Netflix UK TV review: 13 Reasons Why Season 1 (spoilers)
Luke Channell | On 27, May 2017
Warning: This contains spoilers. Not seen 13 Reasons Why? Click here for our spoiler-free review.
After an uneven opening four episodes, Season 1 of 13 Reasons Why builds convincingly upon its central and secondary characters and cumulates to an effectively shocking conclusion – yet baggy pacing and narrative contrivances still plague the series.
Each episode continues to follow Clay’s (Dylan Minnette) present-day struggles and turns the spotlight onto a different individual who contributed to Hannah’s (Katherine Langford) decision to commit suicide. The show delves into progressively darker subject matters, as Hannah is subjected to social isolation, betrayals and sexual assault. 13 Reasons Why’s unpatronising, unblinking presentation of these issues positions it as an essential entry in the teen drama genre.
13 Reasons Why continues to extend its large cast in Episodes 6, 7 and 8, as Hannah introduces more peers who have hurt her in some way. Marcus Cole (Steven Silver) humiliates Hannah publicly on a Valentines Day date, Zach Dempsey (Ross Butler) sabotages a school project to hit back at Hannah for rejecting him, and Ryan Shaver (Tommy Dorfman) publishes a personal poem of Hannah’s in the school paper without her consent. The racial and sexual diversity of the ensemble makes a refreshing change to the dominant heterosexual whiteness of other teen shows. Consequently, there’s a genuine authenticity to 13 Reasons Why’s depiction of teenage life and relationships.
While the trio are welcome additions, their stories are simply not meaty enough to carry a whole 50-minute episode and the season’s momentum continues to stall. Many of the episodes remain inexplicably drawn out when a season of shorter episodes could have developed a more emotionally intense and dramatically satisfying experience. The show’s glaring plot contrivances also become increasingly exasperating. Clay’s insistence on taking time to reflect on the revelations of each tape, rather than binge-listening them like the other teens, overtly serves the narrative’s dramatic structure and nothing else; the storyline becomes aggravatingly repetitive and feels frequently artificial.
On the plus side, the latter episodes repeatedly showcase Minnette and Langford’s undeniable talents. Minette injects Clay with real passion and sensitivity, which comes to the fore in an enraged school corridor rant. Langford expertly maintains the believability of Hannah’s emotional plight with an honest, expressive performance of escalating grief and depression.
13 Reasons Why also builds effectively on the characterisations of Justin (Brandon Flynn) and his girlfriend, Jessica (Alisha Boe), as they begin to transverse their jock and cheerleader stereotypes. A glance into their familial lives and the after-effects of Jessica’s rape by Bryce (Justin Prentice), which Justin was implicated in, exposes the emotional vulnerabilities behind their public veneers. The show adroitly sides our sympathies with the pair by showing how they are confused, damaged and complex teenagers, just like Clay and Hannah. Despite this, other secondary characters, such as Bryce and Tyler (Devin Druid), remain frustratingly clichéd. And, although Christian Navarro is undeniably charismatic as Tony, it’s hard to see past his primary function as a plot device guiding Clay throughout the season.
The stand-out supporting cast member is undoubtedly Kate Walsh. Walsh puts in a heart-breaking, emotionally-wrought turn as Hannah’s devastated mother, Olivia, and she plays her part in the series’ most talked-about scene – Hannah’s suicide in the season finale. It’s a brutally portrayed sequence, which doesn’t allow the viewer any sort of protection from the distressing images, as the camera focuses in close-up on Hannah slitting her wrists in the bath.
Olivia’s reaction is devastating to watch as she tries to lift Hannah’s limp body from the bath tub; it’s surely one of the most graphic, emotionally stirring scenes ever to grace a teen drama series. Approaching its themes in a sincere, un-condescending manner, 13 Reasons Why depicts the tragic reality of suicide and the catastrophic impact it has on a community. The show follows the same method in its unflinching and prolonged portrayal of Hannah’s rape by Bryce. While it may not make for a pleasurable viewing experience, 13 Reasons Why maturely presents the under-addressed issues of teenage depression and rape.
Despite its flaws, 13 Reasons Why has proved a runaway success for Netflix and has already been renewed for a second season, set for release in 2018. The finale leaves several plot strands open – Alex seems to have attempted suicide, Tony provides Olivia with access to Hannah’s recordings, Justin and Bryce reunite and Clay drives away with his old friend Skye (Sosie Bacon), along with Tony and his boyfriend Brad (Henry Zaga). Brian Yorkey has developed an engaging, believable cast of characters, but the series’ source material is self-contained and concludes with Hannah’s suicide. It will be interesting to see how the series transforms its structure and advances characterisation in Hannah’s absence. Although it doesn’t always hit the target, there’s plenty to admire in this first season – 13 Reasons Why is a flawed yet ambitious, nuanced and poignant look at adolescent life and tragedy.
All episodes of 13 Reasons Why are now available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.