By Monica Mitrovic
The Netflix original series “13 Reasons Why,” released March 31, is a compelling but somewhat unrealistic tale of teen angst and mental illness with a brilliant cast and twisted narrative.
Based on the novel “Thirteen Reasons Why,” written by Jay Asher, the scarily addictive show mercilessly tackles teen suicide, sexual assault, bullying and the importance of truth and honesty. The graphic suicide and rape scenes require trigger warnings.
“13 Reasons Why” follows Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) as he deals with the suicide of his crush and friend, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford). After Hannah’s death, Clay receives a package containing 13 cassette tapes with 13 reasons why she committed suicide recorded on the tapes. While Clay struggles to listen to the tapes, he investigates the intricate, tangled plot that led to Hannah’s final decision, which permanently changed other characters’ lives.
“We wanted to begin by telling the truth about what effect these events would have,” Brian Yorkey, executive producer of the show, said in an interview for “13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons,” a documentary that delves deeper into the show’s themes. Yorkey said the producers wanted to tell a story with integrity that could resonate with young people who do not consume truthful entertainments. He also said they hoped the show could embody teenagers’ honest experiences.
Although “13 Reasons Why” provides representation for some possible causes of suicide, it does not accurately represent the truth of suicide and depression. In fact, the show goes as far as romanticizing suicide and its aftermath.
This romanticizing led to memes and jokes on the internet making light of Hannah’s tragic life, twisting the show’s original aim into something ugly. Internet users parody the phrase, “Welcome to your tape,” which Hannah says to those she holds responsible for her death on the 13 tapes.
But mental illness and well-being are not things to joke about.
Ninety percent of those who commit suicide experience mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The show barely conveys that mental illness, or those who suffer from it, are not things to be swept under a rug and forgotten.
“13 Reasons Why” does, however, closely examine problems teenage viewers can relate to, establishing a nationwide connection of audiences young and old. Characters are put through an emotional wringer, which includes intimidation, humiliation, sexual assault, sexual objectification, bullying, victim blaming and slut shaming. The cast delivers heartbreaking performances. Despite Hannah’s known fate, Langford lures viewers in with her convincing honesty and loneliness. Minnette’s portrayal of Clay perfectly embodies sullen despair, stubbornness and hesitance, which complement Langford’s role. But Clay’s actions are hardly sympathetic.
“13 Reasons Why” carries conflicting messages that reflect how the story unfolds. Hannah’s story is told with abrupt twists and turns and flashbacks. In scenes when Hannah is alive, the surrounding environments are light and warm, bathed in yellow and orange lights, representing life. After Hannah’s suicide, scenery turns dull and flat with washed-out grays and blues, reflecting death, pain and Clay’s turmoil.
But the narrative is slow. Most of the people responsible for Hannah’s death seem to have listened to the tapes in one sitting, but Clay is unable to listen in one go. At times, his ignorance of other students’ reactions due to the tapes is frustrating. The cryptic atmosphere is less mysterious and more annoying.
“13 Reasons Why” ends with lackluster life lessons and ambiguity. Although the show’s approach to teenage suicide lacks some realistic representation, it does try to educate its audience, which is more than most popular TV shows do today.