You’ve probably heard a little about the new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Or a lot, depending on which end you sit on the TV-viewing spectrum. But if you’re a viewer more of free-to-air television, this show is as good excuse as any to begin a subscription to Netflix. All hype aside, 13 Reasons Why makes for excellent binge-watching. It’s set in the here and now (actually a couple of months from now, if you look carefully at the dates on objects in the background), deals with important issues of the day, and is innovative in its structure – literally taking the concept of a ‘series’ to a whole new level.
The story centres around high school student, Hannah Baker, who ends her life after experiencing a string of unfortunate events that have taken their toll and driven her to suicide. Yes, this isn’t some mere high school soap opera, but a story that cuts to the core of the darker side of growing pains, going beyond issues of bullying and slut-shaming, into the more horrific territories of rape and youth suicide.
The series begins with the receipt of a box of cassettes that have been left behind by the deceased girl, each tape dedicated to one of 13 reasons why she decided to end her life.
Each episode uses the central message of a particular tape recording as its basis – whether it is about a girlfriend who has done Hannah wrong, a guy who has embarrassingly shamed her, or a school counsellor who simply has no place counselling kids. And each episode is titled as one side of a cassette: episode one is ‘Tape 1, Side A’, episode two ‘Tape 1, Side B’, episode three ‘Tape 2, Side A’ and so on.
On the receiving end of the box of tapes is Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), a kid who had admired Hannah from afar but never got up the courage to tell her how he really felt. Which is a pity, since the tapes eventually reveal Hannah actually hoped something deeper would eventuate between she and Clay. Sorry to have given that bit away, but there are so many other subplots to 13 Reasons Why – each episode a nugget of enlightenment – revealing this snippet of info is only a treacle of a spoiler.
Teen angst is something we’ve all had to contend with, whether it’s having gone through it ourselves (and we all have gone through it to some degree or another) or if we are now parents or godparents of kids going through dissonant times in their teen years. But while issues such as online bullying and physical violence in the schoolyard have been tackled variously in the media – in fictional series, on the news and in online forums – it takes a show like 13 Reasons Why to really get to the root of problems and to realise they add up to a horribly intricate web that is everybody’s problem and everybody’s responsibility.
There are moments during the series when viewers might begin to think the protagonist has blown things out of proportion and that there really would have been a positive alternative option to suicide. In fact, by about episodes five and six, you’re kind of wondering if Hannah’s main issue was more one of self-wallowing than actual harm from friends. But the story’s arc takes a major turn halfway through the recordings, when what is revealed is far graver than simple name-calling and reputation-damaging. What initially comes across as melodrama eventuates into something most horrible and, sadly, all too real but rarely spoken about.
It’s the second half of the series, then, that really delivers the gravitas in this series, with plenty of help from its lead actor, Katherine Langford. Having just turned 20, Langford’s credible acting appears to stem less from character studies on a tertiary level (she hadn’t even finished filling out her application to WAAPA before landing the role as Hannah) and instead comes from fresh experience from real high school itself.
Indeed, Langford only graduated from Perth Modern School in 2014, where she’d likely have seen bullying first-hand, possibly even having had experienced some of the horrible things Hannah has been subjected to. Her natural thespian delivery could only have arrived from first-hand experience since “pop-up acting classes” were only other source of study.
Executive producer of the show, Selena Gomez, said of Langford, “I can’t picture anybody else being Hannah but Katherine; it just worked out the way it was supposed to, and I’m glad I got to watch it happen.”
Already Langford is being touted for an Emmy nomination for her role in 13 Reasons Why, plus she’s been signed on to star in the Warner Bros film Simon vs The Homo Sapiens’ Agenda, another vehicle that will tackle teen issues, albeit on the big screen.
In the meantime, check out what all the fuss is about and get watching 13 Reasons Why. You’re sure to learn a thing or two about how kids are really feeling these days and how we can make things a little easier in getting through their toughest rites of passage. Antonino Tati
‘13 Reasons Why’ is available to stream on Netflix.