Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” stumbles in places, but delivers captivating drama nonetheless

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Upperclassmen are undoubtedly familiar with Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, a novel published ten years ago and heavily promoted by Lake Park when Asher came to speak to the school in two whole-campus assemblies. So when Netflix released the entire season of the miniseries based on the novel, there was quite a bit of interest.

Frankly, this show isn’t the sort of show to binge watch. At least, that’s a reasonable deduction to draw from the novel itself, and from the first episode, which is all this review is concerned with. It’s an emotional story. In the first few minutes, we are dumped in the middle of a California town and its central high school, where we that learn bright, upbeat yet strangely reticent student Hannah (Katherine Langford) is gone, the entire school reeling from her suicide. Her friend and would-be paramour Clay (Dylan Minnette) moves through his day in a daze, interrupted by flashbacks to his time with Hannah and strange, almost scripted conversations with his peers in the halls.

Once he gets home, he finds a package of cassette tapes addressed to him on his porch. From Hannah.

Fans of the book are familiar with the story: the package was sent out by her after her death, addressed to specific people who, she says in the recording, are the reason she is no longer living.

“The rules here are pretty simple,” she informs him as he listens. “Listen, and pass it on.” And Clay, understandably rattled, does so, biking all over town following a map she included with the tapes and listening to Hannah’s voice through a set of pilfered headphones from his friend Tony (Christian Navarro), who’s somehow in the know about the whole scheme, while this poor girl posthumously narrates how her life fell apart. Clay is completely vexed, since, by his own recollection, he never mistreated her (though we know by the end of the episode that’s maybe not entirely accurate), and yet he’s received what amounts to a personally recorded suicide note. He’s also freaked out because Hannah’s tape has warned him that, if the tapes don’t make a full circuit to all people she’s listed, someone she entrusted with the package will ‘blow the whistle in a most public way” and, presumably, scandalize everyone on the list.

The first episode centers on Hannah’s foray to a party, her friendship with Kat (Giorgia Whigham) and Clay, and her disastrous interaction with Kat’s ex-boyfriend Justin (Brandon Flynn).

The performances miss a beat here and there. Hannah’s mooning over Justin is a little too manufactured, Clay’s nerd persona isn’t quite nerdy enough, and Justin is just a little too smarmy to take seriously as someone Hannah would be interested in. When he betrays her by sharing a private photo of her with the school, we aren’t exactly surprised. But the tedious, left-handed adolescent interactions are captured in agonizing detail, up to and including the long text exchanges over math homework, between-friends drama and overly technologized life of a twenty-first adolescent. It’s hard to look away from it all; it’s drama that gets in your face and stays there for good.

The series has been out less than a month and has garnered some criticism for its depiction of the issue of teen suicide. According to ABC News, the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education organization is worried that the show glorifies suicide and will lead to copycat cases. Other critics have argued that the whole spectacle is too reminiscent of millennial ego, sort of akin to fantasies older generations used to have about attending their own funerals and telling people who wronged them off. It’s pointless, and does more harm to the living than anything else.

Perhaps. Yet as of 2015, the Center for Disease Control reported that suicide was the tenth leading cause of death for all ages in 2013, and that 8 percent of high school students in the U.S. attempted suicide at least once. When discussing females exclusively, that number is 10.6 percent. This mandates a discussion: why is this happening? What can we do about it? What responsibility do we all have? Any piece of art that gets us talking about all this is well worth the time.

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Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” stumbles in places, but delivers captivating drama nonetheless