13 reasons why we love new netflix drama 13 reasons why

Netflix’s new teen drama avoids cliché to deliver a nuanced look at bullying, sexism and suicide.

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07 April 2017, 8:35pm

From its honest portrayal of suicide and sexual assault to its dismantling of the male gaze, teen drama 13 Reasons Why is the only thing you should be watching right now. If you haven't started it yet, let us convince you -- if you have begun the binge, then be aware there may be some small spoilers within!

1. They way 13 Reasons Why sheds a light on 21st century bullying in American high schools
Everyone knows bullying has evolved in the digital age. Social media means bullies can follow you right into your home, ensuring you're never free from cruel comments and anxiety-inducing notifications. With a single tap of the screen, lies can spread around school -- or worse, intimate photos. 13 Reasons captures and lays bare the cold mechanics of how this happens, following the thoughtless circulation of a picture through to chilling consequences. If you've been to school in the last 10 years, or seen what it's like at its dirt-worst in the disturbing doc Audrie & Daisy, you'll sense the dark reality underpinning the show.

2. The way it delicately handles suicide and depression
The list of themes at the heart of 13 Reasons -- suicide, sexual assault, self-harm, depression, anxiety -- is as dark as it is long. And yet, somehow, it doesn't clumsily cobble them all together, minimising their complexity. Different characters deal with their problems in different ways. Jessica turns to vodka and goes off the rails like Mischa Barton did in The O.C. Skye, the girl who works at Monet's, cuts herself and defends her actions by saying, "It's what you do instead of killing yourself". When it comes to the darkest moments towards the end (I don't wanna spoil it so I won't), the show is honest, unflinching, yet always sensitive.

3. The casting of Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker
Let's face it: the show hinges on the casting of Hannah Baker. They could have screwed this up and gone with a big name because big names bring big bucks. But they didn't. They went with Australian actress Katherine Langford who's been in exactly zero things. And you'd never know it. Not only does she nail the American accent, she has a vibe and look that's kinda Cristina Ricci circa '97. She has attitude yet she's vulnerable. "My skin is soft, and smooth, and easily scarred," she writes. Langford makes Hannah's world-against-me posture relatable when it so easily could have been melodramatic. Despite her slim CV, you suspect her phone hasn't stopped ringing since the second the show aired. 

4. Its soundtrack is pure gold
It's hard to buy into the emotion of a scene if the music is off. Like, imagine the scene where one character tells another he's complicit in Hannah's murder. It's night, they're swaying slowly on swings; in the background Ed Sheeran sings softly about looking into your eyes. JOKES. The song that actually accompanies the scene is Atmosphere by mid-90s sadcore band Codeine. It's great, just as the rest of the soundtrack is great. Choice cuts include: The Jesus and Mary Chain, LUH (the band formed out of the ashes of Wu Lyf), Joy Division, and a Big Star cover by Elliott Smith.

5. The blurred borders between freaks, geeks and jocks
For those well-versed in the tropes of late 90s teen movies -- prissy prom queens, keg-wielding jocks, etc. -- it's refreshing to see so many clichés kicked to the curb. Take Alex. He's your classic hipster-nerd: lanky, nose ring, peroxide blonde hair. First he's sipping a giant hot chocolate in Monet's like a mopey misfit. Then he's speeding in a car full of jocks and smoking weed like he's one of the boys. This is a guy with a Joy Division poster hanging over his bed! Then there's Sheri, the least bitchy cheerleader on screen you've ever seen. And Taylor, the nerdy photographer who turns out to be a creep. 13 Reasons swings a wrecking ball towards those teen stereotypes, and it's a joy to watch.

6. How the show addresses the male gaze -- without surrendering to it
I'm not the first one to point this out, but it is something significant. When Hannah is voted "best ass", the camera doesn't eye-ogle her behind. Nor does it dwell on the up-skirt pic of her that Justin took (we hardly see it in fact). Instead the POV is slightly removed, often staying with Hannah, the victim. Take the Tyler episode. When she's stalked by the camera-clutching creep, we see it mostly from her POV, not his. You could call it a "genderless" gaze, one that centres on empathy. It's another thing the show's creators were sensitive to. Thankfully they nail it. 

7. Similarly: how it depicts the male response to Hannah's traumas
When Clay doesn't understand the big deal about Hannah being labelled "best ass", Hannah retorts: "Once again, you and the point are complete strangers," and later, more tersely, "You've never been a girl." When Hannah's dad, too, fails to see the list as a form of bullying, her mum steps in and calls it exactly what it is. In this show, such comments -- comments that excuse disrespect for women's bodies -- don't go unchecked, unanswered for.

8. Gregg Araki directed some episodes and it shouldn't surprise you
Fans of Gregg Araki, the indie filmmaker who specialises in suburban ennui, might have spotted his name on a couple of episodes. To see the director of The Doom Generation and Mysterious Skin attached to a glossy Netflix show might even have surprised some. But it shouldn't have. 13 Reasons plunges you into a world of teenage loners, self-harmers, and back-stabbers; a world that Araki's lens has chronicled in sharp focus for nearly three decades now. The casting of the show's young actors is great, sure, but equal credit should go to those cast in the director's chair. Take a bow, Gregg Araki.

9. Clay isn't the can-do-no-wrong guy you expect him to be
I wasn't telling the whole truth when I said the show hinges on the casting of Hannah Baker. It hinges equally on the casting of Clay Jensen. Dylan Minnette (of Goosebumps fame) is a perfect fit for the socially inept nice-boy who takes FOREVER to listen to the tapes when no one else had a problem binge-listening. First you think he's nice, the moral compass, pointing the finger at classmates who wronged Hannah. Yet he soon loses his squeaky-clean innocence in the events leading to her death, not least when he's insensitive to her feelings about the "hot list". Never trust a guy who says he listens to "obscure indie bands" but has posters of Arcade Fire and The Shins on his wall.

10. Truth is slippery and you never know who to believe
13 Reasons is great at wrong-footing the armchair detective (that's you btw). Don't think Hannah is the anchor of truth that grounds the series. She lies. She's an unreliable narrator. Or maybe she just has a misty memory? Like when she said Zach threw away her heartfelt letter. He didn't, and he shows Clay the tangible proof. By the time Clay finally gets to his tape, he realises this. The fact is, everyone, including Hannah, has their own truth about what happened. To follow the plot's different threads of truth is kind of like untangling Christmas lights. Only 100-times more fun.

11. Hannah is the victim but the show doesn't drown in a pool of her misery
The biggest mistake most TV shows make when depicting depression is that they hammer the point home. It's all snotty Kleenex, standing in front of the mirror, and possibly listening to REM's Everybody Hurts in bed while staring up at the ceiling. That's the caricature. And I'm sure when some people see Hannah in flashback, they look for the obvious, for visible signs that she's on a downward spiral. But to those around her, Hannah seems like any other girl. She smiles and even laughs sometimes. The point is: things can seem fine on the surface, when they're not. 13 Reasons explores those nuances while shirking the obvious. 

12. "Is there a KFC around, 'cause I smell chicken"
Let's just take a moment to appreciate the beauty of this line, casually reeled off by Jessica when she's in full don't-give-a-fuck mode. The instant you hear it you realise its greatness. You know in that moment that the next time you're out with friends and one of them says they don't wanna hop that fence into that abandoned shopping mall, you know these nine words are all you need. This is it. This is the only comeback.

13. Tony is just the oddest
Tony is an odd character isn't he? If he's not polishing his red Mustang, he's stalking Clay, wearing a look of concern. And yet Tony -- who Clay calls "unhelpful Yoda", possibly a crack at his height -- has a dark side too. When someone messes with his sister he beats him to a pulp, because that's justice in his part of town. At school, Tony appears even more mysterious. He looks out of place, as if he's been held back a few years. Then there's his Lego-like hair that's something of a marvel, all slicked back and jet-black. I can't figure him out. He's just the oddest character, but I love him. 

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Text Oliver Lunn