Review: 13 Reasons Why (Netflix)

13ReasonsWhy [www.imagesplitter.net]

Once in a while, a TV drama series comes along that is genuinely important – and Netflix’s offering 13 Reasons Why is one of them.  Teen dramas seem to be notoriously hard to get right – they are either light and airy with no substance, or they are so intent in getting “messages” or “issues” across that they lack dramatic substance.  13 Reasons Why isn’t perfect by any means, but it does manage to straddle the categories of “issue” TV and “effective drama” for the most part.

Hannah Baker, a teenager, has committed suicide.  Two weeks later, a box of cassette tapes winds up on the doorstep of her friend Clay.  Over the coming days, Clay listens to the tapes, each side of which gives another of the “13 reasons why” Hannah took the step of killing herself.   The series is based on a book I haven’t read but, by all means, is decidedly less bloated than the near 13 hour Netflix adaptation.  But the adaptation benefits from showing the stories of the present day stories of the people mentioned on the tapes, and the affect that the airing of their stories and actions has on them.

What is key here is that 13 Reasons Why is an intelligently written, superbly acted piece of television that deals with bullying, depression, sexuality, assault, and suicide.  A bundle of light-hearted fun it isn’t.  And yet the structure of the series (showing the post-suicide stories) allows for it to be more than just a worthy after-school special type programme.

One would argue that this wasn’t even made for teens at all – indeed, inexplicably the BBFC in the UK have given this an 18 rating.  This is, presumably, because of the two rape sequences which, while uncomfortable, are certainly not of the ilk we are likely to find in an 18 film.  It seems totally counter-productive to have a series dealing with teen issues in an intelligent way being branded as unsuitable for teens under 18!  Perhaps there was a fear that, somehow, the option of suicide would look attractive to the viewer – but anyone seeing the final episode where we see the act itself will know that isn’t the case either.  Thankfully, the series is on Netflix and younger people will no doubt have access to it anyway – but a 15 certificate would certainly have been more apt and appropriate.

But 13 Reasons Why is most important because it deals with mental health issues – with depression and suicide – without lecturing, and without talking down to the viewer, and without trivialising it.  In fact, the term “depression” is barely mentioned at all.   But this is the topic that dare not speak its name, of course.  We don’t talk about mental health.  But here it is “discussed” along with teen issues “responsibly.”  A number of episodes have warnings about the content before they start.  The first episode has helpline numbers before it.  And there is a documentary appendix episode dealing with the issues featured in the series.

All of this, and yet any adult who has gone through mental health issues has to ponder quite what the point of those phone numbers are.  We should seek help if we are going through the problems featured in the series, we are told.  And yet there are thousands of us with mental health issues who have come forward and asked for help with our condition and yet cannot receive any.  We are told on the NHS in the UK of a year-long waiting list for counselling, for example.  It is rather scary that a TV drama can be more responsible about the damage mental health issues can do than our own health system or our own government in recognising its failings.

But I have written about that at length elsewhere, and this is about the series.  The “13 reasons” are spread over 13 episodes and, as some others have noted, this is too many.  Quite easily, there are occasions where two reasons could have fitted into one episode, for example.  The central episodes, directed by Gregg Araki, are bloated and move very slowly before the series gathers pace again around episode 10.

As much as I admire and “liked” the series, though, there is a feeling that the final instalment is unsatisfactory.  The realms of possibility are stretched, as not one, not two, not three, but four students in the same group of friends get their hands on guns – and we’re not told of the consequences of this in most cases.  Instead of giving us a neater ending, the series makes the mistake of making sure it is left open for a second season.  It’s the one thing that lets the programme down.  All of this good work, this great writing and wonderful acting, is jeopardised because the programme makers/Netflix wanted to make sure they still had a story to tell if a second season was decided upon.

Sometimes a story just needs to be told and then finish – especially when adapting a novel, which obviously does have an ending.  In fact, the problem here is that, rather than giving the viewer the idea that there is a second season in the offing, it gives the impression that someone forgot to make a final episode – because episode 13 acts like a penultimate one, not a final one.   And this is such a shame.

But even this error of judgement can’t undo the good work here.  Dylan Minnette gives one of the best performances in a TV series I have seen for a very long time – and one of the most nuanced accounts of a “troubled teen” I’ve seen in film or TV.  Everything about the performance rings true.  The same is true for Katherine Langford as Hannah, although she, ironically, has less to work with – not least because of those bloated episodes in the centre of the series, and the fact that she is only on screen for around half of the running time.

As a final note, Netflix chose to release all of the episodes of the series in one go – and this was possibly a mistake.  This is not binge-watch television, and it really doesn’t work well when watched in that way as it slowly numbs the viewer to each new event that is revealed in the story of Hannah Baker, and nothing becomes shocking.  While there is a “thriller” – even a “whodunit” – element to the story, that isn’t what this is about, and a weekly episode format would have worked better.  But it is what it is – an intelligent, gripping, and responsible series that deals with teen life in an undeniably adult way, and in a way that most dramas simply don’t have the balls to do.

A Ghost of a Chance (new novel)

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I am pleased to announce the publication of my new young adult novel A Ghost of a Chance!

Chet Barclay is a gay, jazz-obsessed sixteen year old that has been suffering from depression since the mysterious suicide of his boyfriend a few months earlier. When his parents go away on holiday, Chet is overjoyed at the thought of being alone in the house for a week – and away from his constantly fussing mother. However, it doesn’t take long before he starts hearing strange noises, and things start to move around by themselves. Chet begins to wonder whether he is alone in the house after all, especially when a friend tells him she saw the ghost of a boy there just after he had moved in. And how is everything connected to the bizarrely realistic dreams he has been having? Chet soon realises that he is about to embark on one of the strangest weeks of his life…

The book features a lead character who has depression – I myself have had bipolar disorder going back nearly two decades. I wanted to write something that had a character with depression but where the storyline didn’t revolve around that.  Therefore, A Ghost of a Chance is a surprisingly irreverent, lighthearted book at times but, through Chet’s storytelling, also portrays the difficulties that all sufferers of depression have to cope with.  I hope it will be seen as a positive portrayal of ordinary guy saddled with a difficult condition, and a far cry from the portrayals we see so often of those with mental illness seen as violent, unpredictable and about to go on a murderous rampage!

The Kindle edition will be free to download from October 29th to October 31st, 2016.

Bobby Darin Born Walden Robert Cassotto (review)

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It’s probably true to say that nothing could have prepared Bobby Darin fans in 1968 for the music he recorded on his Direction label and released over a couple of albums and a handful of singles. While he’d had dalliances with folk-rock with the albums If I Were a Carpenter and Inside Out, and folk itself with the Earthy and Golden Folk Hits releases, there were really no clues that the singer would move into protest music other than his song We Didn’t Ask to Be Brought Here and the message behind the story of Dr Dolittle, the music of which he built an album around directly prior to starting his own Direction label. His music for the label remains the least known of his career (with the possible exception of the first Motown album) and yet stands out as some of his best work.

Recorded over a number of sessions in 1968, the nine songs that make up Darin’s first Direction album, Bobby Darin Born Walden Robert Cassotto, are a mixed bunch, both in message and quality. One of the most surprising things when looking at the sheet music (yes a book of sheet music from the album was released at the time – I doubt it was a big seller!) is the simplicity, even naivety, of the musical elements of these songs. Darin was a sophisticated musician and an intellectual to boot, and yet here everything is taken back to basics. Virtually none of the songs have what might be called a “chorus,” and most don’t have a bridge section either – just a series of verses, in some cases nearly a dozen.

Questions opens the album, and is a song about environmental damage. These songs were written during Darin’s sojourn in Big Sur, and that may well have inspired him on this song. There is also inspiration here from groups such as The Beatles and The Loving Spoonful in the production of these songs, which ranges from the basic to the complex including the use of sounds which appear to be tapes played backwards. Darin certainly isn’t shy about what he has to say, with some of the lyrics almost visceral :

How do you kill the ocean?
How do you make it dry?
Well, you first dilute,
Then pollute,
Cut the fruit,
At the root.
And the ocean’s floor
Will be like a whore
Who will lie no more
‘Cause she’s dead;
Use your head.

Jingle Jangle Jungle follows, with Darin this time turning his attention to money and finances, and the power that goes with them. This is one of the more Beatlesque sounding numbers, and the sound is harsher and more rock-oriented than some of the other tracks. Anyone used to hearing the showman-like sound of Darin’s swing material wouldn’t recognise the singer here. There is no razzamatazz, often not even as much as a vibrato.

The album is cleverly sequenced. The final verse of Jingle Jangle Jungle refers to the Vietnam war, which is the subject of The Proper Gander, an allegorical tale about a group of mice encouraged by their leaders to go to war to fight a Siamese Cat that doesn’t actually exist, with the leader being found out as the song comes to the end of its seven verses. Once again, everything here is tied up in the lyrics. Out of each verse’s 28 bars, 22 of them are simply just the chord of G. The lyrics more than make up for it, however, with Darin writing them in such a way that they can not only relate to the Vietnam war but any bulls*it spoken by a government in order to win votes and confidence.

Bullfrog is an 11-verse opus in which Darin doesn’t sing a note. The whole thing is spoken with a rhythm background, and finds Bobby telling a frog about how the history of money. It’s all rather strange, something which is reflected in the lyrics themselves: “Now, I thought I was stoned, so I started walkin’/I mean, whoever heard of a bullfrog talkin’?”

Long Line Rider became the single taken from the album, but made no impression in the charts. It’s certainly the most commercial number of the nine songs here, not least because it does actually have a chorus. It tells the true story of some killings (by those in charge) on an Arkansas prison farm. Darin went on TV and promoted the single, dressed in denim and without his toupee. On one occasion he was told he would have to censor the line “this kind of thing can’t happen here, especially not in an election year,” and Darin refused to perform. Once again, it is musically simplistic, built around the basic I, IV, V chord progressions (with the exception of one bar), but the lyrics are so well-written, the production so good, and Darin’s performance so committed that no-one notices.

The second side of the album is decidedly more relaxed and laid-back. Change sounds like it could have been written by Dylan for Nashville Skyline. This time the musical element is somewhat more sophisticated (the song even has a bridge!), but the lyrics are less biting than on the first side of the LP. This is simply a call to people not to resist change. Nothing more, nothing less.

I Can See the Wind is something of a mystery, and ultimately the low point of the album, although not unpleasant. Presumably this is a song about the benefits of smoking hash (although there’s no suggestion that Darin did), but your guess is as good as mine.

Sunday, on the other hand, is a dark, cutting, attack on organised religion, the death and misery it has caused through the years, and the hypocrisy that Darin saw in the church itself. “Sunday,” Darin sings, “bow down to the blood you’ve shed/Sunday, Bodies piled so steep/You say keep the faith, but there’s no faith to keep.” This is one of the tracks that utilises recordings played backwards (in the organ introduction to the song), and the song is well-constructed. It lures you in with relatively bland verses, with each one getting more and more hard-hitting in its lyrical content, until a world-weary Darin sighs in the final verse “Sunday, let the people sleep.” This is a brilliantly executed little song.

The final song on the album strips everything back to just Darin and an acoustic guitar. Darin was a big supporter of Robert Kennedy, and he fell apart when he was assassinated. This final, subdued, song, entitled simply In Memoriam, never sung above a whisper, sees Darin confronting his pain at the events, and the funeral that followed. Each verse ends simply with the words “they never understood him, so they put him in the ground.”

This nine-track album was Darin’s opening statement in his new role as protest singer and, while the album is uneven, it’s still mightily impressive. And yet, despite good reviews, very few people bought it. Some have said that it would have sold much better without Darin’s name on it, and that might be true. The idea of one of the best entertainers in the business singing protest songs sounded phoney, and he was once again accused of simply jumping on a bandwagon. That wasn’t the case though, for this LP made no effort whatsoever in being commercial. Despite it being a financial flop, Bobby Darin wasn’t deterred, and he returned in 1969 under the name “Bob Darin” with a new album that was a mix of protest album and a reflection on the counter-culture, with its discussion of everything from Ronald Reagan’s move into politics, the Vietnam war, drugs and sexuality.

Naive Nick’s Mental Health Pledge

nick clegg mental health

Are those with mental health conditions meant to be jumping for joy at Nick Clegg’s announcement today that a target would be set that all sufferers will have access to talking therapies within eighteen weeks should the current coalition find themselves still in power after the next election?  This will, apparently, mean that around £120m of extra funding (more about the “extra” later) will be spent over the next two years – this will, I guess, go towards restoring some of the funding that has been cut over the last four years since the coalition  has been in power.

For me, the whole thing smacks of empty rhetoric, grave naivety and a cynical touting for votes.  No-one is going to moan that waiting times are going to be cut or that more spending on mental health will take place, but the ridiculous simplicity with which mental health is being treated is rather insulting to those who are suffering from these conditions.  It’s thought that up to 10% of sufferers die as a direct or indirect result of their condition.  Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK.  If those stats were related to a form of cancer, there would be a considerable outcry if a waiting time for treatment was reduced to eighteen weeks.  Reduced.  God knows how long the wait must be now if you’re not one of the lucky few who lives in the right postcode.

The lack of understanding of mental illness by those spouting these latest wonders is only too evident with the announcement that suicidal patients will get the same priority as those with a suspected heart attack.  That’s all very nice, but people with a suspected heart attack ring 999 – people who are suicidal do not.  Suffering from a mental health condition for up to eighteen weeks without access to certain treatment might be enough to turn someone suicidal in the first place. And there’s also this strange notion that people are either suicidal or they’re not – something which fails to take into account that people might be fine one day and not the next.  That MPs are simplifying conditions in this way is insulting – the least they could do is try to understand the issue in the first place.   But to do so, and to acknowledge the complexities doesn’t make for such rousing speech-writing.

And how about reviewing the benefits process for those with mental health conditions.  The Personal Independence Payment form might give an indication of how serious a physical disability is, but it’s a joke when it comes to mental health, with half of the questions not even applying to people with depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, and the like.  Can we use the loo?  Well, yes, thank you very much – but why aren’t you asking us about issues of concentration that prevent us doing things, or panic attacks that might stop us going to a supermarket.  And, wait for this one folks, if you can’t use public transport due to your condition you might be awarded a free bus pass.  I kid you not.

Charities have welcomed today’s news – they have little choice: more funding is better than funding cuts, no matter how modest the targets that have been set.  Just six weeks ago, The Independent ran a story stating that mental health services are “dangerously close to collapse,” and that there were 3000 less nurses working in the sector than two years earlier.  57 mental health trusts had lost £253m in funding.  And yet we should be saying “well done” and “how wonderful” to the coalition for promising to put half of that money back.   That’s hardly “extra funding.”

I confess that I have been lucky during the twenty years I have had my own condition.  When I first fell ill, I got to see a doctor within hours (this was 1995 when you could do that) and, since then, I have always been treated by my succession of GPs with respect, concern and (thankfully) good humour.  The last in that list might seem like an odd addition, but actually it highlights the importance of striking up a rapport with your GP, especially with regards to mental health conditions where, more than ever, everyone is different.  I have a great relationship with my GP, not least because she knows I’m more than willing to find the humour within the issues that I have.   It’s the way I get through.  Another doctor wouldn’t get or understand that.

The problem is that seeing your own GP (including my own) is not that easy anymore.  Often the waiting time to see your regular doctor these days is two weeks, not two hours.  If I had a severe turn for the worse with my illness, would I even contemplate seeing a doctor I didn’t know?  Probably not – and with good reason: notes on a screen are not the same as talking to someone who has seen how your condition has changed (or not) over a number of years.  Mental health conditions aren’t a series of test results, facts and figures, where X+Y = medication A.  It’s far more complicated than that – which is why some of the rhetoric used by Nick Clegg today comes across as so naive.

Any increase in mental health budgets is to be welcomed, but it shouldn’t have got this bad in the first place – and the amount of money involved doesn’t get close to making up for the cuts from the budgets over the last few years.  And, while Clegg has said he wants to work to stamp out the stigma associated with such conditions, that promise seems very empty too.  There are few, if any, signs of how he plans to do that.  Does he mean well?  Possibly.  But, as with most things he does and says, his ineptness and lack of deep understanding of the problem is laughable or offensive, depending on your mood (swing).