There Are Plenty of Reasons to Skip ‘13 Reasons Why’ Season 3
Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” returns for a third season that goes so beyond the original premise that even the title has lost all meaning. There are not one, two, three or even four convincing reasons for this show to carry on. It’s a classic case of a studio finding itself with a hot property that it continuously has to find ways to stretch out. The first season was a culturally relevant drama about one high school girls’ sad journey to suicide. The second season literally repeated the same story but from different points of view with a few new plot lines tossed in. Left with no excuse to recycle the tragic story of Hannah Baker, this third outing spins a whole new narrative that plays like a bad teen melodrama.
Bereft of any new cassettes, the show now relies on switching back and forth between the present and 8 months in the past. We’re back at Liberty High with a fresh narrator in the form of Ani (Grace Saif), a new Kenyan/English student. She arrives to a campus still reeling from the trial of jock rapist Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice) and a false active shooter alarm during the school’s Spring Fling. It wasn’t so false. Clay (Dylan Minnette) and Tony (Christian Navarro) had stopped the perturbed Tyler (Devin Druid) from carrying out a massacre, mostly inspired from his assault and sodomization by demented jocks. Now Tyler is under the supervision of his peers, who are aware of what nearly happened, but new tensions arise when Bryce suddenly disappears. The suspects are numerous, from Tyler to Jessica (Alisha Boe), one of Bryce’s rape victims. Bryce had been sent to a new private school, but his shadow lingered over his former campus. When his body is found in a local river, Clay and Ani ponder who among them could be a murderer.
This new “13 Reasons Why” feels like a stale season of “Riverdale” with the flashy style and bombastic twists taken out. When it first premiered in 2017 the series made an impact because it was faithfully adapted from a YA novel by Jay Asher. The tale of Hannah Baker (played by Katherine Langford) and her thirteen, post-mortem revelations via cassettes struck a chord, to the point where Netflix has apparently edited out her suicide scene from the first season out of concerns of its triggering effect on teen viewers. No studio wants to let go out of a hit, so the showrunners ventured into “The Handmaid’s Tale” or “Big Little Lies” territory and have been attempting to keep the narrative going beyond its starting premise. But unlike “Handmaid’s Tale” the world of this series is so confined and its original message so direct, that it can’t help but now spin out of control, risking perfunctory writing and whacky twists. Wisely enough, the next season will reportedly be the last.
Let’s keep to the original spirit of the show and cut to the chase with thirteen reasons why this third edition is not worth another stroll down the halls of Liberty High. First, the show has lost any coherent meaning. If the first season was about a girl’s battles with depression and sexual assault, all within the brutal hierarchies of high school life, now it’s your average teen mystery yarn with a few social messages thrown in. Imagine a dark and moody “Saved By the Bell.” Compare it with HBO’s “Euphoria,” which takes its Gen-Z characters seriously and explores their moment with the hallucinatory, pop culture edginess they deserve. Second, the look of the series has now become disjointed, switching from stale and saturated greys for the present to sunnier cinematography for the past. The first season had one defined look that made it feel immediate and flowing. It can feel as if this should have been a different show altogether. Three, everyone becomes a mere plot tool. Clay has no resonance or depth, he’s now both the quieter, prudish kid and a Peter Parker who never has time to study because he’s running around trying to solve who killed Bryce, where Tyler might have hidden his guns and still freaks out because adopted brother Justin (Brandon Flynn) had sex with Jessica on his bed.
Four, there are so many characters still left over from the last two sagas that room for them gets quite limited. Zach (Ross Butler), now walking with an injured leg from last season’s brawl, has a prominent role in the season premiere as he is named new captain of the football team. Then he disappears into the background for the next four episodes, popping in here and there doing important things like calling Bryce’s phone. Yet there’s never a sense the show knows what to do with him. Five, Ani as a new character has no purpose other than to provide a new narrator and nosily investigate the lives of these traumatized kids she barely knows. Six, the show could be commended for exploring relevant social topics, but there’s no sincerity. Bryce’s girlfriend Chloe (Anne Winters) has an abortion in a tense scene involving religious protesters, but it’s a mere footnote that is barely explored in terms of its implications. Jessica explores masturbation and experiments with kink and even Tony’s family, we learn, were taken away in an ICE raid. But it all feels rushed and glared at it with the attitude of, hey, this is what teens are dealing with, let’s somehow toss it in. Seven, speaking of Tony, must the token Latinx character always be confined to dropping out, becoming an auto mechanic and somehow talking like an all-wise Yoda? Eight, the adults have now been reduced to cardboard cutouts or soap opera viragos. Clay’s parents just make avocado toast and issue platitudes, Ani’s mom is the caretaker for Bryce’s dying grandfather and simply badgers her daughter to get scholarships, and Bryce’s own mother is meant to smirk and talk about how men have destroyed her heart. These are all fantastic actors, including the teens. They just need something with more meat.
Nine, the editing style is messy. There’s no real flow in the way the show tries to swerve in and out of the past and present. Ten, some of the set-ups border on absurdity, for example in an early episode Clay and a whole slew of classmates meet at their favorite coffee joint, Melano’s, and in a very public space loudly discuss covering up Tyler’s plot, disappearances, rape, and other issues they couldn’t find a private space for. Eleven, segueing from that, rarely if ever do any of these teens have a normal conversation during this season. The first time around there were small, endearing moments where Clay, Hannah and others would have the kind of exchanges young people can indeed relate to. Now every moment must include overly dramatic lines out of a daytime soap. How do these kids ever get any homework done? Twelve, like “Riverdale,” but with total pretension, this series now presents teenagers no older than 18 who have lived twice the lives of people who are 68, but they still wait for rides from mom and dad.
Thirteen, the show never treats its audience as equals but as high schoolers who need watered down schlock. The first season had the tone of something designed for the young adult genre but still mature and meaningful. Now even songs like “Swim Home” by Cautious Clay or “Another Summer Night With You” by Alexander 23 are edited into scenes with the on-the-nose technique of network primetime. Every episode feels like a big meld, so it can inevitably become quite boring because it never feels like it’s advancing. Endless voiceovers wonder about who has the soul of a killer, who was a “keeper of secrets,” and on and on. To reference HBO’s “Euphoria” again, just make the comparison. One understands the mood of Gen-Z, its search for contact through new sexual norms, its identity defined by the dark glisten of social media and a changing world. The other one makes the fatal mistake of thinking kids do actually want to be treated like kids.
“13 Reasons Why” season three begins streaming Aug. 23 on Netflix.