Selena Gomez’s long-time project, 13 Reasons Why released its first season onto Netflix this past Friday. Based on Jay Asher’s 2007 novel of the same name, 13 Reasons Why is a heavy, emotional show that centers on the “tapes” left behind after a high school junior, Hannah Baker, commits suicide. The tapes tell the story of her life and explain her reasons for committing, with each reason being a person. These tapes are passed around among the people mentioned, as per Hannah’s instructions, until they reach the show’s narrator, Clay Jensen. The plot generally follows that of the book, but by projecting it onto the screen, the story has taken on a much more powerful mission.
One of the first and most noticeable things that set 13 Reasons Why apart from the rest of high school based television is its cast. The cast features characters and actors of all races and sexualities, each developed to their full potential and given adequate screen time. It also defies certain tropes and expectations of a diverse cast. Zach Dempsey is a jock with secret dreams of being a marine biologist, played by Ross Butler, whose mother is Chinese. African-American Ajiona Alexus plays Sheri, a popular cheerleader who spends time with the elderly. Other main cast includes a black student body president, an LGBTQ+ Asian girl and more. When comparing the cast of 13 Reasons Why to other shows set in a “typical high school” you see a much better depiction of a true high school environment. The show represents characters of all backgrounds struggling with different issues relevant to the show’s audience.
Another important aspect of 13 Reasons Why is that each character is well developed and very three dimensional. Even the show’s good-guy-protagonist, Clay Jensen, makes questionable decisions with his anger, fueled by impulse. He exploits classmate Tyler Down by sending the school a picture of him changing. The same questionable moral sense can be attached to likable and seemingly good characters such as Sheri, who refused to call the police after knocking down a stop sign that resulted in the death of a peer. Additionally, by examining the home lives of hate-able characters such as Justin Foley, the viewer is able to feel a conflicting and alarming sense of understanding as to some of Justin’s unforgivable actions. With these developed and questionable characters, the show addresses a variety of different issues. Not just its war horses of sexual assault and mental health, which we will look at in a moment, but also teenage drinking, abusive parents, discrimination based on sexuality and the damage that social media can do.
Most importantly, what makes 13 Reasons Why stand out among all other “high school shows” is that it not only addresses the realities of mental illness and sexual assault, but it is based on them. It takes these difficult realities on headfirst, refusing to romanticize or sugarcoat them. The show depicts multiple sexual assault scenes in explicit detail and shows very graphically a crying, screaming Hannah slitting her wrists in the bathtub. This is one startling change from the book, where she swallows a handful of pills. The show does not shy away from these disturbing events or these triggering scenes because they show what truly happens during a sexual assault and how severe suicide truly is. 13 Reasons Why does anything but romanticize the real life problems of its characters with its harsh scenes and dialogue that hits home.
But, to me personally, one of 13 Reasons Why’s most important aspects is its ending. One of the shows most prevalent messages is just how important it is to be aware of the people around you, as any little thing you do could be the final straw or the lifesaver to someone who is struggling. However, as the viewer spends 13 stomach-churning episodes caught up in the mystery of Hannah Baker, they do not notice Alex Standall’s deteriorating mental health right under their noses. In the last few minutes of the final episode, Principal Boland informs Mr. Porter, the school’s guidance counselor who also missed the warning signs in Hannah, that Alex Standall—one of Hannah’s “reasons why”—has shot himself in the head. Additionally, Tyler Down, who stalked Hannah through her window, is seen to be planning a school shooting. While these cliffhangers do leave the show open to the possibility of a second season, they, more importantly, show just how difficult it can be to be aware and conscious of what is happening in the lives of the people around you, and because of this, just how much more important it is to pay attention.
13 Reasons Why is one of the most important pieces of media to date, as it addresses what can be considered the “hard topics” head on. However, it should not be consumed in one sitting. This show is not supposed to be binged—it is not mindless entertainment or an easy watch. It is a horrifying and emotional roller coaster for its audience, one that is supposed to change how you view mental illness and how you respond to and interact with the people in your life. Nevertheless, it is a must watch. At its core, 13 Reasons Why is a powerful show meant to start important conversations about mental health and sexual assault.