Thursday, April 20, 2017

'13 Reasons Why' Is an Intense, Engrossing Drama Series About Teen Angst and Suicide

Suicide is a sensitive subject matter.  “High school is hell” is basically a cliché.  But from these foundations, 13 Reasons Why builds one of the freshest and most worthwhile teen dramas I’ve ever seen.

I first got wind of this series through a skippable Youtube ad.  It did a great way in laying down its premise in an intriguing manner that I was compelled to check it out.  And it turned out being as engrossing as I hoped.

Based on the novel Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, it’s adapted into a 13-episode TV series by Brian Yorkey for Netflix.  It’s about a high school student named Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) who commits suicide seemingly out of nowhere.  But before she ended her life, she made a set of tape recordings detailing why she killed herself, which she intended to be listened to, one after the other, by the individuals that brought her troubles and grief about.  The story centers on the tapes’ latest recipient, Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), who has a crush on Hannah, as he seeks to uncover the truth behind her death.
Each episode basically covers one of the titular “13 reasons”, which revolves around a specific person that has “pushed” Hannah, unintentionally or otherwise, into suicide – 12 persons in total (one of them is mentioned twice).  And with each new episode, with each new tape, the story gets darker and more intense as the layers of the mystery are gradually peeled.

To “stretch” the tapes into 13 episodes, the central character, Clay, is perpetually depicted as emotionally shaken whenever he listens to the recordings, and thus, he’s incapable of doing so in one sitting – while, in comparison, the others before him mostly listened to them straight, some of them even twice – so he listens to the tapes sporadically across a few days instead.  I think that’s clever writing.  Not only is it convenient to the pacing and storytelling, but through the eyes of the stricken Clay (who, again, refuses to listen to tapes in one go), the slow build up of the narrative moves the audience to empathize while, at the same time, keep their minds stimulated.  It’s a heart-rending, thought-provoking show that knows how to take its time.
It’s an angsty series.  Sure, angst has always been a part of teen dramas.  But this isn’t the insane, nigh-goofy angst that Riverdale has.  It’s the depressing and disturbing kind of angst.  And the young actors of this show perfectly projected the fitting emotional delivery that its sensitive content requires.

13 Reasons Why isn’t perfect.  It has plot points that went nowhere.  The series ends with some loose ends that slightly annoyed me (unless there is a season two).  It’s mostly smart, but it has a bit of dumb elements here and there, too.  And it’s not as brilliant and delightful as Veronica Mars and Riverdale.  Still, it’s an immensely entertaining, easy-to-binge-watch show overall.  But more than that, I think it has something truly meaningful to say.  I may not agree at some parts of its message, but in general, the challenging questions and insights it raises are worth chewing on.

Miscellaneous musings:
  • Will there be a season two?  Sure, it can be argued that the “loose ends” provide an ambiguous ending.  Because, seriously, a second season doesn’t make sense.  Still, having those unresolved plot points come off as annoying to me.  But a needless second season will probably annoy me more.
  • If ever there’s going to be a second season, it seems to be heading towards the direction of a much darker theme than suicide: school shootings.
  • In my opinion, Hannah’s parents should have had a tape, for being too busy with their business that they didn’t notice that there was something off with her.
  • Clay’s memories are so vivid to him.  He must have an eidetic memory.
  • Ross Butler, the actor who plays Reggie Mantle in Riverdale, is also a cast member of this show.  I saw a video mentioning that Reggie was intended to have a bigger role, but since the actor’s time is split between shooting for Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why, he doesn’t appear in the former as much as he could have had.
  • I also read that since the series is intense, unnerving, and depressing, therapy dogs were at hand for the actors during its production. Wow.

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