Being a teenager is terrifying. Not only is your body and mind going through all sorts of changes, but often, it looks like everyone around you is doing a better job of handling what you are struggling with.
This is a tale as old as time, and one that television has told time and again. The high school show takes different shapes: comedy (Freaks and Geeks being great examples), drama (Friday Night Lights), a delightful blend of the two (Gossip Girl and The OC), even supernatural and paranormal (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Vampire Diaries). Newer entrants Riverdale, based on the characters from the classic Archie comics, and Netflix’s sobering 13 Reasons Why are more serious-minded than some of their forebears, falling along the thin line between drama and angst. What unites these otherwise disparate shows about teenage girl gangs and outsiders looking to fit in are the narratives of loss, confusion and the manner in which the community is paradoxically, simultaneously weakened and strengthened.
Both Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why are set in small towns, with the majority of their characters being in high school. Both open with death: in Riverdale, Jason Blossom’s staged death ends up being an actual one, while 13 Reasons Why opens with the suicide of Hannah Baker, who has left behind cassettes telling stories of the 13 people she believes have driven her to take this step. The show opens with the tapes coming to Clay Jensen, number 11 on the list.
The deaths of Jason and Hannah leave the characters of their respective shows reeling. In the case of Riverdale, the safe, decent and innocent facade of the small town is blown off spectacularly. The show’s narrator, Jughead Jones, constantly reminds viewers that “things changed forever” with the discovery of Jason’s body. Factions come to light along with old feuds between picture-perfect families. Friends fight and turn their backs on one another, but at the same time, new alliances are formed, with characters like Betty Cooper and Jughead, the good girl next door and the mopey hipster, coming together to solve the various mysteries that suddenly pepper their existence.
13 Reasons Why is more explicit in its denouncement of community as killer. Hannah Baker arrives at a new high school in sophomore year, and her tragedy begins almost immediately. She hangs out with the popular jock, Justin Foley, who slaps on her the reputation of being easy. Interactions and friendships each come to a depressing halt, usually because of one misplaced word or action. Hannah’s tapes make their way through the chain of people, mostly fellow students who have had some impact on her life and decision. In her absence, they bind those same students together, each watching the other to make sure no one spills the truth of Hannah’s life.
13 Reasons Why is based on a bestselling young adult novel of the same name. Its tone couldn’t be more unlike the Archie comics, falling more in line with cult classic The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It is dark and deals with some of the dark realities of high school – the more sinister side of bullying and its fallout, slut shaming, suicide and finally and perhaps most horrifyingly, rape and sexual assault. Riverdale also attempts to shoehorn these issues into its storyline, but perhaps because of the writing, they come across as preachy extraneous and something done to check things off a list.
The examination of the ramifications of sexual and substance abuse in 13 Reasons Why makes it clear that these are not only integral to its characters’ motivations; indeed, other, more adult-oriented shows could take a page out of its book when it comes to similar portrayals.
There’s a popular adage that it takes a village to raise a child. If we are to believe the lessons of Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why, it also takes a village to kill one.