodes.

Using the trial as a structuring device might not have been a bad idea, except that there is no aspect of the trial that isn't absolutely ridiculous. It's one thing for the depiction of attorneys (played by Wilson Cruz and Allison Miller), legal proceedings and strategy to be unrealistic, but the trial yields multiple "You've got to be kidding me" moments per episode. The trial also opens the door for episodes to feature non-Hannah voiceover from the characters who take the stand, voiceovers that reveal that everybody in 13 Reasons Why speaks in the same leaden cliches. None of the literally dozens of characters now clogging up what was a fairly clean story in the first season has a distinctive voice.

The first season had padded episodes, but the butterfly-effect sense of causality moved step by step to its tragic result in a tidy way. It's probably intentional that very little in the second season seems to follow a comparable cause-and-effect pattern, because sometimes life doesn't, but an absurd number of things are happening, for reasons that rarely make sense. There are multiple ongoing mysteries, none of which resolves with any sense of surprise. There's the arc to the big twist of the finale that you'll be able to see coming from at least the fourth episode. There are "shocking" character reveals that are never shocking, and multiple characters' journeys are straight out of after-school specials.

Still, the performances often work. Boe and Heizer have interesting arcs that let them shine. Brandon Flynn's Justin is in the worst of the implausible after-school specials, an overreach to tie the show into the national opioid epidemic, yet I found his work compelling. Bacon is sweet and a little heartbreaking, and it's annoying when the show basically forgets about her. The show also forgets about a key detail from Clay's backstory, a detail that if it had been worked into the story might have kept Minnette from playing the same two emotions over and over again, not that he does it poorly. Minnette is the protagonist of the first season, and it's not his fault that the show has reduced him to a reactive guy who does dumb things and thinks he's the nice guy even though we've now pretty well established that he's not.

At least he gets two sides to play. Much more than during the first season, Prentice's Bryce is a completely villainous caricature, though marginally better than several of his baseball minions, whose behavior consists of bumping into people in hallways and uttering homophobic slurs. The ranks of grownups who get only a single facial expression for the entire season include Steven Weber as the school's smarmy principal; Jake Weber as Bryce's smarmy father; and poor Kate Walsh, though her red eyes are sometimes rimmed with tears of sadness and sometimes hope.

Maybe what I missed most was Langford having a reason to be there. Her vulnerable, frequently funny performance (on a show whose lack of humor reaches distressing extremes in these new episodes) runs the gamut from radiant to crushed in the first season. The show's directors knew they could always cut to a Langford close-up and she would sell whatever the show was pushing. She's still around in the second season, and her every appearance points to how the writers are trying, mostly with silliness in a way I won't spoil, to shoehorn in a beloved actor/character.

The end of the second season sets us up for a third that may be even less justifiable than the second. The time is probably right for the producers to set Langford free so that she can capitalize on her Golden Globe nomination to go do something better. I'm certainly going to set myself free. Were I not a fan of the first season and a TV critic suffering from OCD completism, I probably would have dropped out of the second season after the sixth episode, if not earlier.

Cast: Katherine Langford, Dylan Minnette, Brandon Flynn, Christian Navarro, Alisha Boe, Michelle Selene Ang, Justin Prentice, Devin Druid, Miles Heizer, Ross Butler, Sosie Bacon, Kate Walsh, Brian D'Arcy James, Amy Hargreaves, Derek Luke
Creator: Adapted by Brian Yorkey from the book by Jay Asher
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)