Published on April 10th, 2017 | by Sarah Stefanson1
13 Reasons Why
Nevermind Degrassi Junior High; 13 Reasons Why, the new show from Netflix, has the market cornered on capturing the (trauma of the) high school experience.
I watch a lot of garbage on TV. A large portion of my chosen entertainment is curated for the specific purpose of helping me turn my brain off, stop my worry cycles, and just be casually distracted from the heavy parts of life. A quick review of the shows I’ve written about in the past for The Feedback Society proves this: Cinderella, Gilmore Girls, Riverdale. These are unrealistic worlds in which one can submerse themselves and veil over the harshness of reality.
I recently bonded with a new friend over our mutual love of Riverdale, as trashy a teen TV show as ever there has been. We delighted in Facebook messaging each other after every new episode, dissecting the bizarre plot twists and inauthentic character developments. Then, he told me about a new show he started watching called 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix original series based on a novel about a young girl who has committed suicide, leaving behind tapes she has made explaining the 13 reasons why she took her own life. Although it sounded a little heavy in comparison to trivial Riverdale, we had established that he and I were on the same page when it came to teen dramas, so I decided to give it a try.
“I’m 8 minutes into the first episode and I already LOVE it,” I messaged my friend. What I did not know at that point was that by the end of the last episode, I would be bawling my head off and feeling very, very not okay.
The story’s premise works off the device that Hannah Baker, prior to slitting her wrists, made 13 tapes, each describing her interactions with one of the people that contributed to putting her on the path to wanting to die. Every episode of the season features one of the 13 reasons/people, gradually painting a very disturbing picture of how modern high school life can quickly go very wrong, especially for young women. These are, of course, issues that I and many other people my age dealt with as teenagers, but during our time in high school, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram didn’t exist, making the dissemination of damaging photographs and harmful rumours distressingly easy.
The show follows Clay, a friend of Hannah’s who had more-than-friends feelings for her, as he painstakingly listens to each tape, confronting the other kids featured on them as well as his own culpability in her eventual death. The mystery is revealed gradually with plentiful flashbacks interspersed with scenes of the kids on the tapes dealing with the aftermath, while Hannah’s grief-stricken parents decide to file a lawsuit against the school for missing the signs of the toxic environment fostered among the students.
It is almost impossible to stop watching. Each episode ends with a tantalizing cliffhanger as Clay switches sides on the tape in the Walkman he’s borrowed from a friend who prefers old school media. The writing and pacing of the show keep you hooked, while the truly spectacular acting of the young cast draws you in even further. Unlike the majority of television made for teens, there are grey areas here. Sure, there are jocks, cheerleaders, A/V club dorks, gay poets, but as the story unfolds, it reveals that these stereotypical groups are all connected and interacting, just like in real life. There are cliques, but the school as a whole is represented as its own little ecosystem, each group living off each other. The writers also did an excellent job of letting the kids talk like kids, complete with copious foul language and plenty of stammering.
13 Reasons Why does not shy away from depicting difficult to watch scenes and several episodes are preceded by disclaimers warning of “disturbing” and “graphic” content. If you’re the kind of person that appreciates trigger warnings, there are several to be dispensed here: bullying, sexual assault, rape, violence, suicide.
In my opinion, 13 Reasons Why should be shown in high schools with counsellors on hand to help kids talk through their feelings about it. I realize this will never happen, because there are plenty of parents who don’t want their kids to be exposed to this kind of frank and realistic representation of what high school students go through. Many people still carry the notion that talking about suicide with kids will “put the idea in their heads.” Yet, I’m worried that those kids will end up watching it anyway (it’s readily available and promoted on Netflix after all) and then not have anyone there to listen to the emotions it brings up for them. I’m a grown-ass woman and it took me an entire evening to recover from the feelings it brought up in me.
Also included on the episode list is 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons, a 29-minute PSA featuring the cast, producers (including Selena Gomez) and mental health professionals that worked on the show discussing their hopes for valuable conversations and actions that the show could provoke. There is also a website set up at 13reasonswhy.info that serves to connect people in need with services that can help them in their area.
So, as I was saying at the beginning of this review, I watch a lot of garbage on TV, but 13 Reasons Why is Capital I Important, a show of immense significance for anyone who is currently a teenager, works with teenagers, parents teenagers and even those of us whose time in high school was somewhat less than the best years of our lives.