Apr 3, 2017

Channel Surfing: 13 Reasons Why - "Tape 1, Side A"

Scene from 13 Reasons Why
Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
The idea of basing a show around a teenage suicide seems like a risky premise. For one, it could be seen as insensitive if mishandled. It could also be seen as melodramatic pandering if the show plays up the typical heightened emotions of a misunderstood teenager. It's all of a roadblock to checking out Netflix's latest series 13 Reasons Why, which turns a tale of suicide into a 13 episode exploration of why she fell victim to depression. It's symbolized through a series of tapes, all recorded as an interactive experience for whoever finds them. In this case, it it is classmate Clay (Dylan Minnette) who takes up the task of listening to those 13 tapes to understand the mystery of this quiet girl named Hannah (Katherine Langford).
One of the reasons that 13 Reasons Why has some promise is from producer and director Tom McCarthy, who most recently won a Best Picture Oscar for Spotlight. It's his first major project in the years since the newspaper drama received acclaim. While this is based off of a book by Jay Asher, there's a certain journalistic quality to its novel approach. With a very simple format, it unveils the details of Hannah's life. Clay walks through his neighborhood while seeing details that he never noticed before. Her life becomes so familiar that the audience soon transcends Clay's presence and experiences something deeper. Hannah could be someone that the viewer knows. She is so human and lacking stereotypical angst that she manages to escalate above her limited visual presence on the show.
The impact that the show will have is relevant to how connected the viewer is to emotional struggles. While it is in part a detective series, it is more of an understanding of how depression forms from its raw roots. While it's a very personal moment, it also comes from the people that Hanna has surrounded herself with. The details early on aren't clear, but knowing the end game would suggest that some deceit is around the corner. It's impossible to not wonder what clues are laid bare before the audience. Even if the show may seem familiar, its approach to explaining its universal theme is the one key to making it an exciting show. It manages to revel in character moments, and Langford's ability to give an enthusiastic performance largely through speech. You understand the unseen by the first hour's end. You want to watch on and discover what lies ahead. It's the perfect cliffhanger, and one that works as a gimmick.
There should be some concern for those who binge watched this show over the weekend. It is, after all, a depressing subject matter. However, 13 Reasons Why has managed to hit a cross section of audiences that regularly watch the streaming service. It's a mystery show as well as an unabashed teenage show that revels in the angst familiar to those who age along with the characters. It may at times be slow and often stereotypical, but it's still an engaging series that tries to present important information in a new and exciting way. It may not hit the sweet spot that Riverdale currently is achieving, but it still has a perplexing promise to those willing to give it a chance.
Much like the episode's end, there's a question as to whether the audience will continue along the journey. Despite being one continual story, its "Side A" and "Side B" approach feels like a dare to watch them out of order, to understand Hanna's story in innovative ways. What also helps is that the story helps us understand Clay better. He is just as unsure in his grieving as Hanna was in life. The show's gimmick manages to be exceeded by its ability to tell an engaging story that paints a new light on teen angst while also showing innovative ways to make TV series (or miniseries?) in this modern day and age. 13 Reasons Why may be a niche show that will be hard for those who like happiness to watch, but it's still one with desire to be important - and that's a great thing to be.

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