No serialized teen drama is created equal, but there’s one thing that unites basically all of them: a lack of plausibility. The actor who played The O.C.’s “teen” protagonist, Ryan Atwood, was 24 (and looked it) when the series started, One Tree Hill’s Brooke (Sophia Bush) created a clothing line that magically made her a household name about five minutes after graduating high school, and don’t even get me started on the web of lifestyle lies perpetuated by Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars. Fictionalized teenage series tend to be escapist, which is totally deserved—high school’s tough, incredibly un-glamorous, and oh-so-boring.
It's a universal truth that no one’s high school experience can ever live up to the drama-filled stories that dominate the small screen. And while my days of teenage angst are almost certainly over, I’ve finally found a teen drama that rings true: 13 Reasons Why.
The Netflix original series, based on the young adult novel by Jay Asher, gives an unsensationalized portrait of high school, told through the experiences Hannah Baker, a 17-year-old student at Liberty High. The catch? She’s already dead.
Hannah records a collection of tapes before taking her own life, each side supplying a new “reason why” she was driven to suicide. Each person implicated in the tapes receives a copy shortly after her death, left to confront their own guilt and/or find a way to divert the blame.
The stuff that we see happen to Hannah is rough, but sadly familiar: Hannah is bullied and betrayed by the popular kids, abandoned by her first friends, taken advantage of, and not given the proper resources to work through her hardships. There’s nothing in the tapes that viewers haven’t already heard before, and a lot of it, most of us have personally experienced. The sorrowful universe of 13 Reasons Why could take place anywhere. Devoid of all CW glamour and featuring very few “teens” that could pass for 28, Liberty High is an easy stand-in for your typical high school experience—so much so that it’s hard not to conflate Hannah’s story with your own.
The series doesn’t undergo any major shifts throughout its 13-episode run—if you’ve made it past the first two minutes, you get the gist. But that’s the beauty of the show, it doesn’t traffic in cliffhangers and it doesn’t hold viewers hostage by withholding Hannah’s fate. You know what you’re getting when you tune in, and you know why.
Unsurprisingly, since 13 Reasons first appeared on Netflix, the series has been met with a great deal of criticism. A product of Selena Gomez and her mother’s production company, the show’s debut came with a mountain of fanfare. Gomez cited the project as “personal,” which only intensified its mystique, and elevated the show from a John Green-esque YA adaptation to the buzziest search term on the Internet.
Despite the show's mounting popularity (it's literally breaking social media records), not all press has been good. Critics have condemned the series for glorifying suicide as well as depicting it far too graphically, but these comments feel off base. If anything positive possibly comes from Hannah’s death, it's that those who knew her gain a deeper sense of awareness. 13 Reasons Why does not sugarcoat the tragic reality of suicide, nor should it.
As for the series’ graphic depiction of teen suicide, yes, it’s jarring. In the final minutes of 13 Reasons Why’s last episode, we watch Hannah Baker take a razor blade to each of her wrists, sobbing while she bleeds out in her own bathtub, her cries fading as she quickly loses consciousness. It’s not easy to watch. It doesn’t allow for a simple segue into a possible second season. It isn’t unexpected; It isn’t anything you want it to be.
But what is the preferable alternative here? Are we not supposed to think about suicide and its real-life applications? It’s dangerous to sideline the reality of suicide, but media has done nothing to convince us of this. Hannah Baker’s death is the isn't just the centerpiece of a series, it speaks to a glaring social epidemic.
VIDEO: Watch the Trailer for Netflix's 13 Reasons Why
When has a fictional victim of suicide ever received so much screen time? Perhaps a suicide has figured into a one-off episode arc or two—an affliction of the protagonist’s “crazy friend” or the school’s token weirdo, but when has it ever taken on a less worn cliché? Hannah’s story is not the kind we’re taught to tell, which is all the more reason it's important to watch.