Starting the Uncomfortable Conversation

Thirteen Reasons Why portrays tough topics with striking realism.

Sitting through an episode of Netflix's Thirteen Reasons Why is an uncomfortable experience.

In any given episode, viewers might find themselves grimacing, covering their mouths, or looking away from their televisions as they witness drug use, stalking, bullying, slut shaming, and sexual assault. Most will spend the first 12 episodes of season one silently wishing that the horrific event they know is coming in episode 13, the suicide of the main character, can somehow be avoided. But it can't.

Thirteen Reasons Why begins as Liberty High School student Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) receives a set of cassette tapes on his front porch. When he listens to the tapes, he realizes they were recorded by Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), the girl he loved, who committed suicide a few weeks before.

Each cassette contains the story of Hannah's interaction with one individual whom she considers responsible for her suicide. The instructions accompanying the tapes explain that each person named in them is supposed to listen and then pass them on to the next name on the list. If anyone breaks the chain, the tapes will anonymously be released to the public, thereby condemning all of the individuals named on Hannah's cassettes.

The viewer follows along as Clay listens to each tape, uncovering an intertwining narrative of 13 characters who contributed to Hannah's death. The characters, at first, seem stereotypical -- the jocks, the nerds, the over-achievers. However, as each episode unfolds the backstories and personalities of each teenager emerge and mingle in unexpected ways.

Hannah's downward spiral begins when an innocent date and first kiss with jock Justin (Brandon Flynn) ends with Justin taking a picture of Hannah going down a sliding board as her dress flies up, revealing her underwear. The picture ends up circulating the school through text message, and from that point on, unfounded rumors spread about Hannah being "easy" and a slut.

When another boy, Alex (Miles Heizer) puts Hannah's name on a list as having the "Best Ass," Hannah's reputation nosedives, and boys such as Marcus Cole (Steven Silver) and Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice) begin treating her like an object rather than a person, often freely grabbing her and making lewd comments.

Other boys, such as basketball star Zach (Ross Butler), nerdy photographer Tyler (Devin Druid), and gay writer Ryan (Tommy Dorfman) help contribute to the demise of Hannah's sense of worth and security.

Hannah's relationships with girls at Liberty High add to her feelings of rejection. First, there is her friend Jessica (Alisha Boe), who ends up slapping Hannah out of jealousy. There's also Courtney (Michele Selene Ang), a closet lesbian who throws Hannah under the bus to save her own reputation when a picture surfaces of the two girls kissing. Sheri (Ajiona Alexus) seems sweet on the outside, but harbors a secret that weighs heavily on Hannah's mind.

As the tapes progress, Clay follows Hannah's story, creating flashbacks of the events she describes in his mind, trying not to lose himself in the process. Clay's loyal friend Tony (Christian Navarro), whom Hannah entrusted to take care of the tapes, helps Clay navigate his complicated emotions as he learns each of the stories on the tape and how they interconnect.

Like the butterfly effect, one event, one nasty comment, one selfish act leads to another. As character Zach heartbreakingly sums up, "If one thing would've gone differently along the line, maybe none of this would've happened."

Thirteen Reasons Why is adapted from a best-selling young adult novel of the same name, written by Jay Asher. Knowing it had teenagers as its target audience, those involved with the project made bold decisions when it came to portraying the realities depicted in the story. Characters drink and smoke pot. They swear profusely. They have sex. They cyberbully. They masturbate. They skip school. They lie to their parents … constantly.

There are two rape scenes in the show, both depicted with haunting realism. And, of course, there is Hannah's inevitable suicide, which, even though the viewer knows it's coming, still causes a visceral reaction as she slices open her wrists with a razorblade in her bathtub.

As Brian Yorkey, executive producer, notes in the series' documentary episode "Behind the Reasons:" "We had a number of people ask us along the way why we had Hannah kill herself and why we showed it. We worked very hard not to be gratuitous, but we didn't want it to be peaceful to watch, because we wanted it to be very clear that there is nothing in any way worthwhile about suicide."

"As a society, we tend to shy away from these hard topics. And sometimes, in cinema, we do that, too. I think this is great because it says, 'No, this is a problem, and it needs to be addressed,'" says Justin Prentice, who plays Bryce.

Thirteen Reasons Why tackles the hard topics head-on, with the intent of starting a conversation between teens, parents, schools, and communities. "The whole issue of suicide is an uncomfortable thing to talk about," notes author Jay Asher in "Behind the Reasons," "But it happens. And so we have to talk about it. It's dangerous not to talk about it, because there's always room for hope."

For taking risks in tackling challenging young adult issues with extraordinary realism and promoting conversation and change regarding sexual assault and suicide, the Television Academy is proud to honor Thirteen Reasons Why.

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