Not all Netflix series are made equal. For every Daredevil, there is an Iron Fist; every Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has its lesser, Fuller House counterpart. And in the wake of pulpy-teen murder mystery Riverdale, Netflix’s new teen mystery 13 Reasons Why is an emotionless, forgettable affair.
Based off the YA novel by Jay Asher and executive produced by Selena Gomez, 13 Reasons Why is the story of Hannah Baker (newcomer Katherine Langford), a high school girl who committed suicide a week before the first episode picks up. Without her present, we follow Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), the quiet teenage boy who was in love with her before she died, struggling with grief when a mysterious package arrives at his door one afternoon. It’s thirteen cassette tapes, each recorded sardonically by Hannah before her death, explaining the thirteen reasons why she killed herself.
Each episode chronicles Clay listening to a different tape, biking around town in an attempt to piece together Hannah’s story. From school jocks who took advantage of her and spread rumours to fickle friends who believed them, Hannah spills the beans on everyone who wronged her – and even when we finally reach Clay’s tape, the story is far from over. As Hannah’s plan to expose the horrible bullying and toxic masculinity of her high school comes to a head, the lines blur between victim and culprit.
13 Reasons Why is incredibly lifeless (sorry) and dull, moving like molasses as its “mystery” is slowly uncovered. Each of Hannah’s stories would be interesting and compelling if they weren’t stretched out over the course of full hour-long episodes; all thirteen episodes could be condensed into four, or even just a movie, with tighter storytelling and quicker reveals.
Instead, 13 Reasons Why pads out its gloomy world, introducing us to dozens of characters who receive such small, infrequent moments in the sun that it’s hard to distinguish one stereotypical jock from the next; Hannah’s selfish friends and disinterested teachers all blurring into one. This becomes a showcase for the show’s terrible soap-opera dialogue and the actors’ awkward chemistry. And as our emotional entry into this world, Clay should be so much more sympathetic than he is – after all, his is the epitome of unrequited love – but he lacks any kind of heart, or character at all, instead coming off as creepy and irrational, made worse by a dull performance by Minnette.
The only compelling character is Hannah: her tapes are full of sarcasm and attitude, but seeing her heartbroken eyes as we learn the tragic story shows us how much she truly has given up on living any longer, made more powerful by an impassioned performance from Langford. The show’s message about the toxic treatment of girls in high school is certainly fascinating and frustrating – from objectification and even sexual assault, this show is not afraid to go there – but its treatment of suicide is occasionally problematic, since, as one character laments, ‘leaving those tapes was a dick move’. Regardless, this serves to make Hannah just more complex and interesting, and her descent into depression is believable and melancholy, as each person turns their back on her until no one is left.
Despite its sympathetic main character, 13 Reasons Why fails to inject life (sorry, again) into a story that we’ve all experienced to a certain degree – coming of age stories should make us feel and remember, but this is just boring. Even for lovers of mystery, Thirteen Reasons Why fails to capture attention and create intrigue – but maybe that’s because this isn’t a whodunit, but a whydunit, and since the “why” isn’t a big surprise, it’s barely even that.