[This is a review of the 13 Reasons Why premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
In recent years, Netflix has been building up its library of original content by introducing critically acclaimed programs like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, establishing their own corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with The Defenders shows, and continuing the legacies of previously cancelled series with Arrested Development, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, and Fuller House. Netflix’s well of inspiration for their original content is expansive, and their latest offering is an adaptation of the best-selling, award-winning young adult novel, 13 Reasons Why.
The premise of both Jay Asher’s book and Netflix’s original series is rather simple: Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) is an average, if socially awkward, high school student who one day receives a box of cassette tapes recorded by his classmate, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford). The twist, however, is that Clay receives the box of tapes after Hannah has committed suicide and they detail the 13 reasons – namely, people – why she killed herself. It’s both a drama and a mystery as Clay listens to the tapes in order to discover why exactly he’s included in her story.
Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why begins with the series premiere, ‘Tape 1, Side A’, which establishes that each of season 1’s 13 episodes will see Clay follow Hannah’s story through the reasons why she committed suicide. 13 Reasons Why was adapted from Asher’s book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal), who serves as series creator and writer of ‘Tape 1, Side A’. The series premiere was directed by Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) who additionally serves as executive producer on the show, along with pop star/actress Selena Gomez (Spring Breakers).
The premiere episode opens roughly a week after Hannah dies, with Clay and the rest of the school dealing with her death in a variety of different ways; Clay seems to be the most haunted by her death and gets lost in memories of her. He’s confronted at school by a disgruntled classmate about Hannah’s death, though he doesn’t understand why, and arrives home to a mysterious package with his name on it, thus beginning his journey through the final year of Hannah’s life.
As viewers would expect of a series tackling the topic of teen suicide, ‘Tape 1, Side A’ is a largely dour and dramatic affair, with only brief moments of humor to add a bit of levity – and often these take place within the flashbacks to Clay and Hannah’s relationship at the beginning of the year. The stark contrast between Clay during the flashbacks and after Hannah’s death is no doubt intentional, and helped along by the cinematography. While his memories of Hannah are tinged in bright, warm colors – yellow, red, orange – Clay’s life after her death is painted in blues and greens, even down to his wardrobe.
The visual cues – and, at times, the musical ones, particularly when Clay discovers the package of cassette tapes on his front porch – are somewhat heavy-handed but forgivable due to the nature of the story and, in particular, Hannah’s blunt way of life. There is an honesty to Hannah, who isn’t afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve, particularly in the early days of her story, that allows for the overly obvious cinematography and music – it’s her story after all, even if Clay appears to be the character the audience is set to follow through all 13 episodes.
Additionally, we’d be remiss not to discuss the obvious nostalgia included in the 13 Reasons Why series premiere. Cassette tapes were out of date even when Asher’s novel first debuted a decade ago in 2007, and they’re even more old school in Netflix’s adapted series. Enough time of ‘Tape 1, Side A’ is dedicated to Hannah explaining why she used tapes that it’s believable, even if slightly unrealistic. Clay, meanwhile, is forced to steal a portable tape player from his friend Tony (Christian Navarro), who is established early on in the episode as a fan of older technology like cassette tapes. Then, of course, there’s the soundtrack of Joy Division playing over some of ‘Tape 1, Side A’, including the end credits song “Love Will Tear Us Apart” that helps to tie together the theme of nostalgia in 13 Reasons Why.
Beyond the hook and mystery of Hannah’s tapes as well as the series’ obvious nostalgia influences, 13 Reasons Why excels due to the performances of its young cast, particularly Minnette and Langford, who play the equally complicated – though exceptionally different – Clay and Hannah to perfection. At times, the writing of Clay tries to force the character into the box of the socially awkward nerd, an old and tired archetype especially in teen dramas, but Minnette brings a charm to him that helps the character break out of that cliche. Similarly, Langford helps Hannah to flourish within the story, grounding her actions when the character could easily fall into the trapping of a manic pixie dream girl.
Certainly, the relationship between Clay and Hannah, in the past though it is, is at the core of 13 Reasons Why especially since the arrival of the tapes causes Clay to question everything he had known about his former friend – or, rather, everything he thought he knew. Because, while Clay and Hannah help to ground the series, it is more broadly about extremely realistic issues facing teenagers, including bullying, slut-shaming, the at times cruel dynamics of high school, and, of course, suicide. ‘Tape 1, Side A’ only scratches the surface of these topics, and promises to explore them in depth through its subsequent 12 episodes, but it’s a compelling entry point to a unique story with universal themes.
All in all, 13 Reasons Why is an excellent blend of teen drama and mystery that may, in later episodes, be dragged down by its grim tone. The series premiere establishes a compelling question – why did Hannah commit suicide? – that will likely carry viewers through the twists and turns of the season, even those that read the book and know how it all ends. It remains to be seen whether 13 Reasons Why will be able to garner the popularity of other teen dramas like My So-Called Life or Skins, but it certainly sets out to be the next exceptional drama that just so happens to be geared toward teens – and, for the most part, it succeeds.
13 Reasons Why season 1 is available in its entirety on Netflix.