13 Reasons Why

Netflix series

The most talked about TV show on Netflix over the last few weeks has been 13 Reasons Why, the 13-episode series adapted from Jay Asher’s young adult novel of the same name. If you’ve missed the buzz, the show is about a teenage girl’s suicide, as well as the tapes she leaves behind to pinpoint the people and actions that led to her death.

The tale plays out a bit like a murder mystery where you know the ending—Hannah Baker’s suicide—but don’t know how she got there.

Most of the talk has centered around the effects watching the show might have on young people and viewers with mental illnesses. Viewers with histories of suicidal thoughts have experienced relapses. Others are concerned that the revenge-after-death element of the show glamorizes suicide, particularly for younger, more impressionable audiences. We started watching the series before we’d heard any of those concerns, and though we weren’t initially hooked (too distracted by some adult-looking actors playing high schoolers), the characters eventually captured our interest.

The tale plays out a bit like a murder mystery where you know the ending—Hannah Baker’s suicide—but don’t know how she got there. In the days immediately following Hannah’s death, a friend named Clay Jensen receives a box containing cassette tapes she recorded before her death. (He doesn’t know how to play these ancient artifacts! His dad has to show him! Har!) He struggles to listen to small chunks at a time, overcome by intense reactions to everything she experienced as well as with his own memories. His increasingly erratic behavior affects his relationships with his classmates, particularly those featured on the tapes.

Fortunately, Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford, as Clay and Hannah, look believably 17, and their performances provide a compelling backbone for a story that can at times seem over the top: could all these awful things really happen to one girl in the space of a year? The omnipresence of technology has certainly made it easier for “good kids” to behave like bullies. The show also features a diverse cast without the trappings of cultural stereotyping. In fact, it seems to take a particular thrill in undercutting the audience’s assumptions, which is good— except, when a character has been established as one thing, too drastic a change can make a character less believable. The show even deliberately misleads the audience on a few occasions.

There’s a conspicuous absence of religion or faith in the series. At times, I wondered how a pastor or rabbi would have affected the story. Would she or he have been one more person who let Hannah down—or even worse, added to her troubles? Could a comforting and inclusive faith community have been a source of strength? It’s an angle that could have gone many different directions. People with treatable mental illnesses can overcome ideation on suicide. Since the series doesn’t portray Hannah as having an illness, who knows if an insightful, trusted adult outside the school-parent orbit could have helped her work through her experiences and what to do with them.

Normally I avoid sharing spoilers like the plague, but viewers deserve this heads-up: the show includes scenes of rape and does not flinch from the graphic details of Hannah’s suicide. If you’re watching this show with young teens, you may need to make a judgment call based on them as individual people and what you think they can handle.

Ultimately, 13 Reasons Why is powerfully successful at making the point that we never know what’s going on in another person’s life. That goes for the bullies as well as the victims. I certainly wouldn’t blame parents for not wanting their teens to watch the show, but I also think that this lesson is one that doesn’t get illustrated often enough. The entire show can provide an all-too-rare opening for conversation, so I concur with the experts who have suggested that if teens want to watch, parents or youth leaders should watch and discuss it with them. 13 Reasons Why is far from a perfect show, but it touches on aspects of modern life that every teen can probably relate to in some form or another. More talking between adults and young people can never be a bad thing.

 

I would rate 13 Reasons Why R for lots of explicit language, unglamorized substance abuse, and disturbing content.

 P.S. I think the show would be a fantastic youth group series for brave churches to tackle. Kids never want to talk about this stuff with adults, but a show like this could make it more comfortable to talk about. Of course, the rape scene could be difficult to watch, particularly in a mixed-gender setting. But the stakes are too high to be squeamish over stuff like this. As always, proceed with caution.

 

All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.

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