The series tracing the aftermath of a girl’s suicide had all the ingredients to be an absolute shitshow but it’s a standout success
There are a couple of reasons I thought I might not like this TV show, namely that it’s 13 hours straight of aggressively earnest YA drama about a girl who leaves behind a set of cassette tapes describing in excruciating detail why she killed herself and it’s based on a book I absolutely hated. I read it when I was around the same age as the characters, and I remember wondering whether I was an asshole in finding the tapes’ narrator an asshole. Quite a few readers wonder the same thing – a good chunk of bloggers and Goodreads users’ #1 complaint is that Hannah Baker’s kind of grating, a tad vindictive, maybe even – God forbid – a bitch (this will be important, by the way). Besides which, the tone seemed to try so very hard, like John Green affecting Daria narrating a Lifetime movie.
So I was extremely dismayed to find myself actually liking the thing, and binge-watching all 13 episodes. This was like a day before the Big Little Lies finale, and certain corners of Twitter were dreading the end of yet another good prestige drama, mere months after the final episode of The Young Pope’s first and (likely) only season. During these lulls, I crave trash, the soapier the better. Bonus points if it’s trash that affects prestige, like the hilariously self-serious Flesh & Bone and UnREAL’s trainwreck of a second season. Tom Hardy’s Taboo, is, I’m devastated to say, one of these, despite promising a Peaky Blinders meets Penny Dreadful-esque character-driven masterpiece with Game of Thrones-rivaling debauchery, not to mention Tom Hardy. I thought 13 Reasons Why would be too, but it somehow dared to produce a stand-out in the middle of HBO’s winning streak.
Note: The show explores themes of suicide and sexual assault. There’s also spoilers ahead.
IT BREAKS THE CONVENTIONS OF PRESTIGE TV
The first thing I had to acknowledge is 13 Reasons Why makes the cut for prestige TV, at least more deservedly than other teen shows. There’s an unspoken acceptance that teen shows – even the good, hard-hitting ones like Skam and Skins – are allowed a margin of trashiness. But like Big Little Lies, it’s well-crafted TV condescendingly dismissed as pure soap. Its quality becomes especially apparent next to Riverdale, a comic-turned-TV show about a jock’s murder, which is slowly being strangled by an identity crisis.
It also destroys a lot of the conventions we’ve come to expect of prestige TV. For one, it doesn’t use violence against women for the aesthetic. True Detective, Game of Thrones, and Westworld have all been accused of exploiting these issues to convey the shittiness of their worlds. But like Big Little Lies, 13 Reasons Why treats them with a shrewdness and nuance that winds up with more artistic merit than using women’s bodies to validate an edgelord state of mind. Its dual portrayals of the more subtle, insidious side of violence against women ends up being more visceral than HBO’s goriest spectacles.
For another, it redefines what’s allowed to be prestige TV. The massively hyped and testosterone-filled flops of Taboo and Vinyl prove the Sherlock Holmes formula – genius + fuccboi + substance abuse – that worked so well for Mad Men, The Knick, and even The Young Pope is no longer bulletproof. Like (yet again) Big Little Lies, 13 Reasons Why proves prestige TV doesn’t have to be either a douchebag epic or some surreal, nonlinear sci-fi mindfuck. Both shows have essentially paved the way for heretofore denigrated, traditionally feminine genres like teen dramas and soaps. The upcoming HBO adaptations of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels will be taken more seriously because of them.
“She’s condescending. She’s obnoxious. She’s a hypocrite. Her tapes are manipulative and spiteful”
IT SUBVERTS THE PRETTY DEAD GIRL MYSTERY FORMULA
Pretty Little Liars and Twin Peaks may be the most famous entries in the pretty dead girl in a small town whose death threatens to unravel the towns’ secrets genre. Both dead girls are dissected repeatedly by both the lens and the characters, their post-murder narratives spun through a collection of fragmented, often objectifying interpretations. Giving Hannah the chance to tell her own story – interspersed with Rashomon-style retellings from those who wronged her – makes her a person, instead of a fetishised symbol.
Even more importantly, it has an unlikeable main female character. Not unlikeable the way it’s now used, as a compliment, as shorthand for complex, as daringly off-putting to men yet empowering to women. This is not the ‘unlikeability’ of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, who, the moment she delivered her scathing manifesto against cool girls, immortalised herself as a beacon of cool girl to women everywhere. Nor is it the ‘unlikeability’ of the bad girls who populate Mary Gaitskill’s underworlds, in whom we see ourselves and our friends. It is also not the ‘unlikeability’ that compels us to describe ourselves as such a Hannah Horvath, an avowed narcissist.
Hannah Baker is truly unlikeable. She keeps up a constant stream of snarky witticisms (negs, really) that are nowhere as funny or charming as she thinks. She’s condescending. She’s obnoxious. She’s a hypocrite. Her tapes are manipulative and spiteful. It’s not hard to understand why girls would bully her out of both jealousy and resentment, why guys would single her out as an easy target. When Zach Dempsey, midway through the season, tells her she brings “some of the shit she’s going through” on herself after she rejects his attempt at being nice, we can’t help but at least kind of agree. It’s a much-needed departure from the usual image of suicide and its aftermath – a complicated, uncomfortable portrait of a ‘bad victim’ that forces us to re-evaluate our idea of the ‘undeserved’ suicide and reveals the complicity of women in sexist violence.
THERE ARE NO TOKENS
One of 13 Reasons Why’s best selling points is its diversity. Like Hannibal, it boasts both a diverse, talented cast and three-dimensional roles. It’s a fuck you of a success story to Hollywood execs and comic book publishers who view diversity as a burden and a quota. We have an ensemble cast of queer characters and characters of colour played by queer actors and actors of colour, whose sexual orientation and racial identity and non-traditional family structures are normalised instead of fetishised or tokenised.
There’s Christian Navarro’s Tony, a queer Latinx revamp of James Dean in Rebel without a Cause, who acts circles around an already strong collective that includes: Katherine Langford’s nuanced Manic Pixie Dream Girl inversion Hannah. Dylan Minnette’s Clay, an emo-nerd with PTSD. Ross Butler’s Zach Shan-Yung (!) Dempsey, whose reconciliation of Asian-ness and masculinity has manifested in a particularly toxic, peer-pressured way. Michele Selene Ang’s closeted lesbian, whose strict parents are a couple of rich white gays. Alisha Boe’s popular military brat Jessica, who flirts and hangs out with her rapist to stave off the pain of admitting what has happened to her.
There are no stereotypes here, except – noticeably – all the straight white boys. They are virginal indie-obsessed nerds, budding school shooters, rapey trust-fund frat bros, and they deconstruct them all. In the wake of Hollywood’s string of whitewashing controversies and the success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, the highest-grossing original film ever, that doesn’t strike me as coincidental.
ITS SECOND SEASON COULD BE EVEN BETTER
The two extremes of school shooting fiction (which turns out is an unsettlingly large category) are We Need to Talk About Kevin and The OA. 13 Reasons Why’s second season could fall towards the former. Devin Druid’s dead-eyed stalker Tyler, who’s subjected to unrelenting torment before he’s shown hiding guns and bullets, developing shots of his presumed future victims strung ominously across the darkroom, was already creepy enough. But knowing how unflinchingly the show portrayed suicide, there’s a good chance it will be just as nuanced and almost unwatchably visceral. In fact, I’m fairly certain I won’t be able to stomach a TV show about a school shooting that’s 13 reasons long. Although it’s sure to make an interesting double feature with the newly lightened Death Note.
Sure, 13 Reasons Why has its flaws. The dialogue – with the FMLs and other Internet ephemera from 2008 – can veer on cringeworthy. Like teen shows in general, it’s bloated with straight-from-Lifetime topics. The ‘80s hardon and indie aesthetic is a little 2008. Its portrayal of suicide (rightly or wrongly) has been criticised for being too explicit and glorified. The cinematography is nothing special. The goth sucks. The final lines are so cheesy they almost erase everything it did in 13 episodes. But they didn’t, and the result is a model for teen shows to come.