COLUMN: 13 Reasons Why lacks emotional captivation

first encountered Thirteen Reasons Why in middle school, reading Jay Asher’s novel alone in my bed as the entire house sat quiet around me. At 13 and 14 years old, I always found myself reading when the night is the most frightening: the rest of my family asleep, left alone with nothing but my thoughts. When everything is still and you’re half-asleep, the words become louder. The characters throw shadows on your bedroom walls.

Told partly in the voice of a dead girl, Hannah Baker, Thirteen Reasons Why gave me goosebumps — the kind you don’t want right before you fall asleep. And yet, with a story about the aftermath of a high school suicide, Thirteen Reasons Why evokes a terror that feels real. When Hannah’s voice begins emanating from tapes she left behind, we begin to realize that the ghosts in the novel are real, too.

When I discovered that Netflix was releasing an original series based on the book, my enthusiasm was muted. I could not imagine how it could be done: an attempt to force the story into television. Though I don’t think much about Asher’s book anymore — it was not a favorite and did not change my outlook on anything — I can still remember the way it rattled me, seemed to echo inside me and uncover my own fears and insecurities.

The Netflix original lacks that, for no reason or fault of its own — except that imagination is much darker, realer and scarier than what can ever be created on screen. Nothing reenacted by 20-something actors can ever parallel the fear inside me when I read about Hannah Baker by myself, her voice ominous and clear in my own head.

13 Reasons Why, the TV version, is brighter. And cleaner. The characters have heavily blushed cheeks and make snappy jokes. They look like college kids, clean-cut and attractive, the youth Hollywood estimates can pass as high school sophomores: coiffed hair, red car, letter jackets.

And yet, though the series may fall into a conventional aesthetic, it also at once manages to be surprisingly emotionally subtle. Its nuance reaches far beyond its face value. Because as much as you think you know 13 Reasons Why, you don’t. And as much as you think you know teenagers like Hannah (Katherine Langford), you have a lot to learn. In the series’ opening episode at least, Hannah is the chirpy and bewildered new girl in school, clinging to fast friends and falling for boys with sweet things to say. She is naive, yes, but she is also witty, acerbic,
self-confident — even through the tapes narrating her own suicide letter.

Hannah leaves us feeling perplexed because this bubbly girl is not someone who we can reconcile with the act of suicide, much less the cryptic recorded messages she leaves for her peers to pass along lest their names be published in conjunction to her death. And yet, as much as I am tempted to call this shininess unsubtle, it also presents a more eerie and realistic possibility: that maybe the happiest people are the ones least immune to sadness.

13 Reasons Why contains more than I would conventionally give it credit for. As much as it is a show that looks — at least on the surface — like it misunderstands teenagers, 13 Reasons Why does get several things right: how something can go wrong so quickly and how those with the bravest faces can also hide the darkest woes. How easily something simmering under the surface can explode and touch everyone around it, in high school and especially when everyone owns a cell phone.

These are layers maybe the show itself isn’t aware of yet, but every member of its teenage audience will identify with: the frantic need to feel wanted and the horrible stomach drop when you realize that you were used and betrayed from the very first encounter.

13 Reasons Why is a series rooted in teenage cruelty, but it is also more than that. It is a series anchored in its characters’ desperate attempts to understand and reconcile their worlds with tragedy. And even through all my pre-judgments, the show accomplished something I did not grasp until the end of the first episode — namely, that it does what perhaps no other high school show has done before. It unapologetically projects the consequences of cruelty, betrayal and selfishness on teenage lives and spins that through its very premise.

Throughout the series, the characters must ask themselves, and we along with them: What does Hannah want? How did they miss the signs, and what could have been done differently? How can they redeem themselves, and do they deserve to?

Zoe Cheng is a sophomore majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column, “Wide Shot,” runs Wednesdays.