For about an episode and a half, 13 Reasons Why feels like the next great teen drama. Netflix's adaptation of Jay Asher's novel, in which a girl reveals in a set of audio tapes the baker's dozen reasons why she committed suicide, spends 13 episodes trying to nail a tricky tone. It attempts to capture some of the natural levity of life while telling an incredibly dark story.
Somewhere between episodes two and three, 13 Reasons Why really feels like it achieves this tricky tone. But all too quickly, it loses steam amid a glut of plot showrunners Brian Yorkey and Diana Son seem unwisely determined to power through. The result is a 13-episode season which should've been eight installments, with a lot of missed opportunities gumming up the works.
Between this big-swing-and-a-miss and the diminishing returns of the CW's Riverdale, the other major teen drama of the season, it seems we'll be waiting a while for a worthy successor to the teen drama throne, previously occupied by shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and My So-Called Life. But in fact, both of these series have what the other lacks. Somewhere between 13 Reasons Why and Riverdale is the next great teen drama.
[Editor's note: Spoilers ahead for 13 Reasons Why and Riverdale.]
13 Reasons Why's biggest strength is in its story: Hannah Baker has died by suicide, and through the tapes she's left behind, Clay Jensen is going to figure out why. Each episode is one story about one of Hannah's classmates. Slowly but surely, the truth reveals itself through her recordings. It's almost procedural-esque in how it develops, albeit with an overarching story.
Focusing on each of those characters is something of a mixed bag: When the show is spending time with a smart, well-developed character (Courtney, Jessica, Justin) the episode is usually similarly fleshed-out and thought-provoking. When the character is weaker, with less interesting connection to Hannah (Zach, Marcus), the show falls apart. Unfortunately, most of the episodes in the middle of the season fall into the latter camp, making the middle a significant slog.
This is the main problem with 13 Reasons Why: It desperately needs editing. There's just too much here that it's difficult to get through, especially in a binge. There's the occasional moment of humor, but the show's earnestness and reverence for its core incident — a girl killing herself — is simultaneously appropriate and suffocating.
Despite also being about a teen's death, Riverdale has no such problem being kitschy fun. It never takes itself too seriously, allowing quippy characters like Veronica Lodge and Kevin Keller to puncture the weightier moments with smart humor. It's definitively a drama, but it understands what it is well enough to succeed.
Riverdale's problem, on the other hand, is a total lack of structure. Initially, the show seemed dedicated to discovering the truth behind Jason Blossom's murder. But it's been multiple episodes since any character seemed to care about that mystery, instead focusing on real estate drama and concern over Polly Cooper and Jason's unborn child.
Combine this with woefully underdeveloped characters (especially Polly and Betty Cooper, as well as Archie Andrews himself) and characters whose allegiances and characteristics switch on a dime (hi, Cheryl Blossom and Alice Cooper), and you've got a show with more personality problems than Glee. Arguably, only Jughead is fully developed right now' and the amount of energy invested in following the parents — Alice, Hermione Lodge and Fred Andrews — keeps the kids from getting proper development.
If you compare the two shows, you'll notice that 13 Reasons Why is strong in every way Riverdale is weak, and vice-versa. For two shows that seem very alike, on a qualitative level, they really couldn't be more dissimilar.
So no, neither of these shows is exactly right. That's not to say they don't have their pleasures; 13 Reasons Why is enjoyable, if not quite worth the binge watch, while there's little on TV as fun as Riverdale is. Imperfection is not a reason to ignore, merely a reason to look toward the future.
We're exceedingly close to the next great teen drama. To have two good ones like this on at the same time is proof of that. But true, classic quality takes time to find. Buffy has held the crown for quite some time, after all. Someone needs to look at 13 Reasons Why and Riverdale and somehow synthesize the best parts of it while discarding the worst of it. When that show does come along, it will have been worth the wait.
13 Reasons Why is streaming on Netflix now. Riverdale airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on the CW.
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