Wednesday, May 17, 2017

13 Reasons Why: Side 2 - an overly contrived premise can present a challenge

Side 1: The Setting

13 Reasons Why gets away with a stunt that would be a crippling blow for most other shows - it has a premise that smacks of contrivance just to ensure the show exists.

We're asked to believe that a suicidal girl would record 6.5 tapes (13 sides) detailing her slide into suicide, meticulously structured so each side targets a specific participant one-by-one, then arranged a convoluted scheme to have those tapes passed to the targets one-by-one as a final "fuck you." Further, she claims to have a contingency that will be implemented if the tapes aren't listened to or passed on. If people shirk their responsibilities, a second copies of the tapes go public, destroying the reputations of all involved.

When I first heard this hook, I joked that it sounded like THE RING in reverse. Instead of watching the tape and dying, you listen to the tapes or face punishment. It feels way too contrived just to force Clay, our lead character, to endure each tape in episodic fashion, thus providing the series writers with a convenient structure upon which to hang the series. (Impressively, the fact that 13 reasons fits into the typical 13-episode order is a neat coincidence, considering the series began life as a book)

You have to think about the character who would conceive this suicide revenge scheme. She has to be in such despair that going on is painful, but she engineers a plot so complex that it should be the work of a Bond villain (or a screenwriter.) Here's every step you have to buy into:

- That Hannah would record an overlong suicide note... (Verdict: Credible on its face, and even more credible when the series casts it as her final effort to make sense of everything and even suggests that letting it all out was briefly cathartic enough that she reconsidered her plan. It was only after her conversation with the school counselor that she made the final decision to end it.)

- ...on cassette tapes... (Verdict: Sloppy. Never mind the trick of having to get equipment to record them, how could Hannah be sure that her targets would have tape players of their own? We see that Clay has to resort to stealing his friend's walkman in order to hear the tapes, which means he might not be the only one with such a problem. It might have worked better if Hannah had included a walkman inside the box of tapes. I mean, the girl plans for everything else and not THAT?)

- be passed one by one or else they get released. (Verdict: Contrivance, but a necessary one. Tony is all but stated to be the accomplice who will execute that last part of the plan, as by the time the final episodes roll around, he seems to be the only person in a position with the means to do so. Early on he leaves Clay with the impression that he's ignorant of the mechanics of how the tapes would come out, but it's easier for me to believe Tony is telling a convenient lie than imagine Hannah somehow trusted another off-screen player to carry out this part of the plan.)

The writers were smart to be somewhat vague on the execution of that final clause. The only reason to dig deep into how that works is if the threat was a Chekhov's Gun to be fired in the latter episodes. Since things never deteriorate to that point, I'm comfortable assuming it was part-bluff, part-Tony's responsibility. But that's a perspective you only get with hindsight. When we're asked to swallow it right away, it sound pretty far-fetched.

The simple fact is that without this contrived hook, there would be no series. That makes this what we call the "buy-in." It's one of those things where the show all but says outright "These are the roles we're playing under. Take them or leave them." I feel like you can get away with silly notions - but only if they're introduced early. As the writer, you have a window of only so long before the audience's conception of the world's rules solidifies. At that point, if you suddenly hit them with a giant contrivance, you won't have the benefit of the doubt.

I wouldn't blame someone if they felt the set-up was overly complicated. Also, when you're asking for that big a buy-in, you have to earn it. 13 Reasons Why pays that mortgage through stellar acting and really well-written characters. But if you make me choke down a ridiculous concept and you don't even have the decency to make it good? You will earn my wrath.

Side 3: Hannah Baker
Side 4: Clay, an outsider who isn't an outcast
Side 5: Clay's tape leads to one of this year's most heartbreaking episodes
Side 6: Mr. Porter - Terrible Counselor or Worst Counselor?
Side 7: Do depictions of suicide provoke imitation?
Side 8: Generating tension that stokes viewer intensity
Side 9: Keeping storytelling clarity in non-linear structure
Side 10: Alex's storyline hides parallels in plain sight
Side 11: Fleshed out parents help deepen the other characters
Side 12: Episodic structure makes a comeback
Side 13: Thoughts on Season 2


  1. Those didn't bother me. I bought all of them. She's no mastermind, tho, for the sake of, 'screenwritism', I agree they should've put Clay saying "Why didn't she include a walkman player on the box?" along the way.

    Premise wise (and I believe you might cover that on the side 12) what bothered me was the time it took Clay to listen to all the tapes. It's ok in the beggining; it was too much suffering for him. But when shit went down and there's subpoenas running around and his mother might help by bringing justice... why the hell did he not sit and listen to all of the tapes!? (Because of the episodic need, that's why. But still... I was into the series really early on, so I paid no mind, but my screenwriting mind was all the time saying "could've find a way to better hide that")

    And one last thing: about who would've release the tapes if people didn't listen to it. Besides Tony I considered that girl friend of Hanna's that leaves early on. The one who dated Justin and left for another city. She could've been in contact with her and sent her the tapes with instructions and stuff. I don't know.

    Great Series, great blog, great post. Thanks for your work!

    1. Yeah, I don't have much difficulty rationalizing Clay taking his time. Between his existing anxieties and just the sheer unnervingness of listening to someone speak from beyond the grave, I get how it's not something you'd want to burn through.

      And especially if I thought that that was leading to someone lay into me the way they did everyone else, I'd be taking my time. But I also concede that on its face, it seems like a contrivance unless you make a point of thinking through it as a viewer.

      I didn't put too much effort into figuring out a strict timeline for the episodes, but the show's own internal dating establishes only a month elapses between the day Hannah kills herself and the day of the depositions in the final eps. You also have to allow for 10 people to cycle through the tapes before Clay gets them and so it seems that AT MOST Clay spends just under two weeks (12ish days) working through the tapes. Averages out to about a day a tape, though I don't know if that holds up strictly if you watch each ep trying to peg it to a specific calendar date.

      On the other tapes: Yeah, I fucked that up because I was thinking about it wrong. For some reason I assumed that the tapes she mailed were the "insurance" tapes. No idea why I didn't jump to the more logical truth that she's mailing the set that starts the cycle and that one she left with Tony is the insurance set.

      What's funny is that in reading online A LOT of fans confused this too. I guess we all assumed Tony was passing his set on, despite the fact he shows us he's got his set too. (I think Clay's line in the final ep about "... mailed the tapes to a friend" seemed so deliberately vague that we all jumped on it as a clue.")

      I admit I did wonder if Kat was going to come back with any significance later. With what I learned about the writing of the novel, I think she was a hasty addition to the manuscript to patch a plot hole and the show inherited that without doing much to fix it.