With good mysteries, as with news reports from Florida, the “why” is usually more interesting than the “who.” Character isn’t found in behavior, it’s found in the emotional responses to, and inspiration for, behavior. So when 13 Reasons Why, the new Netflix limited series based on a bestselling YA novel by Jay Asher, promises to spend each episode looking into a different high school student whose actions may or may not have contributed to the suicide of a fellow classmate, the viewer quickly catches on to the conceit’s strengths. It’s not one large mystery so much as it is a dozen smaller ones, all of which feed back into an overarching question: Why did Hannah Baker end her life? Unfortunately, in the show’s confused morality, there’s no satisfying treatment to this question so much as there is a sense of affronted self-righteousness about the issue of suicide itself. Style and salaciousness trump substance, and flaws in the overall story are greeted by each installment with a beguiling, “Okay, but don’t you want to know what happens next?” mentality. And damn it, when a show looks this good, the answer is affirmative.
13 Reasons Why has the common problem of solid source material and talented cast and crew, but wobbly execution. Regardless of whether the original novel shares these flaws, the tightly wound story slowly comes apart, becoming more messy and tawdry as it goes, until the final episodes go all-in on a narrative reveal that ends up feeling as unfairly treated as the doomed girl herself. We follow protagonist Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette, all taciturn glances and withdrawn anger), a high schooler still reeling from the suicide of his friend Hannah (Katherine Langford) a week earlier. He arrives home from school to find a package containing cassette tapes, recorded by Hannah before she died. She wants to reveal what led her to take her own life, and the tapes detail 13 stories about 13 people—each one, Hannah explains, being “one of the reasons why” she killed herself. In other words, it’s the ultimate passive-aggressive “fuck you,” the fantasy of every depressed adolescent who dreams about offing themselves as a way of making those around them feel guilty. You’re gonna feel so bad when I’m gone. Hannah Baker takes the extra step; she wants everyone who hears the tapes (all 13 people are supposed to listen, then pass it on to the next name, or a copy of the tapes goes public) to not only know their crime against her, but to share that burden with all the others. Caveat auditor—listener beware.
The first weakness lies in the structure itself, a clever conceit that sounds tailor-made for episodic television. Unfortunately, not all stories are equal, and the first half of the season starts to drag under the weight of drawing out these individual tales at a methodical pace. Clay claims he can only listen to the tapes for brief periods of time, as the pain of his loss makes it too difficult for extended plays. Fair enough, but when episode after episode finds Clay demanding to know what happened, only to be told to listen to the next tape, the foot dragging starts to grate. Viewers can be forgiven for wanting to shout, “Just finish the damn tapes, already!” at the screen.
Similarly, the juvenile and melodramatic nature of the teenage characters too often bleeds into equally overwrought and ponderous scripts. From the earnest pop music underneath the title sequence to the swooning soundtrack choice ending each installment, every aspect of the series earns the label “emo,” the visual equivalent of a felt heart safety-pinned to a backpack. It would be one thing if the series was sharper about calling out the inconsistencies of its headstrong kids in an insightful way, but it continually takes them at their word, revealing the inconsistency to be ingrained in the writing itself.
All of which is unfortunate, because the show has some genuinely compelling and insightful character study of the turbulent inner lives of high school kids. Along with portraying the adults in a smart and honest manner (nearly every grown-up is a well-intentioned but flawed parent who doesn’t see when they’re making a situation worse), there are continuous beautifully realized moments throughout that capture that brutal and heightened reality of being at an age when the slightest shift in the social firmament can seem like a life-destroying earthquake. From examinations of the way that parties and other social functions seem to possess a strange power, to the way that a brief moment of foolishness can derail an entire friendship, the series treats youth in a bracingly direct way, refusing to sugarcoat the self-absorbed tunnel vision of teens. “Maybe there aren’t any good kids,” a character suggests, and the show is smart and provocative enough to treat that question seriously. Aside from a passel of one-note stereotype characters that mostly exist on the margins, the characters are viewed with empathy and honesty—both victims and abusers, monsters and mice at once. The fact the show’s own ethics slowly curdle into incoherence doesn’t negate the power of these portrayals.
The lead actors and behind-the-camera talent go a long way toward overcoming the weaknesses in both the narrative and some of the supporting performances. The reason Hannah’s story works as well as it does is largely thanks to Langford, whose brilliantly guileless portrayal and expressive features radiate silent-film-star charisma, and keep the story’s insistence on making Hannah an angel too pure for this world from tanking the plot. And most episodes look great, capturing small scenes of beauty amid the sometimes clumsy dialogue and hoary allegorical content. A roster of interesting directors was recruited, including arthouse stylist Gregg Araki and Oscar-winning documentarian Jessica Yu, and they coax warm and lived-in performances from the young cast. 13 Reasons Why boasts enough juicy plot twists and compelling mysteries to sustain a dozen seasons, and for the first half of the series, that’s good enough to keep the viewer addicted. But promising angles are often dropped in favor of more obvious beats, and the unsavory final act, which uses two horrific acts as a backdrop for a narrative about grief, leaves a bad taste. There’s more than enough reasons to give this ambitious series a try, but maybe one too few to recommend without reservations.