13 Reasons Why review sex, drugs and mixtapes in Netflix’s high-school horror show

This unflinching teen mystery is like Lord of the Flies meets Heathers, and it may have achieved the impossible being the first Netflix series too bleak to binge

With expert handling, high school dramas comfortably earn their place in the TV canon. Its been 20 years since Buffy, and its central conceit that adolescence is, literally, a horror show stands up today, although the teenage experience has shifted to an unfathomable degree since 1997. Similarly, My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks continue to be relatable, even though the smartest phone they had to be concerned with was fixed to the kitchen wall. Theres a rich seam of action to be found in the melodrama of school corridors, and Netflixs latest, 13 Reasons Why, attempts to portray almost every aspect of it.

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A grim concoction of misdemeanours theres a cumulative horror of all these woeful scenarios happening to one girl. Photograph: Beth Dubber/Netflix

Its based on a 2007 YA novel by Jay Asher, and the central premise is bleak: a 17-year-old girl, Hannah Baker, has killed herself. She leaves behind 13 sides of cassette tape, on which she has narrated the wrongdoings of those around her. Each side concerns the actions of one of her acquaintances; they are supposed to listen, then pass the tapes to the next person, in order to learn what theyve done, and so that it never has to happen again. Hannah is a martyr of teen angst. We see her tragedy unfold over two timelines, with flashbacks of how it all came to be, and a present-day story in which Clay (supposedly the nerdy, Star Wars-loving kid, with a jaw carved out of stone) attempts to unravel and then avenge the mystery.

Rather than listen to the tapes all at once, Clay takes his time over it, confronting those whose secrets are revealed as he discovers their part in it. This works to the benefit of the 13-episode structure, but drags it out for the viewer, in part because it becomes repetitive. There is a grim concoction of misdemeanours, from bullying to voyeurism, sexual assault to a fatal car crash, all against a backdrop of sex, drugs and nostalgic mixtapes.

There is plenty to admire and its aims are undoubtedly ambitious. Dylan Minnette, who plays Clay, handles a tough role with sensitivity and resists the urge to overegg it; Clays struggle to cope with what has happened is one of the more complex diversions in the story. The portrait of grief that Greys Anatomys Kate Walsh conjures up as Hannahs mother is devastating and, at times, hard to watch. While this does not necessarily make it a pleasurable viewing experience, the fact that its unflinchingly awful think Lord of the Flies, The Secret History and Heathers mixed up in a Californian high school has some power. Its particularly brave in its depiction of the behaviour of young men, both towards girls and with each other, and if its intended audience comes away with a recognition that this is not normal, and does not have to be normal, that can only be a positive.

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Though it is funny, at times, it is largely one-note and that note is horrifying Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford as Clay and Hannah. Photograph: Beth Dubber/Netflix

But its unfortunate that a show so concerned with the catastrophic effects of misogyny doesnt manage to avoid some pitfalls of its own. The decision to depict rape graphically, and not briefly, either, was obviously taken with the intention of insisting we witness its brutality; personally, I found it to tip towards the gratuitous. Likewise a storyline that suggests the love of a sweet boy might have sorted all this out added to an uneasy feeling that stayed with me that this was more about boys than girls, even though the ruined life of a girl is at its centre. I wonder about its handling of suicide, which again is depicted graphically; one of the adult characters says theres never really any way of knowing why Hannah did what she did, and I found myself on his side in that, even though I dont think that is what were being led to feel.

Its also one of those Netflix moments where binge-watching is not beneficial. In the end, the cumulative horror of all these woeful scenarios happening to one girl feels overblown if you watch it in bulk, though I imagine it would have been far more effective in the old way of teasing out the mystery with one instalment a week.

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Uneasily, this is a show that seems to be more about boys than girls, even though the ruined life of a girl is at its centre 13 Reasons Why. Photograph: Beth Dubber/Netflix

Unlike Stranger Things, its appeal is likely to be limited to the age group of those whose lives it depicts; I would be surprised if it lands with adults in the way that it is clearly expected to with teenagers. Though it is funny, at times Have you ever heard of the male gaze? / Were not entirely sure what it means, but we think you have it it lacks the crossover wit of its forebears (though there are nods to its heritage, with a cameo from Wilson Cruz, My So-Called Lifes Ricky, and some shots reminiscent of Heathers). Its too tied up in conveying the message that terrible behaviour can have horrible consequences to deal in any subtleties or shades of feeling. Its largely one-note and that note is horrifying. It has to get better, implores one student towards the end, but given its fairly open ending, an apparent season two setup, it does not seem as if theres much chance of that happening.

13 Reasons Why is on Netflix now. In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/mar/31/13-reasons-why-review-sex-drugs-and-mixtapes-in-netflix-high-school-horror-show