13 Reasons Why: Netflix’s most controversial series yet

It’s the show everyone is talking about; whether it’s praise or criticism, 13 Reasons Why is blowing up online as people chime in on the Netflix teen drama that centres around the suicide of a teenage girl.

For those of you that don’t know about the series, it is set at an American high school in the aftermath of a pupil’s suicide. Hannah Baker killed herself after months of bullying and left behind recordings on 13 cassette tapes (well, 7 cassettes, 13 sides) one for each person who she blames for her demise.

The story, based on the best selling novel by Jay Asher, is told through flashbacks from the point of view of nerdy, but likeable nice guy Clay as he listens to the tape and hears Hannah tell her unfortunate story of what led her down such a dark path. It’s especially hard for Clay as he had harboured a crush on Hannah, even loved her, but never had the courage to tell her before she killed herself.

It’s a dark premise and while it has been praised by critics, it has equally been criticised by schools and mental health groups who feel that it glamourises self harm and suicide. The show, produced by Selena Gomez, has been defended by its cast and crew as a realistic look at mental health.

Gomez told AP: ‘We stayed very true to the book and that’s initially what Jay Asher created, was a beautifully tragic, complicated yet suspenseful story, and I think that’s what we wanted to do.
‘We wanted to do it justice and, yeah, [the backlash is] going to come no matter what. It’s not an easy subject to talk about, but I’m very fortunate with how it’s doing and I’m overwhelmed, very proud of it.’

Mental health is a big talking point at the moment, especially in the UK with Princes William and Harry and the Duchess of Cambridge fronting the #OkaytoSay campaign with the help of Lady GaGa, and Heads Together being selected as the lead charity for this year’s London Marathon. Some people say that anything that gets people talking about mental health is a good thing, so a series like this that highlights the most extreme outcome of depression brought on by bullying could help some people.

However, some schools and mental health groups, notably Australia’s National Youth Mental Health Foundation, have petitioned against the series urged parents not sensor it or to talk to their children about the issues covered in the programme, should they choose to watch it.

The series starts with a text card issuing a warning of the potentially upsetting scenes to come and there are further warnings at the openings of later episodes in the series that are particularly unsettling – scenes of rape and sexual assault as well as a graphic suicide scene where Hannah slits her wrists in the bath. But Netflix has now taken steps to add additional warnings and provide helpline numbers following criticism that some scenes could act as triggers for people with self harm tendencies or depression.

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Suicide scenes are generally not shown on film or television for fears it could be a trigger or give vulnerable people ideas. However, the show’s writer Nic Sheff defended the decision to show Hannah’s final moments. Sheff has a history of depression himself and has publicly spoken about his own suicide attempt, which is one of the reasons why he felt so strongly about including the suicide scene in 13 Reasons Why.

“It overwhelmingly seems to me that the most irresponsible thing we could’ve done would have been not to show the death at all. When it comes to suicide… Facing these issues head-on – talking about them, being open about them – will always be our best defense against losing another life,” he said.

Having watched it myself, I can tell you that the fateful scene is difficult watching – Hannah’s death is slow and painful, not at all romanticised. And it’s not just the suicide that’s uncomfortable viewing – SPOILER ALERT – Hannah sees her best friend get raped after Jessica passes out drunk in a bedroom at a house party and Hannah herself later gets raped by the same boy in a hot tub, despite telling him no and trying to fight him off. It’s not pleasant, and even more upsetting is when her mother discovers Hannah dead in the bath, clinging to her lifeless body and telling her she’s going to be ok. It’s heartbreaking to watch.

Like many Netflix series, all 13 one hour episodes have been released at once so viewers can indulge in binge viewing if they wish. This move by the streaming service has also been criticised as some believe that people may watch the series back to back without taking a step away from the intense storyline to process their emotions, which could prove dangerous for people suffering with depression.

Controversies aside, the series has been very well received by critics. IndieWire described the series as compelling viewing: “You won’t want to stop watching this show. But at times, you’ll wish you could look away.”

The New York Observer praised it’s nuances of teenage angst and the emotional roller coaster the 13 unwitting teens are taken on: “the toughest part of 13 Reasons Why – watching everyone, and yes, I mean everyone, really struggle to not feel as though everything is being kicked out from under them on a continual basis. But, what this says about how fragile people feel, all the time, is incredibly realistic. It’s yet another level to this story; one that’s all too real.”

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The young cast all put in solid performances, particularly newcomer Katherine Langford who plays Hannah so well and goes beyond being a stereotypical angsty teenager and delivers a heartfelt portrayal of someone who loses all hope and self confidence, lonely in a crowd. No doubt her performance will be recognised come awards season. Dylan Minette also delivers a strong performance as we see Hannah and the world of Westmont through his eyes. The rose tinted specs he wares for Hannah mean that both he and Hannah are unreliable narrators, but Minette plays him as aimiable and believable. There’s an air of Logan Lerman about him , and I hope Minette goes on to achieve a similar level of success in interesting and varied roles. 

Controversial as the series may be, the additional warnings Netflix has put in place may prove beneficial and the fact that the series has prompted people to openly talk about suicide and depression is good thing. Mental Health should not be a taboo subject. It’s okay to say.

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