Netflix Review: 13 Reasons Why (Seasons 1-3)

I’ve followed this show from the beginning. If you don’t remember, there was hellfire raining down from the press about the premise and the violent acts depicted when 13 Reasons Why first hit Netflix 3 years ago. Specialists and news anchors and religions and pretty much everyone else who heard about the show had a viewpoint they needed to get across the table at those in opposition, and it was a heavy conversation to have. That first season commented on topics like rape, suicide, drug addiction, and all sorts of abuse taking place in a high school. At the time, I was in the final semester of my Master’s Degree and working with students. It’s crazy sometimes to think about your life in terms of a long running tv (or streaming) show, but nevertheless I binge watched it that first weekend in order to try to stay ahead of the curve in conversations that might arise. And if I’m being honest, it was the first show to really mess me up, at least for a few days after. It’s extremely raw and creator Brain Yorkey got a lot of flack for adapting it, leading the team to even have to go back and re-edit a very graphic scene from the season one finale in response just last year. But my initial thoughts of that first season still ring true: I advise parents with kids in middle or high school to watch (or even just read about it) and then have some conversations with your kids, as appropriate. They are tough topics to talk about, but they will come up in most high school conversations one way or another. Yes, the show took examples to the extreme, like “this is what could happen if everything went terribly wrong.” However, it also highlights a need to talk to adults and to have the courage to report something even when a friend asks you not to, or at least be there with them to make the report together.
**Please note: I’m not going to go back and talk about every detail or running plot thread between seasons. This just doesn’t feel like the kind of show to do that with, and I want to take a different approach.
So moving on, where the first season felt very real, seasons two and three became heavily dramatized. Yes, many of the topics they continue to tackle are still good conversations to have with your kids at some point (i.e. school violence, weapons, sex and sexuality, keeping secrets for others, etc.), but the show has hard curved down Hollywood Blvd. The stakes are continually high and characters really struggle to learn from their mistakes and to make better choices, which for a show that wants to wants to “[remain the] platform for conversation for young people and hope” is really highlighting some bad examples of how to deal with life. Struggling to make the right choice isn’t a bad thing, but I don’t know if one episode where people make amends at the end of each season justifies the publicity. Whether it is Netflix or show runners or the cast or everyone involved, the show seems more interested in trying to draw in viewers than in promoting healthy conversation (I can’t really blame them though…). I do appreciate some of the things the show is doing and there are glimpses of character growth and maturity, but despite reports of being renewed to continue at least one more season, I think season three was enough. While I think it is a great conversation starter, I no longer recommend watching every episode in order to have those conversations.
One of the repeated motifs of the show is that people struggle to change. There is a lot that goes into that struggle: friendships, relationships, counseling, therapy, relapses. Every main character on the show (at least all of the high school students) has faced this at some point during the three seasons. The main character, Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette, Don’t Breathe, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) is always trying to do what he thinks is right, many times to the detriment of himself and others. At the end of the first season, he makes a promise to do better and to not keep things hidden, but like everyone else he keeps messing up. From the third season, the series’ main antagonist, Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice), faces his own past and we come to realize that even he is trying to change in a world that won’t let him. He’s not perfect, but he’s also no worse off than Clay. Overall, it’s a good motif to have, but the conversations around the show need to be made carefully when it becomes over-dramatized (seriously, some episodes I felt like I had accidentally turned on Grey’s Anatomy…no offense). It just became more and more difficult to believe that these characters would make the choices they do in the show in real life, and that pulls me away from giving it the recommendation. In the end, even the characters agree that “all the choices were wrong; we had to choose one.”
This is the truly important paragraph in all of this. I don’t want to undermine the affect the show had on audiences and especially kids when it first aired, with reports noting that the following month had the highest suicide count in nearly a decade. If you or anyone you know is hurting or appears depressed, please speak up. All the choices may seem wrong, but reaching out for a helping hand is always the right choice. Talk to a trusted adult or adult friend. Google crisis lines in your area to call and talk to someone who is ready and willing to listen. Also, find healthy ways to deal with stress and anxiety: change your diet, get regular exercise, practice meditation or self-reflection, attend a church. Studies show that all of these help our physical and mental health. And if you have experienced any type of significant trauma, seek counseling. Trauma deeply impacts the brain more than you think and it can take a long time to recover, even with expert care, so don’t put it off.
Back to the abrupt end of my review, I’m sure there is more to discuss about this series, especially as it trudges on to a fourth (and hopefully final) season. The jumps back and forth in time were sometimes difficult to follow, but they helped by transitioning the picture color and aspect ratio (a subtle trick famous in films like The Grand Budapest Hotel to distinguish a particular time period or shift in story). The acting is pretty well done considering that many of the kids don’t have a lot of IMDB credits other than one-off television appearances. Prentice was really the standout actor in this third season, especially after seeing how terrible his character was in the first two seasons. And I also really enjoyed the new girl, Ani (Grace Saif), who both starred in and narrated a majority of the season. Many of the characters have a good amount of depth, but the Hollywood lens these past two seasons were shot with is really only concerned with surface-level. Also is was a terrible ending to the season’s mystery, with everyone making terrible choices that were glossed over by Thanksgiving gatherings and prayers, then laid to rest as if they were all okay. In a way, it felt like a kid version of Big Little Lies, trying to act older and struggling to stay relevant. If you watched any of the series, please comment with your take on how the show has progressed or your thoughts on how they tackled these difficult topics. Otherwise, thanks for reading, cheers!

2 thoughts on “Netflix Review: 13 Reasons Why (Seasons 1-3)

    1. Yeah, honestly that first season was enough. They did find a way to continue the storyline, but like I noted even though there’s only on more season left, it’s really not worth taking the time to watch if you’re not already invested.

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