Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher’s 2007 young adult novel, tells the story of two people. Hannah Baker, a high school student, has taken her own life, though not before recording 13 cassette tapes detailing the events leading up to her suicide. Clay Jensen, a former coworker and crush of hers, listens to Hannah’s account and reacts with horrified fascination. The book is an interplay between their points of view, playing out over the course of a single night and mostly inside Clay’s head.
13 Reasons Why, the Netflix adaptation shepherded by Next to Normal’s Brian Yorkey and executive-produced by honorary teen Selena Gomez, expands to include the community Hannah left behind. Her parents, played by Kate Walsh and Brian d’Arcy James, are now main characters. So are her classmates, the other dozen subjects, along with Clay, of the tapes, each of which is dedicated to a single person who’d played some role in Hannah’s alienation. They, too, are reeling from Hannah’s death, though in radically different ways and not always for the right reasons.
Before its debut last Friday, there were good reasons to look forward to a televised version of 13 Reasons. Smart, sophisticated shows about teenagers are notoriously rare and, when they do get made, short-lived. What better place than Netflix for a new one to not just survive, but thrive? An ideal 13 Reasons could bring the genre further into the 21st century with contemporary touches like sexting and cyberbullying — is anything more radically altered in shorter spans of time than the high school experience? — with more enduring ideas. The conditioned callousness of insecure young people can be harmful or even fatal, the book (and much of teen fiction) argues, but it can be overcome through human connection. Suicide is a tricky subject to take on without being reductive or sensationalist. We should still hope for a sensitive and moving portrayal of its causes.
13 Reasons Why, nonetheless, falls far short of its admirable ambitions, often to the point of frustrating them. Its creators’ efforts to shade in the novel prove as counterproductive as they are well-meaning. The approach and its unintended consequence are exemplified by the show’s mishandling of the most topical subject in its repertoire: sexual assault.
The problems start with its new home, which proves a mixed blessing. As with so many Netflix shows, the quality of 13 Reasons Why is connected to its quantity. Asher’s 13 chapters have ballooned into 13 hours of television. The exact number of episodes is obviously prescribed by the title, but there’s no reason for almost all 13 installments to top 50 minutes. The book is so bare-bones that even half-hour chapters would have constituted a significant expansion of its world. As it stands, the tale of Hannah Baker has been stretched thin enough that we see right through to its shortcomings.
Yorkey’s decision to widen the book’s claustrophobic focus is necessary: Most of the original plot is entirely psychological, a push-pull between Hannah’s view of her life and Clay’s. Yorkey and his cowriters faced the daunting task of grafting the novel’s abstract themes onto a linear narrative. Unfortunately, the result doesn’t encourage the empathy the book does. It contradicts that message with faulty emotional logic: that this is actually how people would behave in this situation, and that if they did, their actions would be excusable. Such flimsy thinking doesn’t get a free pass simply because this show is for kids. Making entertainment for teens doesn’t mean insulting their intelligence or integrity, and 13 Reasons does both.
For the first few episodes, the Netflix 13 Reasons Why fills its empty space wisely. The content of Hannah’s tapes is largely unchanged, recited in voice-over by actress Katherine Langford and faithfully dramatized by the full cast. What the series adds is largely in the present timeline, splitting 13 Reasons Why into two parallel halves on either side of its decisive event. One half is about the structural toxicity of a high school social landscape that might drive a teenager to suicide, as rumors about her sexuality leave her a helpless, isolated target. The other half could explore how individuals reckon with their complicity in that structure — but it doesn’t. Instead, 13 Reasons Why indulges the code of silence that’s sprung up around the tapes long before Clay presses play, as well as the appalling logic behind it. The choice turns the show’s would-be (flawed) heroes into villains in the eyes of everyone but the show they’re on.
Other critics have taken issue with how long Clay takes — several days — to make his way through Hannah’s saga. I actually found it one of the few plot devices that rang true: hearing the final words of someone you love is both too painful to take in one sitting and too precious not to savor. The slow pacing is a blatant excuse to let us observe the goings-on at their Liberty High School, but it mostly works. But outside the characterization of Clay, the pacing and additional plot contortions take us out of the action and strain credulity.
What works for Clay as a character, for example, proves toxic for the rest of the cast as believable people we can, on some level, root for. The nine other kids who’ve listened before him look on anxiously as Clay takes far more time with the tapes than they did and becomes visibly more agitated. They’re terrified Clay will hand the tapes over to the school, for reasons that are first puzzling and then outright infuriating. But the more Clay listens, the more unrealistic the other kids’ omertà becomes. Supposedly, it’s out of fear of self-incrimination; everyone on the tapes is accused by name of having a role in Hannah’s decision. But initially, the slights Hannah details are minor at best — certainly not incriminating enough to merit murdering someone (a possibility that’s floated with alarming nonchalance), or perjuring themselves during a deposition for an anti-bullying lawsuit, or keeping Hannah’s parents from hearing their daughter’s last confession. James and Walsh do great work here as a grieving couple, but ultimately their presence serves to highlight the insensitivity of the premise.
In its final stretch, 13 Reasons shifts from small-scale conflict to high melodrama — including a fatal car accident, substance abuse, and sexual assault. It’s jarring, and yet another consequence of streaming bloat: We’ve spent so long in one mode that it’s difficult to switch gears to the other. The revelation that Hannah was raped by the same popular athlete she also saw assault her unconscious friend isn’t just abrupt, though. It recasts the teens’ hand-wringing as a morally craven cover-up for a serial predator, an instant shift in viewer sympathy the show doesn’t seem to be aware of.
13 Reasons offers its half-assed excuse for not turning the bastard in once a student makes the eminently reasonable suggestion that they hand over the most damning tapes and simply leave out the rest: “The only thing worse than being a rapist is hiding behind one,” preaches his companion. But allowing a (fictional) rapist to walk free because the evidence makes you look bad is pretty awful too. And keeping your characters stubbornly, implausibly blind to that fact because it’s necessary to prolong the story is not a good look. The tapes eventually make their way to Hannah’s parents in the season’s closing moments. The only reason it took this long, though, is because the show needed it to.
13 Reasons Why is meant to be a lesson in compassion — toward the victim you may not realize is struggling, but also toward the individuals unwittingly complicit in her struggles. With some obvious and overwhelming exceptions, most of the names on Hannah’s list simply did what high school taught them: When you become more popular than a friend, cut them loose. When your crush on someone threatens to out you as a lesbian, throw them under the bus. These are real adolescent tensions a show could successfully mine, but they’re instantly trivialized when held up against the twin wrongdoings of denying closure to mourning parents and shielding a criminal. 13 Reasons Why sabotages its own empathy.