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In their song, “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It),” the fictional band Big Fun mused, “Every little thing, every little thing has a place in the big picture.” Heathers, the 1989 movie that birthed that classic song, was darkly comic, but Big Fun’s words are also the theme of Netflix’s far more somber new drama 13 Reasons Why, which takes a butterfly-effect view of teenage suicide in the 21st century.
A steady 13-episode descent into grief and emotional confusion, 13 Reasons Why is an honorably mature piece of young-adult adaptation, fleshing out Jay Asher’s well-regarded novel in a way that allows its cold-hearted high-school environment to breathe while revolving around tremendous lead turns by Dylan Minnette and particularly Australian newcomer Katherine Langford.
Air date: Mar 31, 2017
The series begins at a high school going through the motions of grieving the late Hannah Baker (Langford) — locker shrines, sad-faced selfies and “know the signs” classroom lectures.
“Some things, you know, just don’t have simple explanations, right?” Hannah says from beyond the grave.
Before she ended her life, Hannah recorded a series of cassette tapes explaining her actions and then set into motion an elaborate chain-letter system to pass the tapes along to the people she deemed partly responsible, one by one. The tapes, accompanied by a map leading the listeners to key locations, recount a snowballing series of experiences ranging from somewhat innocuous youthful callousness to bullying and shaming to sexual assault. The exchange of the tapes is being monitored by an initially unknown source, and it forges a web of secrecy among those accused.
We join the story as the tapes make their way to Clay (Dylan Minnette), a mopey nice guy who had a crush on Hannah and can’t believe he had anything to do with her death. Clay begins to freak out when he hears some of what was done to Hannah, causing him to run afoul of the more culpable people on the tape, who don’t want their circle of trust widened to include parents or law enforcement.
The novel was written a decade ago and has, if anything, become more relevant. It’s not like high school was ever a universally loved period, and kids have always been picking on each other and tormenting each other and ruining an already vulnerable time. What has changed, and continues to change rapidly, is the blurring of public and private among people whose sense of decency and decorum hasn’t fully matured. Sexting and revenge porn and cyber-bullying were nascent when Asher published his book. We’ve only become more entrenched in a social media world that gives the illusion of connectivity, but can just as easily be isolating.
Asher’s book is structured as almost a back-and-forth conversation between Hannah’s taped narration and Clay’s increasingly stressed perspective, all told in one miserable night. The title suggested a clean episodic structure, except that as Tony and Pulitzer-winning writer Brian Yorkey would have quickly discovered, some of the individual vignettes wouldn’t have sustained an hour of television. This forced the expansion of many of the surrounding teen characters, including Alisha Boe’s spiraling cheerleader Jessica, Christian Navarro’s car-loving Tony, Michelle Selene Ang’s Type-A Courtney, Justin Prentice’s slimy BMOC Bryce, Miles Heizer’s approval-starved Alex and more. Since the young actors are less familiar, the roles for the parents have been expanded enough to lure veterans like Brian D’Arcy James, Kate Walsh and Mark Pellegrino, while Derek Luke and Steven Weber play key figures at the school.
The expansion is a mixed bag. The teenage cabal of somewhat-connected conspirators adds a threatening thriller aspect that absolutely propels the narrative, but pushes the show from relatable “This could happen anywhere” mournfulness toward a different genre. Similarly, boosting the profile of the parents gives some of the actors, especially Walsh, tough, powerful material, but having Hannah’s parents pursuing legal action against the school pulls 13 Reasons Why into another ill-suited genre.
The added plotlines seem at least partially intended to make a second season a possibility, even though the 13 episodes, all sent to critics, are amply conclusive. I understand why these embellishments, none truly bad, were required to make a TV series from Asher’s book, which also required no sequel, but diluting the razor-focus of the Hannah-Clay back-and-forth structure also dilutes the clarity of the cause-and-effect that Hannah’s tapes are meant to illustrate.
For all the newly shaded supporting parts — Heizer, Navarro and Boe stand out among the high school ensemble — the show belongs to Minnette and Langford, and it shines when it retains Asher’s focus. Hannah’s journey of humiliation, thwarted hope and misery is a horrible one, but Langford’s heartbreaking openness makes you root for a fate you know isn’t possible. The actress’ performance is full of dynamic range, setting it against Minnette’s often more complicated task in differentiating between moods that mostly go from uncomfortable to gloomy to red-eyed, hygiene-starved despair. (Compared to the book, Clay is also much less a dippy innocent here, which I really appreciated.) Minnette is so dedicated to playing despondent that the relief and pleasure in brief scenes of flirty banter between Hannah and Clay is palpable.
Any levity is rare, though. Teens are the intended core of the 13 Reasons Why audience, but this is a show that believes teens are capable of watching the things teens are capable of doing. The treatment of rape, cruelty and the show’s inciting event are unflinching. A Sundance-friendly gallery of directors including Tom McCarthy, Gregg Araki and Carl Franklin keeps the performances grounded and the extremes from feeling exploitative, and holds together a story that jumps around in time, withholds key pieces of information from viewers and weaves in mentally distressed fantasy sequences.
As a series, 13 Reasons Why advocates strongly for communication and basic human decency and shows many of the ways friends and loved ones failed Hannah. If it falls short in exploring the role of depression in Hannah’s situation, the accompanying 30-minute “Beyond the Reasons” episode makes up some of that ground. The conversation-advancing special includes necessary outreach information, expert analysis, behind-the-scenes footage and features executive producers Selena Gomez and Mandy Teefey. It’s a valuable capper to a well-acted series that’s difficult to watch, yet always highly watchable.
Cast: Katherine Langford, Dylan Minnette, Brandon Flynn, Christian Navarro, Alisha Boe, Michelle Selene Ang, Justin Prentice, Devin Druid, Miles Heizer, Ross Butler, Tommy Dorfman, Sosie Bacon, Kate Walsh, Brian D’Arcy James, Amy Hargreaves, Derek Luke.
Creator: Brian Yorkey
Showrunners: Brian Yorkey and Diana Son
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)
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