13 Reasons Why will get a third season. I really wish it wouldn’t.
By WOODFORD CHEN
Content warning: This article discusses suicide
The second season begins five months after the events of the first and, honestly, it’s hard to tell what has changed. Those affected by the Hannah Baker’s (Katherine Langford) tapes are under her phantom thumb, Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) is trying to deal with her death and high school is terrible. Please stop me if this all sounds familiar to you.
This leads me and many others to question why exactly why this season needs to exist. The show is still trapped between the roles of educator and entertainer, the former of which the show takes on willingly. A spin off show, entitled Beyond the Reasons attempts to discuss the issues within the series with experts and the writing staff of the show.
The show received criticism last season for the way it depicted suicide, with many claiming it glorified Hannah baker for the power that she held after her death. In a conversation between Clay and the school principal, the show tries to respond to its criticism.
“Kids get talking about Hannah, maybe even admiring what she did, they might think somehow that this is an answer. It might be a way for other kids to feel their pain, that they could live on after they die.”
“Where on her tapes does Hannah say that?”
“Well, whoever posted her tapes online seems to believe exactly that, that her story should go on forever”
“Maybe they just wanted to start a conversation. We weren’t talking about these things before Hannah.”
“Of course, we were, in counselling sessions, in health classes.”
“That’s not talking, that’s telling.”
The conversation is an encapsulation of 13 Reasons Why’s worldview. It seems to think that the only way to talk about issues is to invite them into every aspect of our lives. That the only way to talk about violence is to shove it our faces and hold our eyes open. The show is trying to frame itself as about the Real Things that teenagers go through, but at the same time it’s written like a horror movie set in a high school. Kids are bullied and blackmailed everyday, sexual violence is present at every moment, and the kids are helpless as the adults simply watch, unaware. 13 Reasons Why is not a documentary, no, but when the show itself is claiming its “trying to start a conversation,” that claim must be paired with some sense of responsibility.
It tires you out emotionally and leaves a feeling of dullness as you watch yet another fist land or another rape occur. This is not to say that these things don’t occur within high schools, but the barrage that 13 Reasons Why presents is relentless, and pretty much its only trick. Outside of that, the show is frustrating, repetitive, and for the most part, poorly written. When it tries to lighten up with a sweet moment, it’s often ham-fisted, cheesy, and a little too neat. Some of the characters border on being cartoonish, the main villain is a stereotypical jock who was defrosted from an 80’s movie with a one-dimensional love for three things: babes, beer and football.
Brian Yorkey, the creator of the show, in an interview with Vulture, defending yet another graphic scene said “when we talk about something being ‘disgusting’ or hard to watch, often that means we are attaching shame to the experience… this is why victims have a hard time seeking help. We believe that talking about it is so much better than silence.”
It’s scary to think exactly what the producers think ‘talking’ looks like. Because their version of starting a dialogue is the presentation of misery. As I think more and more about the show, their talking seems frustratingly close to telling. Telling viewers that high school really is the hellhole some people make it out to be. That you will face unavoidable violence, that bullying is completely rampant, that people will do unspeakable acts of cruelty, and that it never really ends. Every nice moment is undercut by some sort of tragedy or dark consequence.
13 Reasons Why seems to think that to present something is enough. That if you show toxic masculinity, and call it toxic masculinity, that’s enough. That if you show sexual assault, that’s enough. The show lazily presents these images and says, now at least we’re talking about it.
It’s disappointing given that the show can handle the nuance when it takes a slower pace and doesn’t rely on shock value. In the highlight of the season, a character must process their assault and its effects, the recovery process is slow, messy, includes backslides, and unfolds over several episodes. When 13 Reasons Why stops with the theatrics, stops just showing horror, there is some potential for nuanced, smart, empathetic depictions of the big issues it claims to be about. However, even then, the show overloads itself on all the big issues. This season takes on topics such as drug addiction, anger management, and male entitlement, but the show is too busy still dealing with the bigger themes of sexual assault and bullying to give them the attention they deserve.
It’s immensely clever the way that the producers frame the show as the beginning of a conversation, allowing them to dodge any expectation to produce a coherent answer to any of the issues the show tries to deal with. At the same time, without providing answers, the show feels incoherent, untethered to any kind of statement other than people are cruel.
It doesn’t function as effective PSA, it doesn’t function well as entertainment either, it just seems to take up nebulous space, and I guess for the producers, that’s dialogue.