Starring: Dylan Minnette, Katherine Langford, Christian Navarro, Miles Heizer, Alisha Boe, Brandon Flynn, Kate Walsh, Brian D’Arcy James, Justin Prentice, Devin Druid, Ross Butler, Ajiona Alexus, Michelle Selene Ang, Steven Silver, Sosie Bacon, Derek Luke, Amy Hargreaves, Josh Hamilton, Tom Everett Scott, Wilson Cruz, Mark Pellegrino
Various Episodes Directed By: Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), Kyle Patrick Alvarez (The Stanford Prison Experiment), Carl Franklin (One True Thing), Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin)
Plot: Hannah Baker (Langsford) is dead. Suicide. Clay (Minnette) is having a hard time coping with the loss of his friend, when he suddenly receives a package that will change his life, and his perspective, forever. Before Hannah died, she recorded a series of tapes, explaining why she decided to take her life, and how some unsuspecting people were in part responsible for her demise. Each tape dedicated to a different person, who was then supposed to pass it along to the next. If the tapes didn’t get passed around, a second set would be released to the public, and everyone would know what they did. At first, Clay finds it incomprehensible that he could have done something to harm Hannah, the girl he loved. But as it gets closer and closer to his tape, and each tape being more and more shocking, Clay fears the worst is yet to come.
What Works: I included the directors here to highlight something that I thought worked really well. Because each tape is about a specific person, it works almost like an anthology series, which allowed for a lot of cinematic directors to come in and treat each episode like a contained product. I’m impressed they got such a stellar roster in the first place. Over half of the episodes were directed by someone who has made a profound film either about youth, death, or sexual abuse. Most of the teen cast has only been in a few small roles, with Dylan Minnette being the lone exception.I think was a brilliant choice, because we are instantly drawn to Minnette, because we recognize him, and he has this instant likability factor you need for Clay in order for him to work as the protagonist. For the rest of the cast, since their characters evolve so much over the course of 13 episodes, it was vital for us to know little about them, or have a preconceived notion of what type of character they play. For example, Justin (Flynn) makes a ton of progress, and this is basically the first thing he’s done. His only other credit is one episode of BrainDead. I had no idea what to expect, and I was impressed with his arc. As the gravity of what they did sets in, these teens cope with it in different ways, and that’s what makes this series work so well. Minnette is excellent as the main kid. He’s honestly never been better, and I would love to see his name in consideration this year at the Emmy’s. I’d also love to see Kate Walsh and Brian D’Arcy James, who are both exquisite as Hannah’s parents. The final episode just broke my heart, and it had a lot to do with their acting. This is a very strong ensemble cast. 13 Reasons Why is a very engrossing drama that almost feels like required viewing, because the topic is so timely and important. For anyone who has ever lost someone to suicide and wondered what they could have done, this show will resonate with you.
What Doesn’t Work: At times, this show is a bit heavy handed, and starts to feel a little like an “after school special”. The concept walks a fine line as it is, but when it starts feeling preachy and self righteous is when it starts to lose its audience. For example, there’s very little sympathy given to Courtney (Ang) because what she did to Hannah was awful. Since Courtney herself is going through some life changing shit at the time, I found it off putting that not a single character in the film was sympathetic to her situation. Did she handle it the way she should have? No. But everyone seems to just throw away her own drama as not important, when it is a very real situation for hundreds of teenagers. There are teenagers out there just like Courtney who can relate directly to her character, and the treatment of her storyline is disappointing. I feel like we’re told to be more sympathetic toward worse characters, whose personal drama is more temporary than Courtney’s. This drama also feels born out of our current rape culture, which focuses more on “what is consent”, almost like it is educating the audience instead of playing out a natural progression. This is where it gets into the after school special territory, as the characters seem to be having a conversation on what constitutes “consent”, when the audience doesn’t need that talk. We can tell that a rape occurred, and the long drawn out conversations about “did she say yes?” take away from what actually happened. Since the audience is treated to an actual visual of what happened, we all know it was rape. It’s actually very fucking clear that it’s rape. The dialogue surrounding it is completely unnecessary, because these characters should also know it was rape, and shouldn’t need to debate the context.
Final Word: While heavy handed at times with the narrative, I found the overall arc of the story to be compelling enough to want to binge watch the series as quickly as possible. I watched this in bursts of 3-4 episodes at a time, because I always wanted to see what happens next. Watching one at a time wasn’t an option for me. That’s a good sign of how invested I was in the series. I’ve heard some people say “it starts slow and gets better”, but I think it started just fine, and got better. Part of the reason it gets better is that the kids in the show don’t just stay as one-dimensional shells the entire run, but instead grow in their own different ways, pulling off another layer with each episode. I hope they don’t ruin this with a second season (like they did with The Killing). I’d rather they just stick with this being a limited run, one-and-done series. I’ve labeled it “Season 1” because the ending of the series does leave room for a season two, but it won’t be nearly as interesting or effective as a second season. In fact, I’d say that they really only have enough material for maybe one or two more episodes without pushing their luck. It doesn’t matter what age you are, you will enjoy the mystery behind 13 Reasons Why.
Final Grade: B+