Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What's on Netflix?: 13 REASONS WHY



Welcome to another installment of WHAT'S ON NETFLIX?, where we pick out a film or series currently playing on Netflix and review it for the fans. This week, Robert reviews the controversial teen drama, 13 REASONS WHY.


Before I get started, given the touchy nature of the subject matter behind 13 Reasons Why (a story centered around the suicide of a high school junior) I think it behooves me to admit that I have never known anyone who committed suicide. Maybe you think that disqualifies me from talking about this series at all. Fair enough; take what I'm going to say with a grain of salt or click away from this article entirely. Go in peace. That's up to you. But given that the Merc allows me this occasional platform to ruminate on what I've been watching lately, and given that what I've been watching on Netflix lately, apart from reruns of The Real Ghostbusters, is 13 Reasons Why, I'm going to talk about it. So there we are.

Oh, another thing: I don't play the euphemism game. I prefer to speak plainly about things. When I talk about someone killing themselves, that's what I say, instead of "he/she took his/her own life." Fair warning.

Two weeks prior to the opening of our story, high school junior and troubled young woman Hannah Baker killed herself. At the beginning of the show we know as much about her reasons for this as the rest of the characters. The student body at her school are dealing with the event in the vapid ways you might expect. An impromptu memorial of photographs and notes has gathered like chewing gum under a desk at her locker. In the first episode, in a scene that is as sickening as I am sure it was meant to be, we watch two girls take selfies in front of the memorial and then tweet the picture out with the hashtag "#neverforget."

If this all seems sweet to you, the series will quickly make it clear that these people didn't know Hannah at all. But that's not the story. The story, as the title indicates, is Hannah's reasons for her suicide. As the title suggests, there are thirteen of them, embodied in thirteen people at Hannah's high school who she decided factored most into her decision. That Hannah herself is not one of these thirteen people is not lost on me.

Before the act, Hannah recorded thirteen tapes, each of which is dedicated to one of those thirteen people and lays out in detail how that person fits into her decision to kill herself. The stories she tells are relatable, even somewhat generic tales of the pain of the American high-schooler. When I say her stories are generic, I don't mean to imply that they're inconsequential. I only mean that they're virtually archetypal teenage girl experiences. Guys being horny dirtbags to her. Rumors about what she gets up to when the lights go out. Embarrassing photos getting spread around school. All terrible, humiliating stuff, but not uncommon. Which I suppose is the point.

Anyway, Hannah sets in motion an intricate plan to see that the tapes are passed between each of those thirteen people. They are instructed to listen to the tapes and then pass them on to the next person. If they should fail to do so, Hannah has left a second copy of the tapes with a trusted friend who will take her story public. If you're expecting deadly traps to come into the story at this point, forget it. The similarities to Saw stop there.

In the course of things, the tapes come into the possession of Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), who is horrified to learn that he is one of the thirteen. The series follows Clay as he listens to the tapes and, to a degree, becomes Hannah's agent of retribution. Previous recipients of the tapes have tried to put the things they've learned from the tapes behind them, which isn't working so well. Clay decides to act on them instead.

High school is a loaded subject for anyone who's been there, more so for those who are there now. Riding the current wave of awareness about bullying, sexual assault, and the general crappiness of pretty much anyone aged thirteen to eighteen, 13 Reasons Why will press every one of the hot button topics of our modern time in the course of its thirteen episodes. The perennial favorites of bullying, drinking, and drugs will play their part. But drama must always be timely, so the series also includes how the pain of a closeted homosexual and rape will figure into Hannah's story twice across three episodes.

My first issue with this series is about the tapes themselves. They're a suicide letter in thirteen parts, but what was Hannah's real reason for recording them? Did she honestly believe anyone was going to do anything with what they learned from them? What we see of her behavior, and her tapes themselves, suggest not. At the end, Hannah has completely given up, making Clay's actions over the course of the series serendipitous and utterly unpredicted by Hannah herself. It may be cathartic to us to watch the people who did Hannah wrong get theirs but, by the end, the tapes themselves come across as nothing more than an extended exercise in self-pity.

My second issue is the length of the series overall. 13 Reasons Why wants to break your heart and make you weep for Hannah and all the teen girls in the real world who she represents. And it will do that ... for the first three episodes or so. But the thing about strong emotions, positive or negative, is that they burn themselves out. Not because they don't last, but because they can't last. Part of the adaptive ability of humans is that we can only feel strong emotion for so long, then we get used to it. It's just how we're made. This adaptive nature of ours eventually works to undermine 13 Reasons Why's impact. By the end, when the series has pulled out the big guns of rape and so on, the story has lost its emotional power and degenerated into something that feels vaguely voyeuristic. Whether the rape scenes are necessary at all or just exploitation masquerading as extreme awareness-building is a topic for debate in and of itself.

Adding to this questionable execution of emotional narrative are the opportunities the story takes via the fact of its female lead to take cheap, pop-feminist shots at the non-females in the audience. To be clear: you will never hear me argue that women couldn't be treated better. And getting into the argument of "Who Suffers More" is a mug's game and misses the point. Yes, some of us may have more stuff to shovel than others, but we all have stuff to shovel. So everybody, ease off out there.

But when Hannah spouts poor-me tripe like "You don't know what it's like [to be bullied]. You've never been a girl," I call time-out. No one group "owns" bullying. No one group suffers it exclusively. No one group deals in it exclusively either. True, girls can be bullied in ways that guys probably aren't, and vice versa, but my point is this: you may think the grass is greener from where you are, but trust me. It ain't.

The bottom line is that 13 Reasons Why is a case of strong cast, weak story. Typical of teen dramas written by middle-aged authors – 13 Reasons' author, Jay Asher, was born in 1975 – whether or not the students at Hannah's high school accurately imitate real high school students in 2017 is a question to be handled on a case-by-case basis. But the fact remains that the story is well cast. The plot may be a throwback to the after-school specials of the 1980s, but the characters themselves never come off as clich├ęs and, instead, became the main reason why I stuck with this series to the end. Even after I had burned out on what Hannah had been through, I kept watching to see how these characters would deal with it.

13 Reasons Why may make you think of your own experiences in high school. If you've known someone who's committed suicide, it may remind you of their loss. If either of these topics are still raw for you, you may want to steer clear. Overlong though the story is, those first few episodes are still a rough ride. But once that emotional impact wears off, it's little more than another derivative romp through the Young Adult section. It's binge-worthy, but light on real meaning.

Robert's Score: 4 / 10



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