On the eve of April Fools, Netflix released the newly anticipated series adaptation of 2011 New York Times bestseller 13 Reasons Why.
Produced by Selena Gomez, who was featured in Vogue for the promotion of the show, the new series needed little advertising to draw its audience, and it did not fail to deliver an important story.
There are 13 episodes, one for each reason why fictional 17-year-old Hannah Baker, killed herself. The significance of April Fools becomes apparent to anyone who’s ever sent out a cry for help; interpretations range from jokes, claims of melodrama, to accusations of “attention seeking”.
It is the worst when you’re an impressionable teenager and cannot shake the feeling that high school is going to last forever. This anxiety, shared by many, is accurately depicted in the show.
The emotions, struggles and externally invisible growth of suicidal temptations are perfectly conveyed by Katherine Langford, who provides a voice for the thoughts some of us had before we even reached the age of 15.
Therein lies the sheer value of the show: an ideal cast, each with performances that honour the subtlety of their roles, finally giving substance to the popular idea that everyone has a backstory; you shouldn’t judge what you don’t know.
Hannah Baker lasted a little while longer than I did without thinking of suicide as an option – she was 17, I was 14. School wasn’t a fun place to be, and it was where I saw people who didn’t like me. Homework wasn’t my forte, but drowning in my own universe was.
It was bizarre to hear Hannah say what I used to write in my diary.
That is why this show has my full appreciation… Bar the ending (which I’ll get to in a minute).
There are two over-arching messages spread throughout the tapes:
- All those little things were a big deal. You’re a human being and what you experience is valid, even if it is very hard to share with anyone else. You can’t imagine your family would understand, and the school faculty may be trained to help kids out, but it feels superficial. Especially if you’re in lawsuit haven USA.
- Your death will not solve everything. You will be dead. People will mourn, but those who have hurt you will grieve, will blame you and will hate themselves.
Your family will suffer. They will regret the hurtful words that echoed in your tunnel vision for a very long time. Nothing will matter to your family if their sibling, child, cousin isn’t around to share things with.
The painful reality of disconnected generations is shown without reserve.
Parents try and understand their children’s lives without being involved at all. Through adolescence, children try to grow up and embrace a trial version of adulthood, but things get messy as hormones push us to grow up too fast.
Money and blind faith do not a responsible young adult make. Coddling and sheltering do not a likeable person make. Presence, humour and care show them they matter.
Parents aren’t trained to raise their children and it shows when they find themselves completely out of the loop.
Kate Walsh and Brian d’Arcy James’ characters only build an on-screen relationship with their daughter a few episodes into the series. This lets the viewer, fully immersed in Hannah’s social life, wonder how they could be affected by the loss of their daughter.
Immaculate timing, as the centre of Hannah’s life is defined: school is the trigger.
Counsellors are supposed to be available to their young community, and are supposed to help them. With his family, Mr Porter showed concern and a bit of guilt. With students, he displayed disinterest, condescension and blame.
Unfortunately, students aren’t just an assignment, and if they reach out to the faculty, it is important they get the help they need. That’s why Liberty High School failed Hannah Baker.
The ending was underwhelming. Selena Gomez’s song playing as Clay walked through the school hall felt gratuitous and unnecessary. It was loud and stood out from every other track. The familiar voice didn’t allow for a focus on Clay and the school crowd. It was boastful and disrespectful to the context of the episode.
Which is ironic, because Hannah’s suicide was filmed in such a way that the directors wanted to ensure it wouldn’t be gratuitous or romanticised. That it wasn’t; it was blunt, painful and felt realistic. It hurt. Seeing her parents rush to her, as they tried their last efforts at comforting their little girl, could leave you bemused in its tragic tardiness.
The show is effective in one way especially: every episode makes the viewer feel like things can get better. Now that we know what was wrong, we can talk and solve these problems.
Of course that’s not true, because Hannah is dead. That reminder serves as a hard hitting lesson and I can only hope it would give a real person the courage to give life one more chance, and another after that, until they truly see the point of living.
If that doesn’t serve as comfort enough, watch Katherine Langford put it (again) in the same words that go through my mind every once in a while.
13 Reasons Why is available on Netflix. Warning: episodes may contain scenes of sexual assault, suicide and gore. Viewer discretion is advised.