Here’s something ironic: One of the shows that could be the easiest to take for granted this season could very well be the one about a teenage girl who kills herself because she was taken for granted.
As if the storylines of series such as American Crime and Shots Fired haven’t already ensured that political and social commentary is the dominant TV trend of 2017, there’s the plethora of standalone episodes on other shows that make it known, in no uncertain terms, that no one in these writers’ rooms would have ever voted for Donald Trump.
But Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why is about perhaps the most bipartisan topic of all: high school. And if that isn’t enough for it not to be taken seriously, Selena Gomez is a producer and the marketing campaign billboards feature a skinny stripling sporting a Walkman. (Admittedly, the title does us no favors, as it kind of sounds to the ill-informed like either a Kate Hudson rom-com or a short-lived Heather Graham comedy series.)
So why does this coming-of-age mystery deserve a place at the adults’ table? If you’re asking that question, then you’re part of the problem.
13 Reasons Why, which premiered March 31 and is based on author Jay Asher’s young adult bestseller, is about what happens when the bullying, sexting, betrayed friendships, doublespeak conversations, and sheer loneliness of high-school hell get too much for teenager Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) that she ultimately takes her own life.
But Hannah wasn’t going down without naming some names. Her suicide note comes in the form of audio recordings, in which she recounts exactly what (and who) led her to fall into this pit of hopelessness. The finger pointing and slut shaming among the accused evolves into such a frenzy that alliances are formed and friends turn on each other—all under the watchful eye of Clay Jensen, an outsider with a penchant for dumb boy cluelessness: saying the inappropriate, lacking the social awareness to understand when a girl wants to date him. Played by Dylan Minnette (who is best known for his role as Jerry Grant, an unfortunate pawn in Papa Pope’s warfare on Scandal), Clay is both the slowest listener to audio recordings ever and teenager least aware of what he did to hurt Hannah. As Clay becomes a vigilante to save the girl it’s too late to rescue, he doesn’t realize that these two traits mean he could also be the survivor of her casualty who has the most to lose.
While it’s easy to get wrapped up in the gossipy (and eventual) unraveling of Hannah’s postmortem cryptogram, the message of 13 Reasons Why is that everyone—no matter if they were on the tapes or not—had a chance to save Hannah from herself, even the adults. Her parents, played by Kate Walsh and Brian d’Arcy James, were too worried about money and how to keep their tiny family-run pharmacy afloat after the arrival of a big-box chain to notice the warning signs. And Gilmore Girls alum Keiko Agena’s well-meaning, if misguided, communications instructor unknowingly accentuates problems when she turns Hannah’s stolen, private poems into classroom conversations instead of seeing them as cries for help.
In the aftermath of her suicide, parents and teachers are too busy questioning how they didn’t see this coming or believing that their families are above such anguish to see what’s brewing among the remaining students.
Save for a few outliers like Kimiko Glenn’s Brook Soso on Orange is the New Black, drawn-out dissections of what lead to suicide is not something we see often on TV. Perhaps the closest recent example to the catalyst of 13 Reasons Why is Desperate Housewives. There, Brenda Strong’s Mary Alice Young shoots herself in the first episode and leaves her friends and neighbors to ponder the conundrum of what, exactly, she did that was so bad to warrant abandoning and scaring her family with such a surprising and heinous action.
This all makes 13 Reasons Why more serious than much of today’s young adult fare. It shouldn’t simply be compared to, say, Riverdale—another teen series that involves the secrets surrounding the death of a small-town kid who outsiders thought had it all together. The CW’s adaptation of the Archie comics certainly has a place in the zeitgeist, but that has more to do with its snarky dialogue, characters supersaturated in pop culture and inconceivable plot twists than anything of real substance. (Fun fact: Watch out for actor Ross Butler playing a letterman-jacketed simpleton in both series).
Instead, 13 Reason Why the latest in a long line of shows in this genre that have struggled to be taken seriously. Beverly Hills, 90210 gave us frank looks at rape, gun safety, mental illness and even breast cancer. Among its other groundbreaking developments, My So-Called Life is still remembered for its portrayal of a young and fabulous gay character on early ‘90s TV who wasn’t stricken with AIDS.
13 Reasons Why is certainly not perfect. Like the book on which it’s based, one has to wonder exactly why a tale about a girl’s tragic death has to be told predominantly from the point of view of a boy. And there is a legitimate worry that Hannah’s actions could glamorize suicide as the ultimate “I’ll show them” act of rebellion. But there is something that should not be a problem: The book has been taken to task online by some readers, who contend that Hannah’s decision to go through with such an act doesn’t reflect their own experience with mental illness.
She would have. And I say this as someone who knows.
A survivor of teen bullying myself, I have a distinct memory of standing in my room and considering a similar solution to the one Hannah took before quickly deciding I didn’t want to give any satisfaction to the friends who’d abandoned me. Even typing this now, nearly 20 years after the fact, fills me with such an intensely guarded vulnerability and hypersensitivity to others’ most likely innocent comments and actions that I have rewritten this sentence at least three times to ensure I’ve made my message as air-tight as possible. The gratitude I feel for not having to go through this in the digital age is met with equal sadness for those who do.
The series 13 Reasons Why comes years after the hype over the It Gets Better Project, the nonprofit that Dan Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, started in 2010 to dissuade (gay) teens from committing suicide. While this may no longer be the topic de jour for news headlines, Netflix’s series reminds us why it is one that should always be in the back of the mind of anyone who interacts with young adults. A 2015 study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 15-34 years and that 17% of students in ninth through 12th grade “seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous 12 months.”
If you are one of these people, or anyone else who is suffering similar peril, get help and find someone who will listen. If you want to understand what would cause some people to hurt themselves and help prevent them from going through with it, watch 13 Reasons Why.