Last week, Netflix released its adaptation of Jay Asher's best-selling YA novel 13 Reasons Why, which tells the heart-wrenching story of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a high school junior who takes her own life and leaves tapes for her classmates explaining the events that led her to make that choice.
The series, which has the potential to change the way we think about and view suicide, earns a must-watch label for its exploration of grief and guilt and for an underlying message that we can never know the full extent of someone's life. The series smartly depicts how one person's influence on another person's world is just one of many factors that can drive someone's actions. But the high school-set series is also not perfect and is just the latest Netflix series to stretch beyond its means.
That 13 Reasons Why runs into this particular problem isn't too surprising, given the structure of its source material. The novel's eye-opening events occur over a single night as Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), a close friend who harbors a deep crush on Hannah and acts as our entry into this particular world, listens to each of the 13 tapes. But by stretching out each tape's somber contents — which range from objectification to a harrowing rape — to fill an hour of story onscreen, 13 Reasons Why extends well beyond its storytelling limits and frequently struggles, especially in the early episodes, to fill its running time with meaningful story.
Each episode attempts to balance the time spent in the present, in which Clay's anxiety about listening to the tapes and learning the horrible secrets they contain leads him to slow down the pace at which he listens to each one, with flashbacks, in which Hannah recalls the events that led to her death. But only a handful of the stories feel meaty enough to warrant this level of attention, and an added storyline involving a lawsuit filed against the school by Hannah's grieving parents only adds so much. All of this means that, by the time the midway point of the season rolls around, the show's difficult subject matter isn't necessarily the only thing keeping viewers away.
Of course, 13 Reasons Why is hardly the first Netflix show to suffer from this particular problem. Last fall's highly anticipated Gilmore Girls revival was drawn out over four 90-minute features. What initially felt like not enough time with our favorite pop culture-loving women quickly turned into too much once it became clear that creator Amy Sherman-Palladino simply didn't have enough to say to fill those hours. Episodes dragged as characters and arcs became stagnant, while a mid-episode musical went on for at least five minutes too long.
Even Netflix's popular superhero series like Marvel's Daredevil and Jessica Jones haven't been immune to this dilemma, and often end up treading water as showrunners attempt to fill time until the big confrontation or climax. And while 13 Reasons Why has a much better (or cuter) argument than most shows for keeping the episode number at the standard 13 that many cable and streaming shows receive, there's an even better argument for telling the best story possible. Basically, if you don't have enough story to fill 13 one-hour episodes, reconsider your approach.
Last summer's breakout series Stranger Things, a love letter to the classic films of the '80s, told its engrossing story about Eleven and the Upside Down in just eight episodes. The shorter episode order meant there was little room for the series to stray from its desired path, which kept the writing tight. The shorter order also lent itself to a story full of suspense. But shorter episode orders aren't the only way to alter or improve a series. Brit Marling's divisive freshman drama The OA, which also clocked in at eight episodes, played with episodic running time as it went, with episodes ranging from just 31 minutes to 71 minutes.
None of this is to suggest that fewer episodes inherently lead to better television. For most of its run, the CBS drama The Good Wife told engaging and thoughtful stories in full seasons of 22 episodes. This also isn't to say that there's absolutely no wiggle room for series to take detours or engage in stand-alone episodes. Jessica Jones probably would have solved some of its own pacing issues if the writers had dedicated a few early episodes to showing the titular heroine working as a private detective.
But not every series on TV lends itself to telling this kind of storytelling — most Netflix programs don't, in fact — and it's because many showrunners now view their series as 13-hour movies. The erasure of episodic storytelling is a problem for another article, but it's easy to see that many of the issues that arise here are either a result of or at least more noticeable because of the binge-watching nature in which we consume Netflix properties.
But with the freedom that accompanies airing on streaming services like Netflix (or Hulu or Amazon, for that matter), where act breaks and restrictions due to advertising are nonexistent, it's also perplexing that more showrunners don't take advantage of the opportunity to benefit from the looser constraints and adapt their approach to better fit their story. A great number of viewers took issue with The OA by the end of the show's freshman season, but it wasn't because it only had eight episodes or because Marling and co-creator Zal Batmanglij experimented with shorter or extended running times. So why are we beholden, in this age, to the arbitrary number 13?
Even the final two seasons of HBO's epic fantasy Game of Thrones will be considerably shorter than the standard 10 episodes of the show's first six seasons, with Season 7 and Season 8 consisting of seven and six episodes, respectively. The show's creators, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, have repeatedly said there isn't enough story to fill 20 episodes, and if the people behind one of the biggest TV shows in history are able to admit this, why are so many others struggling?
Sure, Game of Thrones has a certain cachet about it and the creators have the power to do whatever it is that they want to do by this point, but every showrunner should be looking at his or her series as if it is the next Game of Thrones and attempting to tell worthwhile, meaningful stories. And if the only way to do this is by limiting the number of total episodes or shortening running times to alleviate certain issues, they should fight for their right to do so.
13 Reasons Why is currently streaming on Netflix.