From the clunky opening credits that appear to have been made on Microsoft Powerpoint, you are aware 13 Reasons Why isn’t one of Netflix’s big budget attempts to outgun all competition (ahem, hi The Crown). Indeed, 13 Reasons Why promises a refreshing attempt by Netflix to bring some indie, simpler, lower-budget shows to the channel – which is good news for those of us who have been so dazzled by the ambition of titles such as The Crown, Stranger Things and The OA that the premise of a teenage drama about depression feels strangely light-hearted.
And the premise is a good one – we follow Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) as he comes to terms with the suicide of one of his classmates and friends. Clay’s world is shaken further however, when he receives a tape with said girl’s voice on. Hannah (Katherine Langford) dictates that these tapes include ‘the story of my life. More specifically why my life ended and if you’re listening to this tape… you’re one of the reasons why’. LOVE IT!
As the series is based on a best-selling book penned by Jay Asher, it is unsurprising the show has a killer idea behind it and it certainly grabs your attention and maintains a strong tension for the first couple of episodes. The storyline is driven by the underlying questions this inciting incident induces: Why has our seeming protagonist been sent this tape? What messed up shit did he do? Do we trust him? Why is this TV show not as good as it should be? Argh, sadly it is true and there are at least 13 reasons why the show doesn’t deliver on this great opening.
Predominantly, it is disappointing that a series that starts with such promise has such an atrocious script which undermines the narrative continuously. 13 Reasons Why explores some dark territory and suggests early on that it will be far more thoughtful than a tacky teen drama about snogging and social media.
The script, however, is constantly repositioning it in the area of Disney channel high-school programmes, with the kids quoting cringing phrases such as ‘FML forever’ (does this even make sense?). When Clay jokes ‘it’s like asking Han Solo how is space?’ and Hannah retorts, ‘Wow, you’re an actual nerd aren’t you?’ it is difficult to imagine how anyone ever thought this level of clichéd stereotyping would sound convincing to anyone.
The poignant themes of sex, drugs, bullying, parent-child relationships, depression and many more clearly suggest 13 Reasons Why had ambitions to be an important series for teenage viewers. Yet these thought-provoking topics are not successfully translated on screen. This is mostly down to the script, but there are also fairly one-dimensional characters which back up the scripts stereotyping and lack of realism (evil sex-crazed jocks, creepy nerds etc).
Moreover, the fairly inexperienced cast seem to struggle to convey the genuine emotion needed with the odd exception, such as Minnette’s promising portrayal of the awkward Clay. Selena Gomez has stated this show is a ‘passion project’ that addresses these aspects of young life and I couldn’t help wondering if a more experienced hand (perhaps Gomez herself) might have helped communicate these important themes more clearly. Frustratingly, Katherine Langford’s portrayal of Hannah was not what this show needed at its core, forming a lack of empathy with the girl on which the script revolves.
Overall, 13 Reasons Why shows some decent direction but misses the mark on this occasion. However, more positively, it is exciting to see Netflix investing in these shows and the platform continues to bring new and unexpected content which demonstrate great ambition.