There was a chilling statistic on the U.S. website IndieWire recently: It would take you four whole weeks to watch all of the original content Netflix has dropped so far this year. With that in mind, I see it as a duty to inform you that you should avoid adding 13 more hours to your viewing load and skip season two of “13 Reasons Why.”
The thing is, for months my teenage daughters nagged me to review the first season. But I refused, saying that, in the same way I haven’t written about childbirth or good halal butchers, there are people far better qualified to write about it than yours truly.
But now I’ve seen all of season one and half of season two, I feel compelled to write about this cautionary tale – and I’m not talking about the show’s plotline.
This is an example of a show failing to quit when its storyline has been exhausted and coming back for a second season based purely on commercial, not artistic, grounds. And HBO is potentially making the same mistake with “Big Little Lies,” which returns for a second season later this year in identical circumstances.
The biggest disappointment is that season one of “13 Reasons Why” was actually fantastic television – and nobody was more surprised by that than me. My daughters both loved the first season, but it was only after it became an online sensation – the most tweeted show of 2017, for instance – that I caved to curiosity and watched.
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Several months on from seeing that first season, I’m still impressed by its nuanced, sensitive portrayal of teen suicide – all wrapped inside the ingenious format of a girl, Hannah Baker (the impressive young Australian actor Katherine Langford), recording 13 sides of tape before her death. On it she accuses a series of people of being complicit in her decision to kill herself. At the heart of the story, though, is a beautiful, will-they-won’t-they relationship between Hannah and the shy, sensitive Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), aka the world’s worst cyclist.
The first season skilfully weaves in flashbacks from Hannah’s life with classmates at Liberty High School coming to terms with her death. At its peak, the first season was the best teen drama since “My So-Called Life” in 1994 – and I can offer no higher praise than a comparison to the ABC show that made stars of Claire Danes and Jared Leto (another alumnus, Wilson Cruz, has a small role in “13 Reasons Why”).
But perhaps one of the reasons so many people still love “My So-Called Life” is that it was canceled after one brief season and 19 episodes, so never got close to jumping the shark. The mistake “13 Reasons Why” makes isn’t so much coming back, but returning with the same characters rather than making it an anthology show a la “Feud,” “Fargo,” “American Horror Story,” and so on.
All of Jay Asher’s 2007 YA novel was successfully told in season one. (In the introduction to the novel, Asher explains how he got the tape idea while taking an audio tour at a museum and being struck by the “eeriness” of the detached female voice in his ear). Stripped of its main conceit, season two centers its drama and flashbacks around a courtroom battle in which Hannah’s bereaved mom, Olivia (Kate Walsh), brings a civil case against the public school system for failing to stop her daughter from being bullied.
Each new episode focuses on a different character entering the witness stand to recount their experiences with Hannah. There’s also an additional gimmick whereby school kids occasionally receive Polaroid images offering various clues about other wrongdoings at the school. Oh, and did I mention there’s also “Ghost Hannah,” who keeps on popping up at inopportune moments to see Clay – like when he’s trying to consummate his relationship with new girlfriend Skye (Sosie Bacon, daughter of Kevin). Don’t you just hate it when that happens?
All of the gang at Liberty High School are also reunited, including loathsome Bryce (perhaps the most stereotypical high school baddie since Biff in “Back to the Future”), creepy Tyler and conflicted Courtney, with some fairly unmemorable new additions. Worse, the plot offers the returning characters nothing other than a retread of old ground or flashbacks that completely contradict their actions in the first season – all in the vain hope of mining some new drama.
Without the original device, we’re left with fairly hokey high school histrionics welded to a generic courtroom drama. Nowhere is the superfluousness better exemplified than with the character of Tony (Christian Navarro) – or as Clay once memorably dubbed him, “Unhelpful Yoda.” Where in season one his purpose was to act as Clay’s conscience, here he’s reduced to very occasional appearances offering condolences to Olivia.
I honestly cannot recall another show that has fallen from grace so quickly. In effect, it has gone from “My So-Called Life” to “Pretty Little Liars” in the space of a season, jettisoning everything that made it addictive – and all in the name of commerce.
I still remember the shock on my 14-year-old’s face when I first told her they were making a second season with the same characters. She had only question: “Why?” It’s perhaps most telling that after she watched the first couple of episodes of season two with me, the next evening she opted not for episode three but a vintage episode of “Gilmore Girls.”
The book, of course, was originally optioned as a potential movie for Selena Gomez (she remains as executive producer) back at the start of the decade. But in the same way it was 100 percent the right move to turn the novel into a 13-part series, thus allowing us to really explore the characters, it was 100 percent the wrong move to bring them back for a second season where the biggest, truest reveals have all been told. Everything now just smacks of rooting through the trash bin and rehashing weaker ideas (especially the storyline involving Justin).
I was most struck by a line that a new character, Jackie – an advocate for victims of bullying – tells Olivia when she’s encouraging her prior to the start of the court case: “Hannah’s story needs to be told.” That’s exactly the point: it has been and it’s called season one.
There were many moments in that first season when I would be surprised to find tears involuntarily cascading down my face – yet there was absolutely no emotional connection the second time around, absent the tragedy of the doomed love affair. For anyone who ever wondered, this is why Shakespeare never wrote a sequel to “Romeo and Juliet.”