The Netflix show 13 Reasons Why is based on Jay Asher's YA book and is about Hannah Baker; a teenage girl who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 audio recordings; one for each person she believes was the reason she ended her life. The tapes are passed to each person and we find them with Clay, who comes back from school one day to find them at his doorstep. Hannah was the new girl at her high school and as the episodes progress, we learn more about her school experience and we sort of see through her eyes, how she feels she was wronged by these people. She was a victim of slut shaming, bullying, public humiliation, witnessing a rape, being raped, and being majorly let down by her "friends". The whole show is portrayed through a string of flashbacks as Clay follows Hannah's trail to find out what was really happening to her at school, why he has a tape and why she dies. Unsurprisingly her suicide, and these tapes really badly affect those she sends them to.
The acting itself that phenomenal and on that front, the show has a very afternoon Lifetime TV feel. I give props to show for giving us such a diverse cast full of new talent. That said, perhaps the show didn't really require strong performances because the very nature of the script, is so emotionally draining, that it naturally distracts from the often mediocre cast. Dylan Minnette however who plays Clay, carries the show through for the most part, giving a compelling performance as a student who is uncovering these dark experiences his close friend had, his possible contribution to her death, while clearly struggling with his own mental health . The latter isn't really brought to the forefront of the plot but I think is integral in forming and understanding his character and so, I felt required a lot more of a nuanced performance, which he executed very well.
What the show also handles well, is its depiction of bullying, slut shaming, the difficulty in finding loyal friends and, the debilitating effect that these experiences can have on someone. These were clearly well researched and deftly handled. It doesn't take away from the fact though that the show makes a spectacle of suicide.
The premise itself; leaving essentially elaborate, very creative suicide notes to every person who you believe is the reason you're ending your life, is problematic and best, sadistic at worst. But given Hannah's state of mind I can understand or at least reason with it. Though a flawed character, Hannah really grew on me as the season progressed. And yet we're not given any space to mourn her death or really digest what how tragic this suicide because from episode 1, we the audience are on "trail" to find out why Hannah kills herself and "who" is to blame. Each episode, the tapes reach different individuals and though some (others didn't 'deserve' a tape) wronged her, all are battling their own issues. The show dabbles almost in being a psychological thriller as it becomes about how each tape pushes each "receiver", further over the edge.
Every episode we get closer to who is really to blame and in doing so, the show completely ignores the most obvious answer, that Hannah is ultimately responsible for her own death. While others contributed to her depression, it is Hannah who takes her life. And the final episode does entertain this line of reasoning, but it is ultimately cast aside and we leave the season with the conclusion that responsibility for Hannah's death lies squarely on the shoulders of these teenagers. The overall message becomes - treat people with compassionate (fair enough), if you so much as even slip up and they kill themselves, it'll be your fault.
I'm trying not to leave spoilers but there is one scene I have to talk about: Hannah's suicide. We witness the entire process: picking the weapon, the actual suicide, her final thoughts, watching her die and her parents finding her body. These scenes were shot so cinematically, so detailed and were so visceral in a way that made them so so unnecessarily graphic. Producers claim that they made this show to help people with depression and those who've considered suicide. And yet these are the very people, who shouldn't be watching this show. "Research shows that exposure to another person's suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of death, can be one of the many risk factors that youth struggling with mental health conditions cite as a reason they contemplate or attempt suicide."
I'll admit the show makes for addictive viewing but not for the right reasons. And I'm not happy. Yes because so many people are watching the show, we're having and engaging in conversations about mental health, perhaps far more than we were before. But there are TV shows (few though they exist) such as The Fosters that deal with issues such as rape, bullying, teenage identity, depression and so on, far better in a way that inspires hope.