13 Reasons Why (TV Review): An Agonizing Quest For A Ruthless Truth

By: Marwan Omar (A Toast) –

Calendars marked March 31st as when the best just got better. Last month, Netflix released their new series that (not surprisingly) went viral within days of its release. As is Netflix’s force of habit, this new series maintained the constant level of quality art they always keep exporting, adding to their fine library of series a new dark teenage-centered masterpiece that worthily earned all that attention; 13 Reasons Why.

Recently, adapting teenage novels to movies or series turned has been a risky business after not-so-impressive adaptations of novels such as If I Stay and Paper Towns. Avoiding conventionality while developing 13 Reasons Why as a series was pretty challenging, but by the time you get through only 20 minutes of the first episode, and feel deeply thankful that Netflix won’t make you wait an entire week for the new episode, you know Brian Yorkey, the creator of the series, has already nailed the challenge.

What makes any teen movie or series successful is good character development and how well the script is written, relating it to that period in our lives. Movies like Mean Girls, Easy A, and Edge of Seventeen had that recognizability, and so they reached out to people and people loved them. 13 Reasons Why is no different, but even better. Its content has surpassed some of the previously mentioned movies’ general ideas, with new angles on the feelings of awkwardness, joy, jealousy, selfishness, and confusion from this period, crafted in a dusky atmosphere of mystery and thrills that’s an uncommon integration with such a genre.

13 Reasons Why starts with a shot of a girl’s locker  in a school with her picture on it embraced by sticky flowers and letters from her fellow students to her. Yes, this girl is who the series is based upon; Hannah Baker, a dead girl who had 13 reasons to end her life, leaving behind a box of cassette tapes of her talking to the 13 peers who she blamed for her suicide. This box is passed among all her friends who had something to do with her committing this incident, including (surprisingly) Clay; the shy and decent guy who was her schoolmate and co-worker.

(Episode One Opening Scene)

You may find it hard to believe that 13 Reasons Why is Yorkey’s artistic debut. The man skillfully used all his tools to imbue his series with an exceptional mood of melancholy, sustaining its rhythms along Hannah’s 13 stories over 13 episodes through realistic, well-crafted, and strongly-related teenage stories and excellent connections between our characters, the Liberty High School students, which involves the audience in their community, life, thoughts, and actions, turning back time to our high school days, but in the darkest, most evil way possible.

A Toast

“Smart” is the right word for how Brian Yorkey introduces the series characters, and “Profound” regarding their backgrounds. Apart from Hannah and Clay, characters are presented patiently, like a puzzle. You won’t understand their motives at first, but as the plot proceeds and the puzzle pieces come together, we have dug deep and well enough into each one of them to love, sympathize, or hate them to the extent of throwing objects at the screen displaying their faces. The fact that 13 types of teenagers are presented in precise detail, each through one-hour episodes, provides this series with an intimidating, unique diversity in portraying such characters and their ugliest sides like never before, affecting viewers who can’t help but get attached.

Yorkey’s approach doesn’t change in introducing plot events. He has control over the threads of his narrative, which is clear through his deploying of short, unexplained dialogue and scenes in the first episodes that aren’t unwrapped until the last minutes of the series, resulting in a strong bond between the episodes. In addition to that, his way of smoothly playing with the factor of time to tell the story was one of the best things in the entire series. Those transitions at crucial moments taking us back and forth through just a word or a shake of a camera to events happening in the same place but in a different time are absolutely wonderful, not to mention the huge role they play in building strong drama. These flashbacks also include some noticeable usage of colors, marking the sorrowful present with a domination of pale gray and blue, versus colors conveying the feeling of warmth emitted in the scenes preceding Hannah’s death, when she was still alive, or at least trying to be.

During the thorough presentation of our main characters’ backgrounds, attention was paid to the smallest details, and a blind eye wasn’t turned to the parents who majorly contributed to this tragedy. The increasing gap between parents and children nowadays has light shed on it thorough the different types of parents presented in the episodes; those who don’t know anything about their kids’ lives, those who don’t know, but they think they know, and those who don’t care to know. Like the overall flow of the series, this issue was truthfully introduced as if you’re reading a teenager’s diary.

What initially raised the expectations for 13 Reasons Why was its main idea; a rare chance to get to know about one’s life (including your interactions with him/her) from his/her perspective, and now the interest was automatically doubled when this person is beneath the ground, dead. Hannah’s tapes were the gateway to get to know more about her prior to her death, and enabled her to be our narrator after her death.  Yorkey’s selection of certain scenes to be escorted by Hannah’s voice carried beneath it some of the gloomiest messages through small details that did serve the purpose of the product, but didn’t have mercy on our souls.

“Some people are born with tragedy in their blood.” – a summary to Hannah Baker’s life from the movie Donnie Darko. In all episodes, expressions of treachery and pain almost didn’t have any better place to be but on her face. Despite the suffering she faced, she got up every time trying harder to get over her intangible aches, with only her hope that life might get better, and just then pain finds her again.

Hannah Baker, a girl who kept standing, fighting till the last moment. Hannah Baker, a human being who you’ll be deeply touched by her continuous attempts to withstand the ruining of her soul, heart, and reputation from her heartless community. You’ll be affected by her continuous efforts to stand up and just be, in spite of people letting her down, and your heart will be smashed up to pieces by the end of her several trials to find her place in the world, finishing her life’s journey in bathtub, with her wrists cut, alone.

(Katherine Langford as Hannah)

All previously mentioned factors would have made a good piece of art, but that “Good” wouldn’t have changed to be “Great!” without the outstanding performance of the actors.

13 Reasons Why, Mother of Debuts! Like creator, like actress, Katherine Langford plays the role of Hannah in her first artistic experience, and if she so outstandingly succeeded in performing such a hard and complicated role in her first ever project, what are we supposed to expect from this talent in a few years?

Katherine Langford performing Hannah succeeded in many ways. She succeeded in fitting the size of the role, convincing the audience that she, being Hannah, is worthy to be the center of attention of the whole series. She succeeded in personifying Hannah Baker and displaying her emotions that were there all the time she was on screen. And finally she succeeded in moving our feelings and attracting our sympathy towards her. With good choices in her future roles, Katherine Langford really could be America’s future Sweet Heart.

(Dylan Minnette as Clay)

From the moment you see him, you can’t imagine Clay to be but a nice and peaceful boy, and what keeps you eager to finish one episode after another without keeping track of time is the one goal of reaching his tape and seeing how he could have harmed Hannah Baker to be included among her tapes.  Clay; the decent man in an indecent time.

In the beginning of the series, Clay accompanies us until the rules are set and the mission is known, and remains our companion through the episodes while we get involved more in Hannah’s life. He, by always imagining Hannah around the corner and recalling her during the flashbacks’ transitions, participates hugely in the creation of drama concerning the various possibilities and dozen of actions that could’ve saved Hannah, if only one was made at the right time. Such scenes create a quality and sensational romance between Hannah and Clay and, despite being few in number, were definitely there to wreck our hearts and make our tears flow. The theme of “imagine what if” that dominates their scenes is absolutely moving.

You probably have recognized Dylan Minnette (who performed Clay) from previous Hollywood movies like Prisoners and Don’t Breathe, which don’t feature as much of a chance to show off using his acting skills.  Impressively, it’s clear he saw his chance with 13 Reasons Why and bravely went for it. His best moments on screen are with Hannah, and him showing us his rising confusion and his character’s transformation by hearing the tapes of the others shows us how tough it is to know about the hidden side of people, and that sometimes it’s a privilege to be unaware of things. It’s a great performance by Dylan and I’m sure if he chose to go for more mature roles, he’ll be just as great.

Along with Hannah and Clay, all the acting crew of the series was in its top form. All of the high school students, the school workers, and the parents were as good as they needed to be, but a special shout out has to go to the Bakers (Hannah’s parents), whose emotions were very real concerning what happened, what’s happening, and their fear of what’s going to happen. Finally, I don’t want to forget to mention how perfect the song selection is, and how beautiful the endings of the episodes are, elegantly introducing the episode to follow.

Verdict

13 Reasons Why is considered among the darkest movies and series that have dealt with high school life and teenage confusion. It painfully tells how interactions at this era can change who we are, how we deal with change to save what’s remaining of our old selves, and the effect of this on others.

If you find the action of finishing an entire series in few days or hours odd, then by the time you end of 13 Reasons Why, you’ll probably take another look at this theory when you find yourself having finished the first season in a day, with the name Hannah Baker stuck in your ear for days to come.

About Marwan Omar

A fitness enthusiast, a traveler, and a computer engineer, with a passion for art and Real Madrid, who if asked, “what’s a movie to you?” would probably say that finishing a book you love gives you chills, listening to quality music triggers overwhelming pleasure, and watching a movie is a unique compound of both.

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