13 Reasons Why is an adaptation of a young adult novel of the same name by Jay Asher. It was executive produced by pop artist Selena Gomez and was originally envisioned as a movie with her as the lead, but was expanded to a 13 episode series with a wholly new cast.
The story opens with 17 year old Clay Jensen receiving a set of cassette tapes (yes, cassette tapes!) recorded by Hannah Baker, a classmate, co-worker and crush who had committed suicide some time prior. Using 13 sides of 7 cassettes, she outlines the 13 people behind her decision to take her own life. The listener is one of those titular 13 reasons, and after listening to all the tapes, they are asked to give them to the next person in sequence.
So, as you've probably guessed, it ain't exactly a comedy.
Despite being some extremely tough viewing, I cannot say enough good things about this show. It may be the most brutally honest cross-section of the tribulations of teenage life ever committed to the medium, and is extraordinarily compelling viewing.
It's compelling because of the story's refusal to portray anyone involved solely as a high school stereotype. Jocks, introverts, geeks and rich kids all unfold into rich, layered and conflicted characters, none of whom act stupidly, although most act selfishly at one time or another, including Clay and Hannah.
As Clay learns more and more about Hannah's torments and his classmates' roles in them, he becomes more and more disturbed, acting out in larger and larger ways. Meanwhile, those who have already listened to the tapes, a disparate group of individuals linked only by a shared knowledge of a suicidal girl, try to figure out what Clay will do with his newfound knowledge, and work to protect their own interests.
Dylan Minnette's portrayal of shy, insecure, and tortured Clay Jensen is absolutely riveting. He brings a grounded and nuanced performance that runs the spectrum of adolescent emotion from disaffected to furious which never feels forced. Similarly, Katherine Langford's turn as Hannah Baker is amazing; smart, cute, insightful and compassionate, you know she deserves better than the fate that awaited her even before the series begins, and feel helpless watching the events unfold that lead her to commit suicide. It is nothing short of heartbreaking.
Along the way, 13 Reasons Why addresses all the concerns you perhaps remember from your own high school years: fitting in, finding someone special, avoiding those who take pleasure from the discomfort of others. But it also takes an unflinching look at the darker side: bullying, violence, mental illness, rape, and , obviously, suicide. It's a harsh ride in many places but worth undertaking.
Structurally, the show is nothing short of brilliant, weaving in Hannah's backstory and the current consequences of her tapes in a way that keeps you glued to the screen, The transitions between the now and then of the story are handled adroitly, with imaginative transitions that the four of us commented aloud upon more than once.
It is not all gloom, doom and angst; the characters depicted are sharp, smart kids. The dialogue rings true and there are some funny bits, and the soundtrack is fabulous, with lots of deep cuts from the 80s, both covers and originals. There is no denying that the program has an affect, however, which we are still feeling hours after having completed it.
You could make an argument that a show like this should be required viewing by high school student, and it is with mixed emotions that I note how many of the sixth graders in Audrey's school are already watching it. There are some frank depictions of teenage sexuality and a lot of f-bombs in there that will be off-putting to some viewers (and their parents), but if you work with youth, or have children of or close to that age, especially if you are a teacher or a guidance counsellor, I would strongly suggest you watch 13 Reasons Why. I won't lie: watching it with the girls, one of whom will probably be starting a new high school in the fall, was pretty tough sleddin' at times. But I am glad we all did it together, and gladder still we could talk about the points brought up in it.
If you don't fit any of those pigeon-holes, but appreciate a well-told story with imaginative visual chops and a commitment to a realistic depiction of the social and emotional minefield that is high school that pulls absolutely no punches, then give the series a shot. We watched all 13 episodes within about 10 days of starting, which should give you an indication of just how coercive an experience it was.
Be advised that despite being an adaptation of a novel, there is every likelihood of a second season, which I personally found a little disappointing. Not every plotline gets resolved, and if you like your series to have a pretty little bow tying everything up, well, you might just be left high and dry in that regard, sunshine. Having said that though, if a second season should come to pass, I will be there with bells on.