The trailer for “13 Reasons Why” seemed preposterous, and I’m a staunch proponent of young adult-targeted TV campiness; “Bunheads” and “Make It or Break it” rank among my favorite shows, and full disclosure, I still record “Teen Mom 2” to binge over breaks.
But the premise of the Netflix series, released March 31, was too much even for me — Hannah, a teenager who killed herself, leaves tapes behind for a handful of classmates who happen to be the 13 titular driving forces in her suicide. She’s not the main character, though; that’s Clay, one of the tape-receivers who happened to like (and allegedly even love) Hannah.
Having watched half of the show plus the final episode, it reinforced my idea that most media has no clue how to properly handle teen suicide.
At one point in the last year, suicide was on my mind. I didn’t want to kill myself, per se; that seemed messy and inconvenient and my pain tolerance is low. But the thought — death — was equal parts unnerving and inviting. It fluttered around my mind for a while before it took root there, spreading its ugly, unwanted companionship until it pervaded almost every thought I had.
I’d been miserable in the past, but I’d always been able to conjure up fantasies of my potential future to make me feel better — an apartment overrun by DVDs and used books and corgis, or a job writing in some capacity. But I couldn’t do that anymore. I couldn’t imagine not feeling like my chest was caving in most of the time or like everyone I knew secretly despised me; I genuinely wasn’t sure whether I wanted to live anymore.
This depressive episode made me hyperaware of suicide in the films and TV I was consuming. I realized that it was a topic broached casually in countless forms of media (“The Office,” “The Life Aquatic”), slightly more seriously in others (“The Royal Tenenbaums”) and gravely in very few (“The Apartment,” “Dead Poets Society,” arguably even “Citizen Kane”).
None of these particularly bothered me, as they all concerned adults (and who could be upset by a rousing game of “SlumDunder Mifflinaire?”). Why shouldn’t adults write about other adults dying by suicide? They have the sense and perspective to treat it like the horrific issue it is; using dark humor as a coping mechanism is different than idealizing the situation.
But fictionalized tales of teens killing themselves do tend to idealize and misinterpret, and “13 Reasons Why” tumbles right into this trap.
The series is not, entirely, poorly crafted. Katherine Langford (Hannah) and Dylan Minnette (Clay) are backed by a cast of equally heart-wrenching side characters. A handful of scenes — the coffee shop slap, Hannah’s first brush with bullying, the hot tub — pack real, visceral punches. Hannah’s actual suicide, too, is unapologetically depicted; her desperation and her mother’s agony (hats off to Kate Walsh) radiate off the screen.
But this doesn’t compensate for the handful of deeply, unintentionally distressing scenes — namely their guidance counselor telling Clay he can’t “love someone back to life” and Clay’s response (“You can try”), then Hannah’s dream-sequence response to Clay’s declaring his love for her (“Why didn’t you say this to me when I was alive?”)
The series carries a palpable undercurrent of disillusion. In the style of 1999’s “The Virgin Suicides,” we’re gifted enough glimpses into the female protagonist’s life to understand her plight, but it feels more like that of the guy desperately trying to get inside her head, postmortem. I couldn’t tell if those behind “13 Reasons Why” wanted me to sympathize more with Hannah, the girl who’d killed herself, or Clay, the ambiguously friendzoned guy she’d left behind.
No one wants to talk about suicide, especially when it concerns teenagers. But it’s still an issue — it’s the second leading cause of death for college-age students, along with kids aged 12 through 18. And whether or not media, social or otherwise, influences their thought processes is not up for debate.
When “13 Reasons Why” implies that, had Hannah been aware of and returned Clay’s love, she wouldn’t have died, it reinforces the idea that only borderline pubescent knights in shining armor can save teenage girls from feeling depressed and suicidal.
Witnessing the fall of Hannah Baker on Netflix is tragic, not just for her inevitable fate but for how irresponsibly it’s portrayed. When shows like “13 Reasons Why” use suicide as a plot device, they downplay the severity of its real-world harm. The series is exploitative camp masquerading as a thoughtful teen drama.
It may have been a fine YA novel, but it doesn’t translate to TV, in which young viewers can see the drama play out and potentially start to see Hannah’s actions as a viable option for themselves.
20-year-old me can recognize this. 15-year-old me would not have.