Wednesday, July 19, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 16: 13 Reasons Why

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Part 4: Seinfeld
Part 5: The John Larroquette Show
Part 6: ER
Part 7: Newsradio
Part 8: The X-Files
Part 9: Law & Order
Part 10: Homicide: Life on the Street
Part 11: Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Part 12: Gilmore Girls
Part 13: Everwood
Part 14: The Office
Part 15: Breaking Bad

And at last we arrive at the final show on the list, which is appropriately the series that got me thinking about making this list in the first place. I wouldn't blame you if you wondered what else I could possibly have to say about 13 Reasons Why, considering I already devoted 13 posts to the series. As I indicated, this one burrowed into my gut. I was thinking about it for weeks after I saw it and it still is living rent-free right between my ears.

I can't help but be disappointed that Katherine Langford's incredible performance was overlooked by the Emmys last week. I freely admit that one of the problems of Peak TV is that I haven't seen everything, thus, I can't say which of the nominees should have been left off to make room for her, but considering Katherine started off in the first episode having to create two wildly disparate versions of Hannah, and then spend the next 12 episodes gradually bridging that gap, I'd be stunned if all six nominees beat that degree of difficulty. (And that's without bringing in the fact that this was Langford's first serious role.) She'll have a long career, for sure, but I wish her amazing work here was recognized. Dylan Minnette also gave what I consider an Emmy-worthy performance, particularly in the episode showcasing his tape, but I can accept his work was less singular in an equally crowded category.

Ignoring Kate Walsh's devastating turn as Hannah's grieving mother is another instance of insanity, but that's the way the Emmys go sometimes.

During my earlier series of posts on the show, I didn't cover the topic of how the adaptation compares to the original novel. Unexpectedly, when I read the novel, it gave me a deeper appreciation for the series. In every measurable way, the changes made for the show are superior to what they replace or add to. I've almost never seen that, where every divergence results in improvement.

I'm not going to list every difference, but a key change is that the "present" of the book all takes place on the night Clay receives and listens to the tapes. That means nearly all of the post-suicide scenes in the series are unique to the show. In the book, we never meet Hannah's parents, there's no lawsuit involving the school, and Clay never confronts any of the other people on the tapes. This makes a big difference in his arc, because he's generally passive. Also, book-Clay is a lot blander, kind of a generic nice guy. He lacks the rougher, more interesting edges the character has in the show.

But perhaps the most impactful change is that in the book, Clay barely knew Hannah. He crushed on her from afar, but they barely interacted. We're told they worked together at the movie theater, but the book lacks most of the cute interactions between the two at lunches and particularly at the school dance. The tragedy of the Clay/Hannah love story is the heart of the series and it's not present at all in the book. The two DO still make out at the party, and Hannah still freaks out, but so much around their characters is different that this event is recontextualized in a way that makes it less emotional.

In the book, it definitely feels more like Hannah made these tapes as a revenge plot. (As you know, I've argued that on the show, Hannah's motivation to make the tapes appears to be so that she can reclaim her own story.) Without the sweeter scenes between her and Clay, all we really know of Hannah is this person who was constantly wronged by her friends and has every reason to be bitter about it. Two other encounters also take on a different feel due to the changes. In the book, Hannah's rape is much more ambiguous in nature. She seems to put herself in that position know that Bryce will do to her and when he starts having sex with her, she doesn't resist. In fact, there's an inference that she's using him as a way of surrendering to her reputation. On the page, we're left with the impression she's trying to make her life horrible enough to motivate her suicide.

Yeah, it's pretty dark. And it speaks to a less likable (to use a word I know I just derided in the last post) version of Hannah. With this change also comes the feeling that she's really setting Mr. Porter up to fail when she sees him on the day she takes her own life. In the book, it plays almost like a challenge she throws down, like "C'mon, I've already decided to kill myself. Let's see if he can stop me." On the show, the motivation is similar, but more tragic. Hannah seems to be reaching for a life preserver that's never tossed.

So many of the elements that 13 Reasons Why a show I just can't shake either originated with the series or play completely different in the series. All of this speaks to the choices that showrunner Brian Yorkey and his staff had to make when writing the show. The book provides a great hook and a framework to hang the story on, but the TV writers really reached for the depth and emotion of the concept, and every change is geared towards achieving that end.

You come away from the book feeling like Hannah's story is shortchanged so that the focus can be on Clay's man-pain as he learns about this poor girl he barely knew. The series is more committed to making Hannah a real person rather than just an object of pity. The writers knew that Clay shouldn't be a stranger to Hannah. This has to be the story of their near-romance, with their dynamic ultimately making us aware of everything that was lost when Hannah took her life.

The other significant changes are more aimed at making it clear Hannah is broken, but not vindictive in her final days. Her depression and PTSD consume her until she can no longer fight. When the events that break her arrive, there's no sense that she surrenders to them. She merely has the will to go on beaten out of her. It sounds like a subtle distinction as I explain it, but when you compare the two, you'll understand just how vastly different they are.

The show understands Hannah's depression and suicidal choice in a way that I don't feel that the book ever communicates. Some of that is the advantage of being able to see an actress depict that transformation, but if I had to boil that down into a succinct writing lesson it would be this: Write from emotion, not plot. Write to make people feel.

After I put aside the novel, I couldn't help but ponder if I'd have been smart enough to make the choices that the TV writers made. I feel like I probably would have realized the Clay/Hannah connection needed to be more substantial, but I don't know if I'd have woven their flirtation through the series so perfectly and still found a way to be true to Hannah's breakdown that sends her spiraling.

When I tried to convince my wife to watch the show, I noticed all the ways this source material could have been less deftly mined. I told her the show dealt with a lot of real issues teens face, like cyber-bullying, rape, slut-shaming. Her reaction was to say, "Oh, like how Switched at Birth has been doing?"

Look, I've seen plenty of Switched at Birth due to my wife's appreciation for the show. I'll even give them credit for tackling issues like date-rape on their show. But nothing on Switched at Birth has the depth or the emotion of 13 Reasons Why. Ditto for the other show that my wife drew comparisons to as I explained the premise: Pretty Little Liars.

I'm not here to bash those two shows or the genre they represent. They're just a very different kind of product. Whatever darkness they have, it's contrasted by the aspirational artifice you find in most teen dramas. Teens in those shows often feel too much like mini-adults and visually, they aren't dressed and made up the way normal teens are.

When my wife watched, I was glad to see her pick up on some of these points without prompting. When Hannah goes to the dance, my wife's reaction was the same as mine - "They have her wearing a dress a girl that age would actually wear. It's not a sexy designer dress. It looks like she had to go to TJ Maxx and buy within a budget." She was 100% right about that. On PLL, that dress would have been three times as expensive, have a much lower cut to the top and a much higher hem on the skirt.

In general, 13 Reasons Why doesn't do much male gazing at Hannah. She's not overly sexualized in the way that teen protagonists often are. It's funny because at one point, Tony says that Hannah liked hanging with him because she could complain about the guys who stared at her boobs and her ass. Having watched the show, I feel pretty confidant in stating that Hannah's never dressed in a way that invites that sort of leering from the viewer. In fact, I'm reasonably sure there's not so much as a cleavage shot.

Even in a sequence where we know Hannah has stripped to her underwear and gotten into a hot tub, the action is staged with angles that don't show off her body at all. A couple other characters are put on display, but not Hannah. A running theme of the show is how her peers objectify and degrade her, and the show seems to take great pains not to make the viewer complicit in that. It's a restraint rarely seen in this genre.

What all of this adds up to is that the show creates a world that feels more grounded and believable than most of its contemporaries. It's very easy to imagine a version of the show that lives in that Freeform space. It might even be a compelling show with all the thrills and twists of Pretty Little Liars. But PLL never shook me to my core the way this series did. It lacked the rawness and the verisimilitude that made 13 Reasons Why such a potent tragedy.

Brian Yorkey and his team of writers, directors and actors worked hard to elevate their show above its source material. They found every possible emotional touchstone in the novel, and when that wasn't enough they invented more of their own. No short cuts were made just because this was a "teen drama" or a "YA adaptation." When I write something, be it an original or an adaptation, I will always think of the example this show sets, and how much power it draws from raw emotion.

Other posts on the series:
Side 1: The Setting
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge
Side 3: Hannah Baker, from joy to despair
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. This is a great post! (one small typo: "The book is more committed to making Hannah a real person..." should be "The *series* is more committed..."

    I've been dodging this show for personal reasons, and I may still dodge it, but I'm glad it was high-quality enough to inspire such a great set of essays from you, BSR.

    1. Thanks for the correction and I'm glad you liked the essays, Greg!

  2. You do a deft job of describing how the changes made from the book improve the product. To me the benefit of the changes can be boiled down to one contrast. When Hannah dies in the book it is tragic. The reason the show is so affecting and almost impossible to shake off is that the death of TV Hannah is so devastating. I find the biggest indication that the show really works is that even on subsequent viewings, its hard not to watch ep. 13 without irrationally hoping Hannah lives. It doesn't work dramatically and would make the whole show a cheat, but still.

    I think there are two reasons the death of TV Hannah is so devastating. The first is her relationship with Clay as you describe. The second is that in the series we get to see Hannah at her best. Particularly in the first episode, Hannah is a revelation. She is vibrant, optimistic, innocent and unaware that life has any limitations. Her scenes with Clay, whether at the Crestmont or in the bleachers, are a joy to watch. One of my favorite scenes in the series is when she entices Justin onto the bus and traps him there. The girl who can conceive and fearlessly execute such a plan is a force to be reckoned with. Its hard to imagine such a girl will be dead by her own hand within a year. I think its important Clay is only tangentially part of this scene and that Clay has a chance to shine on her own. The reason the show is so affecting is not solely or even primarily that Clay and Hannah will never be together but that the Hannah we have come to know dies.

    I like your discussion of how the two Hannahs react differently to their spiral. By the time Jessica's party is over, I think book Hannah is done. Her letting Bryce have his way in order to convince herself that she doesn't deserve to live is one of the ways the book is sadder than the show. The book makes clear Hannah knows that Clay smiles at her and tries to catch her eye several times after Jessica's party. She ignores him because by this time she does not want to be saved.

    In contrast, I think, or maybe just want to believe that Hannah wanted to be saved until the very end. She did not have to return her uniform to the Crestmont. I think that she did so with the hope that Clay would come after her and somehow indicate it mattered to him whether she was around or not the next day. Nor did she have to bring the tapes to Tony in person. She could just have easily mailed them to him when she sent the set to Justin. She wanted Tony to either come out on the porch or listen to the tapes fast enough to be able to get to her in time. I think Hannah was determined that the pain would end that day. The method of suicide she chose indicates this determination. (I just can't get past how much determination it must have taken to make the second cut, with her weak hand, knowing how painful the first cut was, and how much despair she must have been in to have such determination.) But I think she wanted to live if someone could have convinced her that they cared enough to help with the pain.

    One small point about your observation about Hannah being filmed modestly. Bryce opines that the list had it right with respect to Hannah's "award." Its not hard to imagine that a lesser show would have given the audience ample opportunity to draw its own conclusions.

    One advantage the book has is that I find the way it is structured make the "conversation" between Clay and Hannah very intimate. We rarely go more than a few lines without having Clay react to what Hannah is saying on the tapes. I take your point that this can make is seem the book is more about Clay's reaction to the tapes than what Hannah experienced. But I prefer to think of it more as a dialogue between the two where Hannah remains the moving force.

    1. So with you on the irrational hope that Hannah lives. I can't think of a more devastating character death on television and there's a lot of competition for that. You nail a key reason why - we get to see her at her best. We know who she was and we know it must have taken to make that girl bleed all that out through a thousand small cuts. There's so much lost potential there that it's heartbreaking.

      Agree with you that the book plays the party as the breaking point. Everything after that is an exercise in her revving herself up to doing what she thinks she needs to do. I prefer the show's way of breaking Hannah with several subsequent blows, and the rape is basically the one that finishes her off. I think it adds to the devastation because in spite of everything that hurts her, she keeps trying until that incident destroys whatever light remains.

      But I really think her meeting with Porter was the last straw for her. It was traumatizing to relive the rape as she struggled to explain what happened to her and I think the way Porter handled it left her feeling that to tell anyone about it meant she basically had to cut herself open and bleed anew each time. I recall reading an essay by a suicide survivor, who explained that suicide doesn't feel like giving up so much as it feels like living in so much pain that ending it feels like a relief. I think that's what happened to Hannah - her pain got worse. And I think that's how she got to the second cut without even a hesitation wound.

      Remember, she was looking for a sign not to end it, and you could argue she got it. While she's on her way to mail the tapes, she sees the guy from the poetry group. He reaches out, tells her they miss her invites her back. THAT could have been her sign. But it makes no impact, because she's already made her choice. Short of putting her on suicide watch and physically barring her from self-harm, I don't think anything would have stopped her at that point. She drops off her uniform but makes no effort to engage Clay, or to entice him to engage her. She drops off the tapes with Tony, but doesn't even ring the bell. I feel like she's minimizing the risk of people stopping her, not daring them to.

      I really applaud the fact that they avoid objectifying Hannah at all. I'm sure the temptation was there, with the built-in justification that "the characters are doing it so we need to see it." By choosing the path they did, it ensured our perspective never became empathetic to the perpetrators. At no point do we see this through Bryce, Marcus's, etc's eyes. We always stay on Hannah's emotions.

      I hear your point about the book's dialogue. In a weird way, maybe you could say the ghost Hannah of Season Two is an attempt to capture some of that.

  3. Your third paragraph displays a level of insight that I can't match. So I suspect you are right. But I think that day she was looking for somebody to give her hope things would get better or least to show that she was important to them. Porter simply wasn't up to the task of giving her hope.

    I don't think she wanted to initiate contact with Clay. Perhaps irrationally both on hers and my part she wanted them to initiate the contact with her and gave them the chance to do so. She thought that their coming forward would demonstrate they were willing to make some effort to talk to her. I do take your point that her actions could as easily indicate she was minimizing the risk of contact with them.

    I think her contact with poet wasn't enough because he just wasn't a big enough presence in her life. He was obviously sincere and her face did seem to brighten for a second or two. But I think she needed hope from someone she had a real connection with.

    I think TV Hannah was more sincere than book Hannah about her meeting with Porter, but the fact that she picked up the razor blades just before the meeting makes me wonder just how sincere she was. Or the optimistic girl from the first episode may have finally given into pessimism.

    Finally, right before her meeting with Porter where you think her final hopes were dashed, she had that brief encounter with Clay. She seemed to be thinking about saying something to him. If he had pushed or even made the same suggestion he later made to Skye, that might have been enough.

    1. I always saw Hannah stealing the blades that morning as her being pragmatic. If she was going to do it that day, she would have planned to do it while no one else was home and so with having to drop off the tapes, it probably was cutting it too close if she swung by the store after her meeting. And plus I bet there was the risk of her parents roping her into staying or coming home with her.

      "Clay Jensen hates me." I keep coming back to how tearfully she says that. I think it would have taken an INCREIDIBLY grand gesture on Clay's part to shake her of that. If Clay knew how much she was hurting and that the stakes were literally life and death, maybe he'd have been capable of that. But short of him knowing how dire it was - and how could he - I don't think he was capable of giving her what she needed at that point.

  4. You are certainly right about the power of the "Clay Jensen hates me" statement. You're probably right about the situation requiring an action on his part that he just wasn't capable of unless he was galvanized enough by realizing how dire things were. The fact that I'm not entirely convinced reflects that I don't really want to be convinced, not that your argument isn't quite persuasive.

    I was reading your post about season 2. I'm asking this question here as you indicated you wanted to keep this post spoiler free. You make reference to a call back scene which you think would make a perfect ending to the series. I wonder if you are referring to the scene that flashes back to the initial Crestmont scene and when the hallucination tells Clay he was the most courageous nerd she ever knew?

    I kind of hope you are, because I find the 3-4 minute period that begins with the flashback and ends with them sitting on the bench to be incredibly emotional and heartbreaking. Even before Langford announced she wasn't coming back, it seem likely this would be the last time the two characters interacted. I know its a hallucination, but when Hannah tells him about his courage and encourages him to remember the happy times of their relationship, it almost feels like it could be her ghost coming back to encourage and comfort him. The scenes seem to be understatedly written and acted, with the emotions coming from the words, the feelings, and what we've learned about these characters. Dylan really sells the lines where Clay expresses his two greatest fears and despite what Clay later says later at the memorial service, I'm not sure he has really made any progress in getting over Hannah. I fear season 3 won't spend much time on whether or not's he over her, but I seems unrealistic to me to just take that as a given.

    I know the memorial service and the scene where everyone gathers around Clay during the dance are probably supposed to be the really emotional ones in the episode, but for my money the scenes I cite are the ones that really call forth the emotions.

    1. Enough time has passed that it's safe to ask spoiler questions on the S2 post, btw.

      The callback I was referring to was "The Night We Met" on the dance floor. I felt like that was the perfect moment to go out on. The music comes on, ripping out Clay's heart and ours with it and as he wanders looking so lost and broken, Tony finds him. Tony knowing IMMEDIATELY, "I have to find Clay" might be one of my favorite moments for him ever and then when everyone else gathered around them, all embracing... I found that very powerful. Clay, the outsider who never connected to anyone beyond a few people, finds healing in a group of people who all have been at odds with each other at one point or another. It might be pain that unites them, but they're going to get through it

      It also was a moment that achieved something I feel Season 2 often struggled with - making the audience feel Hannah's absence. Between the many, many flashbacks and appearances of Ghost Hannah, the show seemed to make Hannah feel more alive and present in the action than even in the first season. Clay talks to her so much that it blunted the feeling that she was gone, while at least in season one we often saw him isolated in the present. But keeping her off-screen for the final third of the episode was a wise choice and it was very effective to give us a moment that evoked Hannah without actually having Langford present.

      That said, I really, really enjoyed the bench scene too. I had the same feeling as you - this felt like their farewell, particularly when Clay said he's afraid of forgetting her and she said, "So don't." You're right, it's a great moment between the two of them, and one that - as you allude to - works better if you don't think of her as an aspect of his mind at that point.

      I share your opinion in that he hasn't REALLY gotten over her and I think that's what the scene at the dance is supposed to illustrate. But I think what we're meant to take from that final conversation and the memorial service is that he's at least accepted she's gone. He's not trying to keep her alive in his mind and he's not using those conversations as a comforting crutch. I think season 3 will probably find ways to evoke Hannah in a way that wlll clue us into "Ah, I bet Clay's thinking of her here." For one thing, I can't imagine they won't give Clay a new love interest that sticks to some degree. Skye was obviously used by Clay as an outlet for his guilt about not being there for Hannah, but I bet the next girl in his orbit will be more of his type and a contrast with Hannah. (I favor Sheri, but my understanding is the actress isn't returning.)

      So I think we'll see Clay moving on, but they'll save the Hannah gut punches for the moments that matter.

  5. Have to admit I go back and forth on whether or not the dance scene is a little too hokie. But I think your point about Clay the outsider connecting to so many people has brought me around. And Tony's reaction seems just a little extra special because season 2 didn't seem to have very many scene to remind us of how close they are. I'm not sure whether they are damned or blessed by it, but the bond they share as kind of Hannah's vicars on earth is a mighty tight one.

    One thing I liked about the scene is that when the music starts playing Clay is visiting with Cyrus and his friends. I can't imagine they have any idea what the song means, but they can tell Clay's upset so they follow him to the center of the floor. They don't join the circle but they are there for support. Taking your point a little further, Clay hasn't just become part of a group, he's expanded it.

    I'm not sure whether Clay used the conversations with Hannah as a crutch because he can't accept that she's gone. You have a great post about the cemetery scene in episode 5 of season 1, particularly the back half of the scene. I kind of think he always accepted she was gone, but if not, I think seeing that fresh earth and considering what was below it did the trick. I think he used the conversations as a way to come to grips with his role in her death and his growing awareness that while he knew the really important things about Hannah, he did not know as much about her as he thought and now thinks that he should. He seems to regret not just the times when he failed to tell her how he really felt, but also maybe the times when he didn't make an effort just to be with her. I think you and I disagree about how much guilt Clay should feel, but I think he feels a great deal. I may have said this before, but I think the single-mindedness of his quest for justice for Hannah is driven by guilt as much as by love. Its almost as if he has vowed to be the best posthumous boyfriend any dead girl could ever want.

    In episode 12 of season 2 where the hallucination of Hannah says she wants Clay to forgive her and Clay later says he can't forgive her, I think he (as he's really both voices) is also saying he hasn't been able to forgive himself. I think somewhere in those scenes early in episode 13 he manages to at least get part of the way towards forgiving her and himself.

    I hope your right about the gut punches. It doesn't seem quite right to say so, but without at least a few of them I'm not sure I'll find season 3 very worthwhile.

    1. Yeah, I was bummed by the lack of Tony/Clay interaction in Season 2. I scratch my head a little over where they decided to go with Tony for much of the season, but they nailed that bit at the end. My best guess is they felt that Clay would be more motivated to talk to "Hannah" if he didn't have anyone else to turn to, so they had to sideline Tony (and possibly Sheri.)

      Good observation on Cyrus's group.

      You make a good point about what's driving the conversations between Hannah and Clay. DEFINITELY guilt is a factor. The last couple of episodes of S1 certainly lay that out, and my head canon is that since the guilt clearly motivated him to try to "save" Skye, that became his outlet for those feelings. As that falls apart, he has to deal with Hannah directly. I think it's a little guilt, a little love and a little frustration that he has to so SOMETHING to get some kind of justice that drives him. Bryce makes an easy target - he essentially fired the fatal bullet - and so of course Clay would project all of his guilt and righteousness on to stopping him. It's interesting that Clay doesn't hold too many of the other tape crew responsible, his revenge against Tyler in S1 aside.

      If I was writing S3, I think I'd have Clay and Jessica become closer friends because as a survivor who didn't really get justice, Jessica NEEDS exactly the kind of support that Hannah failed to get. If Clay wants to honor Hannah, being a good friend to Jess is probably the best path. Also, Jessica is probably the person mostly likely to not put up with any self-pity bullshit about Hannah. I don't know if Clay quite forgives himself, but I'd hope S3 gets him to the place he talks about in his eulogy, where everything else fades away and he's left with only love.

      Gut punches are a hallmark of this show, so I'm sure we'll get a few.

    2. I think it difficult for him to be too hard on the others because except for Bryce, Marcus (who I think is kind of a Bryce with less self-confidence) and Tyler, their actions against Hannah were the result of weakness rather than malice. And I think he feels he was too weak to be the kind of friend Hannah needed.

      I hope you are right about Clay and Jessica. I think they had several good scenes together, particularly when he offered to burn the tapes. A little piece of him might have died with him, but I think he would have done it if she had asked. This was one of the few times he put someone else's needs ahead of Hannah and the only time in season 1 he was critical of Hannah. I don't think Hannah let Jessica down, but I think he really believed it and it was good of him to tell Jessica.

    3. Well, in season one he was pretty hard on Courtney when he took her to the grave, he keyed Zach's car, there was a little tension with Ryan and he was weirdly judgemental of Sheri despite her being the only one to try to make some kind of amends. (And this continued into S2 even after she came back from juvie.) So there was easily enough existing tension that could have kept them at odds.

      I'd like a Clay/Jessica friendship - platonic only - because I think each of them would push the other. Also, with Jess schtupping Justin behind Alex's back, there are a lot of opportunities for inter-group tension.

      Jess often gets written off as bitchy by a segment of fandom, but she has a good heart. Now that she'll be the de facto female lead, I'm curious to see where they take her.