Joining the ranks of shows like “A Series of Unfortunate Events” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the television adaptation of the book “13 Reasons Why,” by Jay Asher, was released as a Netflix original series late last month. The show follows high school student Clay Jensen, played by Dylan Minnette as he listens to 13 tapes left by his friend and crush Hannah Baker, played by Katherine Langford, who recorded them before she committed suicide. In the tapes, Hannah addresses people she felt played an integral role in her decision to take her own life.
Although the show has quickly risen to popularity, it has also garnered protest from those that say it glorifies both suicide and mental health issues and portrays them in an unrealistic way.
“13 Reasons Why” is a 13-episode, one-season series. Although rated mature, the show itself plays like a typical fluff high school movie —unrealistic and full of stereotypes. The students’ clothes are too nice, their cars are too expensive, and their homes are too big to reflect anything other than a rich suburb, although the show seems to want to mimic an average high school. All the jocks wear varsity jackets and the nerds are extra bookish.
In addition to most of the actors appearing older than high school age, with the exception of both Minnette and Langford, who look closer to the appropriate age, the show adds a thick layer of drama to everything. Brooding looks and heavy foreshadowing are spread throughout the episodes. Although it adds suspense, the entire show smacks of falsity.
One of the highlights of the show, however, is how it weaves together the past and the present. The plot relies heavily on the use of flashbacks, and the show does a phenomenal job integrating them into the current events.
The popularity of the show is not without its problems, however.
“It seems to paint suicide as a way to get back at people, which is not very realistic,” Director of Health Services Brock Lutz said in an email. “I’ve worked with many patients who have attempted suicide, and very few, if any, tried to kill themselves to get back at others.”
Schools are issuing warnings about the graphic content of the show, which includes scenes of sexual assault and Hannah’s suicide.
“There is a copycat nature to these kinds of things,” Lutz said. “Friends or family members who have a close loved one who has committed suicide are several times more likely to attempt suicide. The same goes for those who watch extreme violence; they are also more likely to attempt suicide.”
In a column published on Vanity Fair, however, Nic Sheff, the writer for episode six of “13 Reasons Why” said the show was “relevant and even necessary.”
“I saw the opportunity to explore issues of cyberbullying, sexual assault, depression, and what it means to live in a country where women are devalued to the extent that a man who brags about sexually assaulting them can still be elected president,” he said. “And, beyond all that, I recognized the potential for the show to bravely and unflinchingly explore the realities of suicide for teens and young adults — a topic I felt very strongly about.”
If the series wanted to prompt discussion, however, they could have done it differently, according to Lutz.
“I think if the film wanted to add to the discourse on this subject in a helpful manner, they should have added a PSA at the beginning of each program that gives the number for the national suicide hotline or other numbers for help,” Lutz said. “That, to me, just misses the mark and is irresponsible, especially given that the audience is mainly teenage population.”
Still, with its perfectly-integrated flashbacks and gorgeous cinematography, “13 Reasons Why” could be the lens through which to start discussions. The slightly unrealistic air to the show helps separate it from reality, possibly making it easier to digest.
Sheff said talking about suicide is the best defense against it.
“I’m proud to be a part of a television series that is forcing us to have these conversations, because silence really does equal death,” he said. “We need to keep talking, keep sharing, and keep showing the realities of what teens in our society are dealing with every day. To do anything else would be not only irresponsible, but dangerous.”