The book Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher has been on my radar for a long time, and I still haven't read it, but the internet has been buzzing since the series adaptation premiered on Netflix recently, so at the very least, I decided that I wanted to watch it, even though normally I like to read the book first.
The basic story is that the students of Liberty High School are reeling from the suicide of fellow student Hannah Baker, including Clay Jensen, who was her coworker and friend, and who also had a crush on her. About a week after her death, Clay receives a mysterious box full of cassette tapes: before her death, Hannah had decided to record herself discussing the 13 reasons - specifically, people and incidents - that had slowly eroded away all her hope, self-esteem, and will to live, resulting in her decision to take her own life. The box is meant to make its way around to all 13 people whom she discusses on those tapes, and Clay, it seems, is one of those 13, and the story follows him as he makes his way through them.
It's a heavy and troubling indictment on bullying, high school jock culture, and rape culture. And it is unflinching in its portrayal of that side of teen life that we all know exists, but don't like to think about, and the unfortunate cluelessness of adults (all adults - parents, teachers, counselors, etc.). As a parent and as a former high school teacher, I found myself constantly questioning my own level of awareness as I watched the series (which I blitzed through in about 24 hours). Edited to add: By the way, there are scenes that may be potentially triggering (violence, sexual assault, suicide), and while the episodes themselves offer content warnings, I also want to note the presence of such scenes here as well, and I recommend that you proceed with caution.
I have to comment on how fantastically racially-diverse the cast is. And, again, I haven't read the book, so I don't know what sorts of descriptions Asher used in his text, but I noticed that all the characters have Anglicized names, even if they were played by POC actors, so my inclination is to believe that they just went ahead and made the conscious decision to cast POC in roles that could've/would've easily gone to white actors, since we are all conditioned to imagine characters as white in the absence of particular racial signifiers in the book descriptions (and even when there ARE descriptions). In the hands of any other crew, this show could've been all white people, but it wasn't, and I was sooooooooooooo happy about that. I think I almost crowed with joy. And you know what? The names not "matching" the faces didn't bother me. It didn't take me out of the story at all. In fact, the only thing that "took me out" of the story was just my incredible, pleasant surprise at the diversity, because for the first time, I was watching something where the racial breakdown pretty closely resembled what I might actually see at the school I used to work at. (And in fact, from what I could see, this fictional school had a more diverse faculty and staff than the one I actually worked at.) So this was fantastically amaaaaaaaaaaaazing to me. And out of all the characters, there was maybe only one who felt like a little bit of a stereotype (racially? culturally?), but considering his role in the story, and how he's also one of the "good" characters, I could understand it. (Though it is not my place to co-sign it or say it was "fine." It just is what it is.)
Also, while there is a pretty clear message that no one (not even Clay) is a totally "good" character, there is maybe only one character who appears to be totally "bad." Everyone in the story, including Hannah herself, resides in the gray area, and that's important too. One of the common themes of the story is that you can never really know what's going on in someone else's life, and this is applicable to all the kids involved, no matter how unsympathetic we might find them. (Again, except for maybe one.) It doesn't excuse their actions, but it helps you understand where the bad behavior, entitlement, enabling, and jockeying for position comes from - which is to say, from somewhere. A person doesn't just wake up and decide to be cruel; usually, it comes from a history of other negative factors.
And of course, the main point is that a person doesn't just wake up and decide to take her own life - this series shines a spotlight on what happens when there is just too much straw falling too quickly onto the camel's back. And how everyone around her played some sort of role in letting that straw fall, some in small pieces and others in truckloads.
Netflix is calling this season 1 - I'm not sure how much story there is in the book beyond getting through the 13 reasons, so I'm wondering if they are branching into more original (as in, non-adapted) storylines for future episodes. Regardless, I'm definitely going to keep watching. It's been a long time since a tv series has had me so hooked (because usually that's what books do!), so I can't wait to see more.
PS - Whoever the music director is for this series... ARE YOU ME???
- Not one, but TWO Joy Division songs. Although, one was a cover, and the other was "Love Will Tear Us Apart," which, come on, that's the one people ALWAYS use, so whatever
- "Fascination Street" by the Cure???
- Elliott Smith's cover of Big Star's "Thirteen"???
- A breathy girl cover of Neil Young???
Plus a whole slew of 80s- and 90s-inspired stuff, which is TOTALLY MY BAG, BABY. It's like, did you climb inside my first-generation iPod or something for this show? I kind of heart you.