Sequels have always been a risky territory. And even riskier when the source material has already been exhausted in the show’s first season. But considering streaming giant Netflix’s propensity towards incessantly piling up content on their portal, it doesn’t really come as a surprise that the second season of the immensely popular young adult series 13 Reasons Why is here and streaming. I have seen the first five episodes of the second season and here’s what I think.
Each episode of the first season had focused on one of the 13 audio tapes that Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) recorded to explain why she went on to take her own life. Now in the second season, we face the aftermath of these tapes. As Hannah’s mother, Olivia Baker files a case against the Liberty High School authorities for not paying enough attention to the problems of their students and ultimately having a hand in Hannah Baker’s suicide, the series functions much more like a courtroom drama this time.
Beginning five months after Hannah’s suicide, show creator Brian Yorkey goes beyond Jay Asher’s novel for this season. Hannah’s tapes are replaced by court testimony. Every episode begins with a voiceover from one of the students called to the stand to talk about the events that led up to Hannah’s suicide. While the device is absorbing enough, the power of the story is massively watered down by its content.
There are always two sides to a story, and once other Liberty High students are given a chance to speak, we realise that all that we learnt in season one was basically just Hannah’s side. While that works exceptionally well for sourcing this season, at several points, it seems like the makers have bit far more than they can chew. Somewhere down the line, the incessant widening of the plot dilutes the impact of the first season. We, as viewers, feel as disillusioned as Clay about not knowing the real Hannah. And after spending almost 13 hours listening to her tapes in the first season, that is a tad bit disappointing.
However, the most bizarre introduction in the season is definitely the ghost of a plot device past. Clay, still grieving for Hannah, is now not just haunted by the glimpses of Hannah but by a living and talking ghost. A cheap stunt by the makers, really, at including Langford, one of the most recognised faces of the series, in the narrative. Her presence may be significant of Clay’s inability to move on but it’s dealt with in such a hokey way that it just doesn’t work. It’s only because of Dylan Minnette’s believable, moving performance that these scenes become worth watching.
Fortunately, the rest of the cast is also as superb, consistently elevating the material beyond its reach. While Justine Prentice is skin-crawlingly convincing as serial rapist/jock Bryce Walker, Alisha Boe nails Jessica Davis’ character to the T. Ross Butler, given much more screen presence this time, is fair game as Zach Dempsey and so is Kate Walsh as Olivia Baker. Miles Heizer is slightly disappointing as Alex Standall this time, but considering the huge narrative leap his character has taken, his performance seems more or less passable.
13 Reasons Why had been one of those shows that had solicited the most extreme kind of response from its viewers. And with the backlash against the first season, the makers have made it a point to include disclaimers at the beginning and end of each episode this time. But looks like their efforts go a lot further than that. While numerous character arcs seem to be modified accordingly, the plot becomes clumsy. Each of the roughly one-hour-long episodes could have also done with losing around 15 minutes of screen time. One can’t help but wonder if Clay’s parents are oddly supportive of all his actions now and even how the school counsellor, Mr Porter finally stands up for the job he was hired for. Jessica’s ex Justin’s story also feels to be borrowed from one of those movies they show in school about the dangers of doing drugs.
But despite Netflix’s attempt to frame the series in a more responsible manner, Season 2, with just a few touching or tender moments, is a relentlessly heavy watch. It is true that it takes teenage problems far more seriously than other TV shows at this point but it is also true that 13 Reasons Why does not shy away from exaggerating these problems for dramatic effect. In addition, the background score is a lot more in-your-face this time and it hasn’t served any real purpose till now.
The show’s efforts to capture all the aspects of a community struggling with grief are sure commendable but they seem to be going to a very dark and dicey place just like the previous one. Whether 13 Reasons Why is executed with enough nuance and sensitivity to generate the kind of conversation it aims to have around teenage bullying, assault, suicide and a host of other issues, is still a very big question that needs to be addressed. And one thing we can all agree on when it comes to 13 Reasons Why is that it sometimes is a lot to take in.