13 Reasons Why returns this week.
13 Reasons Why returns this week.

Netflix series’ cheeky dig at critics

THERE'S a scene in an early episode of 13 Reasons Why's second season when the characters discuss the absurdity of a new policy in which their high school has banned mentioning suicide.

Bring it up and it's an instant suspension.

There's little mistaking the pointed message behind the exchange. Netflix's controversial teen series copped flack last year for its graphic depiction of teen suicide from a raft of youth mental health organisations and commentators who feared contagion. Some schools asked parents to keep their children from watching the drama.

But the show and its creative team have always maintained that it's better to confront the harrowing subject than to keep silent.

To its credit, the series has committed to working closer with those same organisations to ensure young viewers in distress have resources to turn to should it all become too much - a one-minute warning video from cast members precedes the first episode and the series repeatedly points to a website which links out to helplines and the like.

The first series went all the way to the end of its source material (Jay Asher's young adult book of the same name) which meant the show was on its own in season two, fending for itself as it continued the story of those at Liberty High whose lives have been scarred by the cruelty of others.

The spectre of Hannah haunts the second season.
The spectre of Hannah haunts the second season.

Picking up five months after Hannah Baker's (Katherine Langford) death, the season is structured around the lawsuit brought on by Olivia Baker (Kate Walsh) against her late daughter's school.

Where the first season was anchored by Hannah's voiceover through the tapes, here each episode is narrated by a different character - the person who is called to testify in court that episode. This works better in some episodes than others - you're always going to care more about Jessica's (Alisha Boe) story than Courtney's (Michele Selene Ang) or Marcus's (Steven Silver).

It's also the case that each person's voiceover is laid over scenes featuring other characters so the writing here is a little generic as the story demands that what's being said has to apply universally to everyone's experience.

But it's a smart move to share the privilege of who can speak directly to the audience, even if that voice isn't always reliable. The series may try to move on from being purely about Hannah, but it doesn't do it enough - she's still the main game and it starts to grate. Clay (Dylan Minnette), perhaps in self-denial, says he wants to move on from the tragedy of Hannah Baker, and so do we.

High school is hell.
High school is hell.

There's a lot more going on with each of the other kids at Liberty High - with Tyler (Devin Druid), with Courtney and with Zach (Ross Butler) - and you wish the series would invest more in their stories without it always tying back to Hannah. That character starts to feel less like a narrative anchor and more like an albatross around its neck.

Through these other characters, 13 Reasons Why starts to delve into sexism, race relations, addiction, sexuality, the dynamics of power, privilege and authority, plus the inherent unfairness of social structures.

While it sets up two mysteries to sustain the season - the question of who else the villainous Bryce (Justin Prentice) may have raped or assaulted, and who is sending threatening messages to those testifying - at 13 episodes, the show is too long and tries your patience more often than not. Its momentum would greatly benefit from a tighter edit down to eight episodes.

Clay can’t seem to move on.
Clay can’t seem to move on.

Though it's always just one soft piano track away from an after-school special, 13 Reasons Why manages to just stay on the right side with its story of teenagers in pain in a world that wants to beat them down.

As with the first season, 13 Reasons Why is not an easy, breezy Saturday night binge but there's something addictive about the show that it's hard to look away, that is until you remember teen angst has a limited shelf life.

13 Reasons Why season two starts streaming on Netflix on Friday, May 18 from 5pm AEST.

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