“Hey it’s Hannah Baker… live and in stereo … I’m about to tell you the story of my life … why my life ended. If you’re listening to this tape, you’re one of the reasons why.”

*Warning: This review mentions suicide, sexual assault, bullying, mass shooting, and addiction. If you’re struggling with these issues, this review may not be for you. If you need help, text the Crisis Help Hotline at 741-741 or call 911 if you feel safe doing so.

13 Reasons Why follows a group of friends through four years of Liberty High School. 13RW is a controversial Netflix series, adapted from the Jay Asher novel by Selena Gomez and Brian Yorkey. While Gomez is best known for vapid, teen pop songs and dating Justin Bieber, her adaptation of this YA novel is a vast departure from the maudlin world of bubblegum pop. 13RW is one of the most violent, gritty, and well-made shows I’ve ever seen. But it’s not for the faint of heart. If you’re expecting another Riverdale, you’ve been warned.

13RW is based on a YA novel, but its genre is closer to rape-revenge horror with a dash of unrequited love. This isn’t a CW show where pretty people meet for milkshakes and talk about prom. 13RW’s genre is a mix of I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Trainspotting (1996), and Fight Club (1999). The show’s IMDB page has more content warnings than the entire A Nightmare on Elm St. franchise. Every summer, I binge 13 Reasons Why, lost in the beautifully scripted scenes, well-written characters, and soundtrack.

A show full of cassette tapes, Polaroids, and teen angst gives me that 90s nostalgia. The 1990s weren’t perfect, since Bill Clinton was President and expanded the War on Drugs, anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, and police brutality. But I miss prom, MTV, and decent music. Back in the 90s, the most controversial guy on TV was Eminem, an anti-war Democrat.

Slim Shady may offend you, but when Chris Brown got away with attempting to murder Rihanna, Eminem was there for her. Eminem and Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie” let Rihanna tell her story and give people in abusive relationships hope that they can escape. Em teamed up with Twitter to send over 1 million dollars in stimulus checks and is sending masks, food, water, and resources to those in need. So yeah, I miss the days when the rapper telling kids not to do drugs, not to buy guns, was the most controversial guy on TV.  

13RW doesn’t take place in the 90s, but it might as well. “No Google Maps, no apps, no interwebs to make everything worse, like it always does,” Hannah says, recording instructions to solve the mystery on a series of 13 tapes. The students at Liberty High take turns listening to the tapes, looking at Polaroids, and reading maps to find out who killed Hannah Baker. And once that mystery is solved, the teens continue to solve other mysteries, like who killed Hannah’s rapist, who the school shooter is, and so on.

If you haven’t seen the show, Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice) rapes Hannah and several other girls. And just like real life, Bryce’s rich white parents hire an attorney and Bryce gets away with community service. Since 13RW follows the rules of horror, justice only takes place outside the courtroom when a friend murders Bryce. Because in 13RW, rapists actually get punished. Instead of real life, when they end up in the Supreme Court.

It might seem strange during a deadly pandemic, economic devastation, police brutality, and a country on fire, I would sit alone in the dark and watch this show. But I can’t handle escapism right now. I can’t watch some rom-com where a blonde New Yorker lands a job with a 6-figure salary then meets her soulmate. 13 Reasons Why is comforting because it’s real. People are sick, people are dying. Drug overdoses, suicides, sexual assault, violence, all of it is on the rise. We’re all dealing with the devastation of 2020. The only time I feel okay is watching this show.

I’m too exhausted to pretend everything’s okay.

Though the show has been criticized as “too diverse” and “too gay,” I think it’s important that a fictional high school looks like an actual high school. There is more than one gay kid at your school, more than one token person of color. It’s 2020 and we still have straight white film critics, grown-ass adults, complaining that a teen show is too diverse, too gay. Seriously? These are the same people who thought Pete Buttigieg would’ve been our first gay president. Just wait until they find out about George Washington.

Along with main characters, Clay and Hannah, are the villains of the story, the jocks. Justin (Brandon Flynn), Bryce (Justin Prentice), Zach (Ross Butler), and Monty (Timothy Granaderos) are the quintessential cool kids. Complete with sexual assault, letterman jackets, and shoving artsy kids into lockers. While Bryce and Monty never learn, Justin and Zach have heartbreaking character evolutions that are amazing to watch.  

Then we have the popular yet artsy kids (yes we are real) like Jessica (Alisha Boe) and Alex (Miles Heizer). In the second tier of the high school hierarchy are Tony (Christian Navarro), Tyler (Devin Druid), Cyrus (Bryce Cass), Ani (Grace Saif), and Winston (Deaken Bluman). Though Tony is the coolest character in the show, his peers don’t agree. Tony is the tortured James Deen type, complete with leather jacket, gelled pompadour, and cherry red 1960s Mustang.

Tony Padilla is your typical openly gay, bilingual, violent, mechanic who would kill for his friends. He’s the best-dressed character in the show and is played brilliantly by Christian Navarro. Because the show takes place during #45’s reign, Tony struggles with racism, homophobia, and his entire family getting deported by ICE.  

Tony is one of the highlights of the show that has dozens of amazing characters. As Tony says in episode, “Tape 6, Side B,” “I had a friend. Her name was Hannah. She killed herself. She left a job for me. Secrets to keep. I tried to honor her memory. I tried to keep those secrets, but I don’t think I did the right thing. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I just wanted to take care of Hannah.”

Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) is a complex and well-written character. She is the new kid at school, has a sarcastic sense of humor, and writes haunting poetry. Hannah’s parents run a small pharmacy in town and do their best to save her from a savagely brutal high school experience. Though Hannah makes many friends throughout the show, they all leave her, one by one. While the show is required to say that the story is fictional, it isn’t. There are many Hannah Bakers at schools throughout America. She is bullied, raped, teased, and forgotten. She goes to her school counselor, suggests she was raped, that she’s going to commit suicide, but he does nothing. If just one person at that school had helped her, Hannah would’ve survived.

The appeal of 13RW started with the wild popularity of its first season. The show’s first season debuted in 2017 as was one of the most binged shows on Netflix. 13RW appealed to teenagers, parents, and angsty Gen X-ers like me. It was nominated for a slew of awards due to its quality writing, acting, storytelling, and soundtrack. The show features teenagers listening to music on tapes and has one of the best soundtracks. 

The soundtrack features Billie Eilish, Selena Gomez, Juice WRLD, Joy Division, The Cure, Tears for Fears, Logic, Elton John, Gordon Lightfoot, Peter Gabriel, and Arcade Fire. While Boomers and Millennials fight on social media, Gen X and Gen Z are removed from the drama bonding over this playlist. In addition to amazing music, the show has award-winning acting, dialogue, and beautifully shot scenes.

The acting is some of the best I’ve ever seen. The show has a ton of well-written characters but mainly follows the narratives of Hannah Baker and Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette). Hannah is the main arc of the narrative, the girl who takes her own life before the show begins. Clay takes over as the main character, hell-bent on discovering the truth about his one true love, Hannah Baker.

The show is not flawless as it fails to sustain perfection for all four seasons. Much like the Scream franchise (Craven), 13RW has four parts, and part 3 is an abomination. As many Scream fans know, the first two Screams are the best, Scream 3 is a raging dumpster fire, and Scream 4 is decent. Scream 3 is what happens when you try to make a horror movie without the screenwriter (Kevin Williamson, Vampire Diaries).

13 Reasons Why, has a groundbreaking first two seasons, a terrible third season, and a really good season four. One of the strengths of 13RW is its use of a framed narrative. So many shows don’t need the premise, don’t need the frame. Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t have anything to do with a bunker or PTSD so the premise isn’t needed. And Little Fires Everywhere doesn’t have anything to do with fires. However 13RW uses its storytelling frame really well, except in season 3.

The first season of 13RW is narrated by the late Hannah Baker in a series of 13 cassette tapes. Season 2 is told in a series of Polaroids and seasons 4 is narrated by Clay Jensen, in a Fight Club Tyler Durden way. One of the problems of season 3, is the lack of narrative, plot, or characterization. Literally nothing happens in season 3. Season 3 tries to use the character, Ani as the narrator. But Ani is one of the most annoying TV characters ever written. So if you haven’t seen the show, watch seasons 1, 2, and 4. You don’t need season 3, you’ll catch up.

Season 4 is one of my favorite seasons. The writers are huge fans of Scream and Fight Club, my two favorite films. The fourth season unfolds with Scream references and Fight Club film effects. There’s even a killer who uses a voice changer to call and scare certain teens. Since my PhD graduation was canceled, the only graduation I saw this year was on 13 Reasons Why. As the anti-hero and graduation speaker, Clay Jensen gave an impassioned speech that brought me to tears. We also get to see high school seniors attack campus cops and demand that police leave schools. Since campus resources officers have caused more violence than they have prevented, it’s a great scene to watch.

Season 4 touches on the trauma of mass shooting drills. As an educator, I’ve had countless mass shooting drills. I know how to care for gunshot wounds. I’ve promised my students that I would die for them. I’ve trained students as young as six how to barricade a door against an AR-15-wielding nut-job. So it’s a relief to see gun violence depicted realistically onscreen. Outside of an Eminem music video, that’s quite rare.

So what makes this show so controversial? Why do so many people hate it?

These days, issues like depression, bullying, rape, violence, they’re all depicted in some watered down, PG-13, melodrama. Like watching The Exorcist on TV, all the important stuff is cut out. The depiction of depression in television and film is not always well done. We’ve all seen characters “overcome” their depression, throw out highly addictive benzos, and move on without thought. Depression gets portrayed as temporary, fixable, when in reality, there is no cure.  

As a Gen X writer, I grew up on gritty shows with these hard-to-swallow issues. I was raised on Beverly Hills: 90210, Degrassi, My So-Called Life. What younger generations may think are silly high school shows were actually about serious issues. In the 90s, we didn’t have trigger warnings. Before 90210, no one warned me that it was about sexual assault, suicide, bullying, violence, mass shootings, drug addiction, homelessness, the AIDS epidemic. No one told me that 90210 was about a group of Jewish kids who faced violent anti-Semitism that runs rampant in America to this day.  

No one warned me that Degrassi was about the dangers of child sex-trafficking, gun violence, sexual assault, suicide, violence against the LGBTQ+ community, Islamophobia, abusive relationships, the dark web, drug addiction, and homelessness. As a 90s kid, I was raised on these issues, so 13 Reasons Why, isn’t shocking. As someone who watches horror movies like I Spit on Your Grave, the genre of rape-revenge isn’t foreign.

But for an audience accustomed to watered-down, poorly acted shows like Riverdale, Glee, and Gossip Girl, a show that isn’t anesthetized is understandably alarming. 13RW follows the story of a dozen teenagers at Liberty High School. They struggle with real-life issues in a world of apathetic parents and clueless administrators. A brilliant depiction of Generation Z, these teens face mass shooting drills, sexting scandals, and a generation of teachers who just don’t understand.

Another issue that upset many people is the realistic depiction of depression and suicide in the show. The show has trigger warnings before and after each episode. They even created a second Netflix series called, Beyond the Reasons where the actors discuss the difficult topics and share ways to cope. The creators of the show also made a website with resources for people struggling with depression. The creators even went back and edited the first season so the scenes involving suicide weren’t as graphic. How many TV-show creators are more dedicated to raising awareness about mental illness than our country’s government?

Many people were upset about how depression among teenagers is portrayed in the show. The people who were upset, were, shockingly, not teenagers with depression. Parents, psychologists, and educators banded together to argue that depression shouldn’t be portrayed realistically on TV. These Boomers think that depression should be sugar-coated, watered-down, ignored.

Why not depict severe depression as it really is?

For many people, severe depression damages personal relationships, the ability to complete schoolwork, hold down a job, have any semblance of a normal life. I’m not saying there’s no hope. If you have depression, anxiety, PTSD, really if you’re struggling with anything, there is hope. There are ways to manage mental illness, there are resources, and there are a million reasons why you should keep fighting. But pretending that depression is just dying your hair and listening to Joy Division doesn’t help.

There is hope, there is a reason to fight, and for anyone struggling with depression right now, please stay. Please don’t give up. There’s no cure for depression but there is a way to live with it. While many people have treatment-resistant depression, antidepressants aren’t the only way to cope. Countless others improve their lives with therapy, supportive friends and family, faith, doctors. But we’re not moving the conversation forward by pretending depression is temporary.  

In the U.S. suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students (Taub & Thompson, 2013). Nearly one-third of college students seriously consider suicide at some point (Rodriguez & Huertas, 2013). Only 14 states in the U.S. require colleges to have suicide prevention (“State Laws: Suicide Prevention,” 2016). We live in a country that has no real suicide prevention hotline. That number you see people sharing? It’s not a real hotline.

You call that number, get put on hold, then they tell you where the nearest ER is, that’s it. There’s no evidence that the “suicide hotline” saves lives (Kazden, 2018). There’s more evidence to suggest it causes more harm (Kazden, 2018). Sharing the “suicide hotline” is triggering for people with suicidal ideation and so is being put on hold just to be told to go to the ER. If you need help now, text the Crisis Help Hotline at 741-741, to talk to a trained volunteer.

Unlike the “suicide hotline” which limits calls to 5 minutes, the Crisis Help Hotline permits people to text with trained volunteers for up to 45 minutes. And unlike the fake “hotline.” researchers will follow up with you to make sure you’re okay. If you’re one of those people blindly sharing the “suicide hotline” on social media because you want to look “woke” don’t. Know the warning signs, reach out to friends and family, be there.  

At the end of the day, this show isn’t for everyone. You may not want to watch it alone. But if you’re a 90s kid or you just like good writing, acting, and music, check it out. I leave you now with the powerful words of Clay Jensen.

“School actually is life or death. We show up every day not knowing if this is the day we die. If this is the day someone shows up with a gun and tries to kill us all … I suffer from anxiety and depression. How could we not, with the world the way it is? We hear a lot of promises that things will get better. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. What I’ve learned, is whatever happens, keep moving. Get through it. Choose to live. ‘Cause even on the worst day, there are people who love you. Even on the worst day, life is pretty spectacular.”

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