There is a romanticised kind of US high school experience that I sometimes find it hard to say no to. That doesn’t mean I’m about to use this piece to express a love of Glee or High School Musical – far from it – but every now and then I’ll notice a series or film set in a US high school and the location alone sells it to me enough to try it out. Think Riverdale or Varsity Blues or Clueless or even a series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer in its early seasons. And I think this fascination for me, personally, is the kind of schools involved are generally like nothing like I ever experienced going to high school.
I went to high school in a semi-rural location where the school was brand-new (and not even fully built), and we only ever had one year of kids ahead of us. So we were never in awe of kids five years our senior – they just didn’t exist. And we didn’t have massive sporting facilities – we had a paddock full of cow pats. And we didn’t wear jeans and cool letter jackets – we had a strict uniform. Even compared to other Australian high schools my experience was on the more unusual side, let alone compared to what I call that romanticised US high school experience that not even all US kids get.
So when 13 Reasons Why rolled out in 2017 with a bit of buzz around it in the press, I noticed the kind of US high school setting I’m a sucker for and there was apparently some sort of mystery at hand – and I’m a sucker for those too – so I was onboard to give it a look from the start. Then one episode in, bam, it had me hooked. How? Because when a series presents an issue upfront and you realise all the episodes to come will be spent unraveling it, I’m onboard. I have a fondness for this kind of storytelling which I’ll no doubt mention again if I get around to talking about ELITE (coincidentally a series set in a Spanish high school). In this case, the issue is the suicide of a student and the hook is that she’s recorded seven cassette tapes talking about her time at the school and her relationships with different students and, like it says in the title, why she’s ultimately taken the step that she’s taken.
This sets up a heartbreaking situation from the start as the episodes then switch back in time to show us the stories that the tapes are about. We see the student who recorded them – Hannah – and she’s a delight. Played by an Aussie actress I’d not come across before, Katherine Langford, she’s smart, funny, attractive, and you have that instant thought – as you so often do when this happens in real life – of, “You have such a lot going for you… why did you go on to do what you did?” This makes the tapes and the stories that unfold absolutely compelling, almost addictive viewing. You know from the start that Hannah’s dead. But why? Personally, I had an incredible need to get to the bottom of this story.
To go into detail about the situations and characters that emerge could potentially derail the story for people but I’ll say upfront that there’s no fake out ending to the first 13 episodes which, absolutely nonsensically, I kept coming back to in my mind as I watched it. Perhaps some forlorn hope that the character I was watching, episode after episode, had some final trick up her sleeve via the tapes. But no, Hannah really is gone and – although it’s been heavily edited by Netflix – the series even showed her suicide in one of the later episodes of the first series. Again, no details from me, aside from telling you that it didn’t pull any punches and it was absolutely horrible to watch. I actually couldn’t believe I was seeing what I was seeing, it was that realistic. One of my thoughts at the time was, “If that doesn’t hammer into kids how painful and horrible and un-glamorous suicide is, I don’t know what will…” yet somewhat ironically complaints about how the scene would romanticise suicide led the streamer into making edits. Personally I think showing how horrible, lonely, painful and most of all – final – such an act is, should be something kids see, not something hidden from them. But that’s me, I suppose.
After that first amazing series, 13 Reasons Why goes on to another two series. I watched both with nowhere near the same amount of urgency as the first series. I was still curious about where the lives of other characters might go, but none of the the story lines drove me as hard as that first one. You finish series one knowing what happened, and why. If you want to see how people deal with the aftermath, that’s where the next two series come into play. They’re not 100% essential though.
One aspect of the second series I really didn’t like was the way Hannah would appear in the head of another character and talk to him, but this would be shown as if she was there with him, in real life. To me, this was about 10x more foolhardy than showing her suicide in the previous series as I think it gives the impression – if someone is going to be impressionable about something they see on TV – that after you take your life, you can still pop back and have witty and fun conversations with people which is, of course, a nonsense. Somehow this was fine, but showing the reality of suicide wasn’t.
This really is a program where it’s all done and dusted in the first 13 episodes and although it deliberately creates a cliffhanger – unrelated to Hannah – to get you to tune into the second series, I didn’t find any of the episodes that came next to have been very necessary viewing once I’d seen them. They are interesting, yes. But essential? No. I’d dearly love to talk about one storyline in particular that wraps up at the end of the third season in a way that’s medically and scientifically impossible and left me shaking my head in bewilderment but to say more would spoil it, so I’ll stop there about that.
If it’s not apparent, let me say again that the first 13 episodes of this series are great. On an intriguing, mystery kind of level they’re great – and also on a young-people-should-watch-this-and-think-about-the-issues level they’re great too. And let me be clear; I’m not normally one for “preachy” television or film in the slightest, but I think this has merit. I commend it to you, dear reader. Give it a try, maybe?