“Right. Hannah Baker. Sucks what happened to her.” This is how one character refers to the seismic event around which “13 Reasons Why,” now available on Netflix, revolves — but is that an accurate statement? Is Hannah Baker’s fate something that happened to her? Something she put into motion herself? Or something that was done to her?
These are the questions explored by the series, based on the novel by Jay Asher, which takes on the topic of teen suicide in a fashion so blunt that it proves legitimately difficult to watch at times.
In fact, in over four years of covering Netflix original programming, I have seen some truly horrific things, thanks to the platform’s commitment to giving its creators free reign over their content. Brutal murders, cruel rapes, nudity and violence and profanity and tragedy on a scale beyond comprehension. Netflix shows can sometimes be very tough viewing, but this is the first time I have ever seen anything like this appear before an episode of their original series.
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What’s important is that holy smokes, this is earned. Executive produced and directed in part by Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”), the series begins in the immediate aftermath of Hannah’s (Katherine Langford) suicide, as her parents and classmates reel from the shock of her unexpected death. Clay (Dylan Minnette), whose connection to Hannah proves to be much deeper than expected, is especially reeling — until, that is, he receives a shoebox containing audio tapes, recorded by Hannah before her death, in which she promises to explain exactly why she did what she did.
The premise launches what amounts to an unconventional murder mystery, and there’s something legitimately devious about how the show pulls this off, thanks to the slow way in which it unveils the tragedy at the core of its story — there is also something fundamentally weird about a show that tricks you into falling in love with a dead girl. But as a character, Hannah’s flaws and strengths come together beautifully on screen, a credit to the sort of on-screen alchemy of writing, directing and performance which hooks us as audiences, deeply invests us in the fictional personas we see on screen.
When it comes to a suburban teen’s suicide, the reality is that larger-scale tragedies happen every day around the world. But where “13 Reasons Why” excels is the nuance and attention to detail it brings to this one specific death, making it so deeply personal that it feels like the loss of a dear friend.
Langford’s performance is essential here, an aching wound of ever-building sadness, believable and raw even when faced with some moments which verge on teen cliche. It’s an incredible tightrope she’s walking, but the relative newcomer nails it. And amongst the living, Minnette proves to be a compelling lead. While the acting amongst the other teens isn’t across the board solid, there’s such a great range of them — a diverse group of sexualities, races and types beyond The CW’s wildest dreams.
Directors include McCarthy, Gregg Araki, Jessica Yu and Carl Franklin, who create almost a noir-ish feel amidst the streetlight soaked streets of this small town. When it comes to the adult actors, Derek Luke doesn’t quite live up to what his role as a morally ambiguous school counselor entails, and many of the other parents and teachers fail to make much of an impression. But oh lord, Kate Walsh. Brian D’Arcy James, as Hannah’s father, brings the expected amount of emotional devastation to the screen, but as Hannah’s mother, Walsh is simply heartbreaking. If her reps aren’t planning an Emmys push for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, they are asleep at the wheel.
And yes, that’s Drama Series, not Limited Series. The most shocking thing about “13 Reasons Why” is that after hearing the premise, you might assume that the plan for the show would be a miniseries approach — after all, once we’ve heard Hannah’s tapes, how much story is there left to tell? But by the end of the season, it’s clear that’s definitely not the case. And this is good news, given that creator Brian Yorkey did such strong work building out the world and its characters. (It helps that there are a couple of important twists in the final few episodes that would clearly fuel the plot of a Season 2, should Netflix greenlight it.)
Let’s be clear — I’d watch it. “13 Reasons Why’s” unflinching look at its narrative is enough to make you yearn for the innocent days of the MPAA rating for the 2002 film “Blue Crush”: “PG-13 for sexual content, teen partying, language and a fight.” (To be clear, “13 Reasons Why” would be rated a hard R on all of those matters and more.) But in its examination of the ways we hurt each other, deliberately or casually, knowingly or otherwise, the adult edges to this story ring with honesty and truth. Because sometimes, the only way to feel something is for it to hurt.
“13 Reasons Why” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.