Part of the reality of reviewing TV right now is that you can have an entire season of a show dumped in your lap that you had literally never heard about until that moment. Such was the case with Netflix’s upcoming drama 13 Reasons Why, which drops in its entirety on March 31. In a month in which Iron Fist was supposed to be the outlet’s splashy premiere, this one just might be the show that people will be talking about well into the summer.
Rather than write a “proper” review, here’s a short FAQ about 13 Reasons Why.
What’s the premise of the show?
Given its alignment with the Netflix model of television seasons, it would seem cute were it not so serious: A teenage girl named Hannah Baker has committed suicide, and left behind 13 audio cassettes explaining why she did it. On each tape is the story of one person in her life, and how they contributed to her taking her own life. One of these people, Clay Jensen, gets these tapes and starts to learn not only about Hannah, but about the lives of everyone else in his high school circle.
Did you literally just spoil the entire program before we could watch it?
That information is laid out in the first five minutes of the first episode, and indeed provides the narrative spine for the season: Each episode depicts the events of one tape. 13 tapes, 13 hour-long episodes. And I’ve seen them all.
How would you describe the tone of the show?
Jason Katims-esque. High Fidelity meets Degrassi. A super sad Shawn Mendes song come to life and given episodic form.
What are some of the adjectives you’d use to describe 13 Reasons Why?
Vital. Maddening. Overloaded. Inconsistent. Raw. Uncomfortably intimate. Frustrating. Essential.
Can you sum those up into a coherent review?
Here’s the thing: I really can’t. I haven’t had this set of complex, often contradictory feelings towards a TV show in some time. It feels like something of a cop out to say, “Just watch it yourself,” since the job here is to tell you why you should or shouldn’t watch something. TL;dr: I do think it’s worth watching, with two huge caveats.
What are those caveats?
One: Don’t binge this. It’s not that kind of show, even though it’s built on a hook so potent that it all but begs you to keep watching as Hannah’s narration unpeels layer after layer about not only her suicide but the less-than-perfect lives of those who drove her to it. But it’s so intense, and at times damn near suffocating, that watching this 4-5 eps at a time may lead to quietly walking around your neighborhood for hours on end, looking for puppies to hug.
Two: As noted upfront, this is a show about suicide, but it’s also a show that deals with at least a half-dozen other topics that could rightly trigger certain viewers. So while I’ve labeled the show as essential, I also think that care should be taken should these topics hit too close to home for comfort.
With the world as messed up as it currently is, how can you recommend a show this upsetting?
It’s a totally fair question, and one I’m wrestling with, and it gets to the heart of my complicated feelings about the show. I’ve written often in my short time here at Pajiba about needing to watch shows in 2017 that offer some form of optimism that cuts through the cynicism, and how programs like The Walking Dead that offer all dread and no catharsis represent something akin to a moral failing. So to recommend something this bleak seems contradictory, right?
13 Reasons Why doesn’t offer any pat solutions to the problems it depicts, and rarely shows people truly learning from their experiences. But it does point to how things could have gone better, and how easily (and often benignly) they go wrong. This is a specifically horrible story that simultaneously suggests universal ways in which it can be prevented. And even though no show has ever made me feel better about not being a teenager in 2017, I think there’s something here that’s more helpful that hurtful.
What can you, an old, know about being a teenager in 2017?
Look, you got me. I don’t and can’t know. And it’s yet another reason why my recommendation comes with a host of asterisks attached to it. I can’t sit here and tell you, “This is a 100% accurate depiction of high school culture at this moment.” Clearly. However, I’ve lived through high school, and while some details are different, the feelings have not changed. (I mean that in terms of how it felt for me in high school in the early ’90s and how I feel now, where life often feels like “high school minus the hair plus bigger waistlines.”) If you’ve ever felt like an outsider, or unable to talk to your crush, or unable to resist the gravitational force of popularity, or felt like you had to hide a secret in order to fit in, you’ll probably find something with which to identity in 13 Reasons Why.
With all that said, here’s a case in which I am going to read a metric ton of reactions to this show, because my opinion here means even less than it normally does. This show isn’t designed for me as its primary audience, and that’s absolutely fine. Recognizing that doesn’t mean I can’t articulate an opinion about it (which I have) or have it affect me (which it absolutely did). But it does mean that I have to be careful not to suggest my reactions are the baseline by which to judge the show’s ultimate value. “Value” is a crappy word here, but what I’m trying to say here is that 13 Reasons Why will truly start to reveal itself through the reactions of those to whom this program is speaking more directly.
What’s a pull quote that’s accurate yet designed as clickbait?
This isn’t a television program so much as a Trojan horse designed to break Tumblr.
Are you being sarcastic?
I don’t mean that sarcastically. I mean that the voices that matter about this show won’t appear on Rotten Tomatoes, but rather appear in your social media feeds. They’ll be written by or shared by people you trust, and people you might get to know a little better through what they express. You might not like what you learn, which is one of the key themes of 13 Reasons Why, but you might see them a little more accurately.
In other words, I can’t say how people acutely affected by the issues depicted in this show will react, but I want to read those reactions. If nothing else, this show is begging everyone to get out of their own heads long enough to see that the person next to us in class, across from us at the dinner table, and in line with us at the local market is in pain. One of the most powerful aspects of 13 Reasons Why is that it’s insinuated that we see the pain of these people all the time, but choose not to acknowledge it, because willful ignorance is easier than active engagement.
That’s a hard truth to see depicted for 13 imperfect but ultimately wildly affecting hours. And it may be too hard for many, whom I hope have ways of articulating and working through those intense emotions should they arise. But it’s a vital truth all the same, and it came from a show that a week ago I didn’t even know existed. It’s hard to call 13 Reasons Why a happy surprise, but it’s a show I think will surprise many due to the reaction it will inspire when it premieres this Friday.