Few recent shows have caused as much controversy and sparked as many discussions as Netflix’s adaption of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel “13 Reasons Why.” It tackles a variety of topics from depression and sexual assault to bullying, while drawing criticism for what some believe to be its graphic depiction of traumatic events and glamorization of topics like suicide and self-harm.
The show’s first season explored the circumstances surrounding the suicide of Liberty High School student Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford, “Love, Simon”) through a series of thirteen audio tapes narrated by Hannah herself. The tapes, each addressed to an individual who contributed to Hannah’s suicide, revealed a harrowing series of events caused by both individual and systemic failures in her high school.
Season two begins months after Hannah’s death, at the beginning of a civil lawsuit between Hannah’s parents and her high school, the latter of which is being sued for failure to protect Hannah and enabling the damaging culture that led to her suicide. Each episode centers on the testimony of an individual mentioned in one of Hannah’s tapes, while also exploring the effects of Hannah’s suicide on the students of Liberty High.
The show’s first season dealt with difficult topics with a sensitivity and maturity that few shows centering around such a demographic do. Moreover, the characters, from Hannah herself to her close friend Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette, “Don't Breathe”), felt like realistic, multi-dimensional teenagers. Season two deals with similar issues but is let down by its own writing and overall execution. The dialogue, one of the strongest aspects of the first season, is now stilted and overly melodramatic, especially during the courtroom scenes. Without the structure provided by the series of tapes in season one, the early episodes of season two lack a sense of cohesion and unity. Hannah’s appearances in Clay’s hallucinations feel more like cheap plot devices. The antagonists of the story feel almost cartoonishly evil, which belies the actual heinousness of their crimes.
Season two’s redeeming qualities mainly concern the development of certain characters. In particular, Tyler (Devin Druid, TV's “House of Cards”), one of the students implicated in Hannah’s tapes, is slowly fleshed out, albeit in an unsettling fashion that seems to be a large focus of the season as a whole. Minette’s portrayal of Clay’s trauma and inability to rid himself of memories related to Hannah is excellent, especially in a set of awkward scenes with his girlfriend Skye (Sosie Bacon, “Story of a Girl”). Zach (Ross Butler, TV's “Riverdale”) and high school counselor Kevin Porter (Derek Luke, TV's “Roots”) begin compelling redemption arcs as well. Scenes with Hannah’s mother Olivia (Kate Walsh, “Girls Trip”) are also high notes, as she emotionally recounts the little moments that she believes helped drive her daughter to her tragic end.
Season two of “13 Reasons Why” takes an even darker, more sinister tone than season one. Unfortunately, its shoddy writing and poor dramatization make it feel more like a stereotypical high school drama or an ineffective PSA. Season one, despite some issues with its pacing, tells its story in a unique, thoughtful way, which season two does not replicate with consistency.