I’m going to break format today to talk about the recent release of the second season of the Netflix high school tragedy 13 Reasons Why. I do this first because no one is going to read this after my Ancient Aliens review goes up later today, and also because I have retained an affection for the high school genre since my first job after college an astonishing fifteen years ago (!) was working as a TV recapper analyzing episodes of the Fox high school soap opera The O.C. during its first season in 2003. Although it has been fifteen years, that series casts a long shadow, and I was surprised to discover how the new season of 13 Reasons seems to exists in conversation with the older show in a surprising way.
Here I will issue the customary warning that I will discuss details of the show’s plot, so refrain from reading until you have watched both seasons, if you intend to do so.
The first season of 13 Reasons was a somewhat faithful adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 YA novel of the same name, and it focused on the suicide of a teen girl and the grief felt by those left behind. The TV series was blamed for inspiring teenagers to attempt suicide, and it was not entirely successful in what it attempted to do. The subject matter was troubling—including sexual assault, bullying, and many other high school secrets, and I admit that I found it difficult to parse my rival reactions to the show. I found the story to be largely distasteful, particularly in the way it seemed to wallow in misery, but I also found the young cast, led by Dylan Minnette, whom regular readers will remember from my review of the crappy horror movie The Open House a few months ago, as Clay and Katherine Langford as the suicidal Hannah were compelling, often in spite of the material they were given to play. This was especially true for Brandon Flynn as Justin, whose nuanced acting choices as a jock from an abusive home cut against the source material and, at times, the script, and partially redeemed a character structurally set up as to be a villain, albeit a conflicted one.
The upshot, though, of fielding actors who are better than the material is that their work undercuts the intended message, and the first season was dark but compelling drama that never entirely remembered the potential impact it might have on the teenagers watching it. The harsh but honest approach to very serious problems was, in general terms, mature, but the structure of the series and the generally beatific attitude of Langford risked glamorizing death.
The second season really ought not to have existed at all, since the first had exhausted the source material and seemingly had nowhere to go. I’ll repeat that for emphasis: This is not good television, or necessary television, however compelling it might be. The writers and producers thought differently, and they made some strange but interesting decisions, based in large measure on the actors’ relative strengths. The late Gene Siskel once said that the test of a good movie is whether it is better than a documentary of the same actors eating lunch. I am not sure how I would answer here. Langford is given little to do and offers little in return. Minnette is always an earnest presence, but his performance tends to be measured and emotionally cool. By contrast, Flynn’s performance is deeply emotional, and conveys vulnerability wordlessly. The producers clearly saw this, since the second season effectively transforms Flynn’s Justin into the show’s emotional center and its hero. What intrigues me is that this occurs despite the writers’ efforts to formally structure the show around Minnette’s Clay, who performs the actions of the protagonist without experiencing any of the emotional growth or redemptive arc of a hero. I find it fascinating when the formal mechanics of the script are in so much tension with what the actors and the directors have made of them.
The plot centers on a lawsuit brought by Hannah’s parents against the school district for failing to prevent Hannah’s suicide. Each episode is framed by the testimony of a different student from the first season. The trial, such as it is, seems to follow no court procedure I’ve ever seen, and bizarrely it transforms into a rape trial partway through, when the characters try to salvage victory by demonstrating that the villainous jock Bryce, played by Justin Prentice, who has made a specialty of the entitled asshole role, had raped more than one girl and also Hannah.
Despite this formal structure, the major through-line of the season revolves around Clay’s efforts to compel Justin to testify against Bryce, his one-time best friend. Clay finds Justin living on the streets, using heroin to escape his feelings of guilt and his abusive home. Clay brings Justin home with him and helps him to detox from heroin. The young men grow close over the course of the season, despite Clay’s reluctance to open himself emotionally and Justin’s crippling belief that he doesn’t deserve to be loved. While the season is structured to lead to a formal climax at Hannah’s memorial service, the true emotional turning point of the season occurs when Justin tries to run away only to give up his plan when Clay texts him to say that he needs him, and the two boys realize that they have bonded. Justin’s arc swings upward, but Clay passes him on his downward, if insufficiently motivated, descent into madness. The writers do a nice job structuring the end of the season as a mirror of the beginning. Near the end of the season, when Clay falls into suicidal despair because he can’t escape the ghost of Hannah, Justin shows up unexpectedly to talk him down and save his life, just as Clay had saved him. Justin sacrifices his new home and his freedom to report Bryce’s rape, which sees him arrested as an accessory but fully the show’s hero. At the end of the season, when Clay tells Justin that his parents have agreed (somewhat improbably) to adopt him and they can be brothers, it is genuinely moving, and the closest this show allows to a happy ending.
The other plot threads have varying degrees of success, mostly because the writers gave the characters only an episode or two of growth to spread over thirteen episodes. One boy who tried to commit suicide last season gradually gets better thanks to a growing friendship with a sensitive jock. The girl Bryce raped remains traumatized but discovered that she could smile again. Clay’s gay best friend from last season basically gets sidelined into a minor romance and might as well not be there. (You’d think he’d be a bit upset that Justin has replaced him.) The creepy yearbook photographer befriends an outsider Goth and reenacts a good chunk of the Columbine school shooting template. The Asian lesbian has just enough screen time to count as a cast member, but has no plot of her own. Honestly, I found most of these stories less than compelling, mostly because they moved slowly, rarely changed notes, and basically swirled around the main story until the end.
Against my impression, though, contrast Jen Chaney’s review at The Vulture. She watched the same episodes and saw a completely different story. She barely made mention of the plot thread I read as central to the narrative, viewing the series through a different set of characters. There is a thesis in there somewhere about the way demography and biography shape the experience of narrative.
You’ll notice that very few girls show up in my discussion. For a show built around a girl’s tragic death and around the victims of sexual assault, it is frankly bizarre that the show’s second season is thematically centered on male friendships and the social forces that limit or pervert them. That, however, is an issue for another day.
Today, I want to talk about how 13 Reasons plays with the high school drama template exemplified by The O.C.. In Clay and Justin’s plot, even casual viewers of The O.C. must recognize a distorted reflection of Seth and Ryan’s relationship from the older show. On The O.C., the plot kicks off when a lawyer brings home Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie), a poor kid from an abusive home on the wrong side of the tracks, and the kid bonds with the lawyer’s socially awkward, nerdy son Seth (Adam Brody) who has an unhealthy obsession with a girl. They stand up to a bullying jock, but Ryan doesn’t feel worthy of his new family’s love and runs away, only to…. Etc. etc. They eventually become brothers, help each other heal, etc. It’s the same story at a structural and formal level.
But when we compare the two, the differences speak to the way genre controls our reaction to and understanding of what we see. The O.C. was a glossy network soap opera with a turn-of-the-millennium ironic detachment from its own material. That’s not to say that 13 Reasons isn’t heavily stylized; it is, but in a different way. The trappings of upper class nighttime soap served to separate the O.C. viewer from the action. It drew on the conventions of wretched excess pioneered by the 1980s soaps like Dynasty and Falcon Crest, and while this provided particular pleasures, it also meant that even the most melodramatic of moment’s—notably Marissa’s death—were depicted from an ironic distance that called attention to its own artificiality and artifice. Here, however, the trappings of soap opera fantasy have been stripped away.
Compare, for example, Seth to Clay and see how the similar characters’ obsession with a dream girl transforms from romantic fantasy to mental illness. Compare Ryan to Justin and see how the equivalent characters’ efforts to overcome their traumatic pasts differ. McKenzie’s Ryan was basically a teen Marlboro Man, a taciturn, strong, and silent American ideal who bore his sufferings like Atlas and acted with nobility. Flynn’s Justin is a traumatized wreck who tries and fails to pretend to that ideal, and rebuilds himself by rejecting it and instead embracing compassion and emotion. The writers lampshade this point too much when they have the ghost of Hannah declare him a “sweet, broken boy,” but the contrast is telling. The earlier show presented what creator Josh Schwartz said at the time was a teenager’s wish-fulfillment fantasy, and the current season of the new series strips away the fantasy and restages the same story with fragile characters who struggle to fill the archetypical roles the viewer expects from the narrative.
The differences seem to lie at the root of the overwrought and hysterical reaction of 13 Reasons, which has seen the show condemned for reasons I find difficult to entirely understand. The mental health objection is the strongest, and the unintentional glamorization of suicide in the first season is unsupportable. But I struggle to understand why this season of this particular show has galvanized angry opinions when the exact same material has aired on network television to bigger and broader audiences, largely without objection. Shows like Riverdale offer even more extreme stories. 13 Reasons has suicide and sexual assault and bullying, but Riverdale had murder, implied incest, serial killings, sexual assault, gang violence, and, if I haven’t said it enough, torture and murder. A very similar male on male sexual assault that outraged critics of 13 Reasons occurred on network TV not long ago across a season of ABC’s American Crime. MTV’s Teen Wolf and Scream gave teens high school stories that, even by my jaded standards, seemed at times inappropriate for kids in their gruesome excess. But why are we as a culture OK watching teens slice and dice one another to bloody shreds, but not to express grief or trauma, or to confront the dark side of sex?
I think that part of the upset—The Parents Television Council called this season a “ticking time bomb” and demanded its removal from Netflix—stems from the way 13 Reasons defies genre expectations. The high school show has been a staple of American entertainment since radio days when Our Miss Brooks patrolled the halls of Madison High. High school stories almost always fall into one of just a few categories: comedy, soap opera, and (to a lesser degree) horror. There are always exceptions. Veronica Mars (which also dealt with sexual assault) was a mystery, though one very heavily stylized into a hyper-reality somewhat removed from reality. We expect these stories to exist in a fantasy world where the actions on screen aren’t connected to real consequences, where mythic archetypes perform shadow plays, and the conventions of genre insulate the viewer from the story. By adopting the language and the aesthetics of tragedy instead of romance or comedy, or even pure horror, 13 Reasons creates an uncomfortable space where, despite its overwrought melodrama and contrived narrative, it rubs uneasily against the viewer’s beliefs about what we want high school to be, or to have been.
I have, as usual, gone on too long on a minor point. Perhaps part of the reason that this resonated for me isn’t just that I began my writing career analyzing this genre, but also because it rhymes with my own ancient school experiences. Far be it from me to disagree with critics decades my senior, but they are wrong to say that what is depicted on screen does not happen, is greatly exaggerated, or goes beyond the typical standards of drama. The issues portrayed on this show are not new, and if I experienced many of them two decades ago, I can only conclude that they are vastly more widespread than we care to admit.
One year, a bit after my school years, a young man at my high school committed suicide, the brother of someone I had known years earlier. He was quite likely not the only one, but in those days parents and police conspired to keep shameful secrets quiet. Late in high school, a young man of my acquaintance was accused of sexually assaulting his girlfriend. The details did not interest me then and are beyond my memory now, but the fallout was not entirely dissimilar to what we see on TV. Without evidence, the accusation faded in time, but most certainly would have been handled differently today. I knew a boy not unlike Justin, who eventually struggled with substance abuse. He was a good guy, but troubled, and I never did find out how his story ended. I was myself the subject of a bullying campaign something like the one seen in the show. A group of kids published an underground newspaper that made threats of violence against students they disliked, which included, near the top of the list, me. I remember the administrators calling me in and locking me in a room with the author of the hit list, whom they had forced to make apologies, in the hope that everyone would get along and avoid suing. I cannot but believe that today such a situation would have a less stupid resolution. We may not have had a school shooting, but we did have a bombing. A disaffected student spent much of my junior year calling in bomb threats, which escalated to the planting of devices in the school. The bombs didn’t work, but no one knew that at the time. And all of this took place in a prosperous middle class community in the boom years of the 1990s “holiday from history.”
These stories, and the happy ones, too, have mostly faded, flattened in memory to fairy tales that happened in another life, to somebody else, dimly recalled. TV shows like 13 Reasons occasionally call these memories to mind, and I don’t believe that it does anybody any good to argue that we should abridge uncomfortable narratives in the name of protecting teens and young adults from themselves. I mean, for God’s sake, the teens on Riverdale participated in a gang war, hunted a serial killer, and played psychosexual games with one another. But as long as it’s shot with a comic book sheen and shadows borrowed from the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, that’s OK? Have the critics watched TV in the past ten years? It is wall to wall sadism and masochism, abuse and violence, and celebrated for pretending that cruelty is honesty and that every piety is a hypocrisy waiting to be uncovered. It seems, however, that when it comes to the innocence of kids, there are still a few Victorian myths our society refuses to let die.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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