Netflix's '13 Reasons Why' review: taking the safe route

The follow-up to last year’s big hit is mostly compelling, but ends on a frustrating note

June 01, 2018 03:55 pm | Updated 06:19 pm IST

There’s a scene in the new season of 13 Reasons Why , which is symbolic of everything that is frustrating about it.

At a highly dramatic point, a fight breaks out between several male characters of the show, which is set against a high-school backdrop. The nerds and the jocks maul each other, as other students join the mayhem. The set-up is apt: the angst-ridden teenagers find expression in physical violence, until two professors step in to save the fight. Soon, the two men turn to each other and throw punches too, as the scene descends into the kind of cake-fight hilarity we saw in old Charlie Chaplin films. This is infuriating because — often in this season of 13 Reasons Why — when the narrative seems to be building up to an important moment, it abruptly veers into a different direction.

13 Reasons Why deserves to be a much better show than it has become, because it has some truly durable and complex characters, and takes up issues that translate into compelling storylines. It has received its share of criticism for its depiction of sexual assault and suicide, but the show’s intentions don’t always seem misplaced.

For the uninitiated, the first season revolved around a dead teenager, Hannah Baker, who left behind 13 tapes, which she recorded before killing herself. In each tape, she talked about a different character she believed to be responsible for driving her to the point of suicide. The drama unfolded from the point of view of Clay Jensen, a kind-at-heart schoolmate of Hannah who was in love with her, and is now tormented by her death.

With all the cards being laid open that season, fans wondered whether a follow-up would be redundant. The second season, surprisingly, has enough meat to warrant another set of 13 episodes. This time, the show delves deeper into the guilt of the recipients of the tapes. Each episode is narrated by one such character, in the form of her or his testimony in court. While this storytelling device creates a tonal inconsistency — every character sounds the same, irrespective of how different they are from each other — it ensures the first season’s narrative style is maintained.

Remorse and redemption are the main themes here, and even the most despicable characters find a way to show a different side to themselves, and not how Hannah wanted us to see them. We realise that many of the teenagers — wily, deceptive, selfish, and dishonest as they are — are only really kids at the end of the day, still forming opinions and undergoing experiences that will shape the adults they become.

However, it does seem like the creators don’t want to let go of the show’s past (and present?) glory, thus inventing ways to return for a season three. And so, as the ‘ghost’ of Hannah Baker is put to rest, finding closure in a heartwarming segment in the finale, there’s sufficient build-up towards the next chapter in the lives of the existing characters.

While that isn’t problematic in itself, it’s the route opted for that is underwhelming. After taking considerable time to set-up the anguish of one particular character, which leads him to take some drastic steps, the writers fail to culminate this track effectively, instead leaving room to explore it in future episodes. They seem reluctant to commit to ideas they themselves plant, taking a ‘safe’ route instead. This reeks of a manipulative attempt to cash in on the show’s popularity and could, ironically, backfire. Chances are fans will see through this ruse, making it difficult to find too many reasons to keep coming back for more.

The new season of 13 Reasons Why is now streaming on Netflix

This column helps you navigate online (and offline) television, a world of endless options.

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