In Defence of 13 Reasons Why

13 reasons

I have already written in a previous blog post about how uncomfortable I am about the adult critic responses to the second season of 13 Reasons Why (Netflix), and that post can be found here: https://silentmovieblog.wordpress.com/2018/05/19/a-bunch-of-self-obsessed-teens-adult-responses-to-13-reasons-why/.   This post, however, is essentially a review of the second season itself.

**contains spoilers**

I have never had any doubt that the series has its heart in the right place, and that it intends to be both entertaining and a frank discussion of the issues that affect teenagers in schools today, not just in America, but elsewhere as well.   I have yet to see a wholly positive review of the second season – the knives were already sharpened and out, so that the critics could jump on the bandwagon of bashing the series, say how shocked they are, and what harm the series will do our kids.  But it seems to me that the reasons that adults have a problem with the series is that it paints them in a worse light than anything that the teenagers do.

The opening episode of the second season is a disaster – and I don’t mean by that that it is irresponsible, but that dramatically it is a mess.  Most people watching last saw these characters a year ago – and it’s not like this is a small cast.  Season two presumes that we remember who all these people are, that we remember what stories were told about them on the tapes, and that we can put together for ourselves what happened to Jessica and Alex in the months between the two series.  The narrative jumps around, trying to be sophisticated enough to show rather than tell us what has happened and what is going on, but fails miserably.  Thankfully, from episode two onwards, this is no longer a problem, and the series finds its feet once again.

The majority of the series uses the trial against the school over Hannah’s death as a kind of hook for each character’s story, thus allowing the same structure as series one, with each episode featuring current day scenes and flashbacks.  Sometimes the viewer isn’t sure of which of the flashbacks are real, and which are distorted tellings of the story as told by the witnesses.  Only when Bryce takes to the stand do the writers go out of their way to tell us he was lying, by giving us the real flashbacks at the end.  The writing of episodes two to twelve is, by and large, very good.  Sure, it flags a bit in the middle, and most episodes could have been better off with five or ten minutes shaved off their running times, but beyond that, for the most part, this is dark, and yet realistic, gripping drama.

Contrary to what most reviews will tell you, there are not a huge number on inflammatory scenes.  Other than flashbacks lasting a couple of seconds, there is actually no reliving of Hannah’s suicide.  Yes, there are scenes of sexual assault but, for the most part, they are milder than you would see in a film that deals with the same topic – especially one that carries an 18 rating, as the series does in the UK.  But it’s not like Netflix doesn’t warn viewers in advance.  And it’s not like Netflix don’t remind us that this is for mature audiences.  That does not mean letting your fourteen year old watch this unaccompanied and then going on twitter and saying how awful Netflix are for making such a series.  Parents are responsible for what their kids do – and if your teenager isn’t ready to watch this, don’t let them, just as you wouldn’t let them watch your porn collection.  Two different things, but same principle.  The intended audience is key.

If anything, the second series has less shocking content than the first (with the exception of the final episode), and the writing is surprisingly nuanced.  The characters are well-drawn and, while I agree it’s unlikely that all of these issues would exist within a group of a dozen kids in one school, these are very real issues for our teenagers.  What is interesting here is that very few of the characters are all-good or all-bad.  With the exception of Bryce and some of the minor characters, they aren’t painted with broad brush strokes.  Good kids do bad things.  Bad kids do good things.  That’s life.   But we tend to find that hard to deal with.  When I wrote a novel about homophobic bullying a few years back, the biggest criticism was that one of the “good” kids kept doing bad things.  We all do bad things, no matter where our moral compass lies.  13 Reasons Why doesn’t shy away from that.

Like many, I have a problem with the final episode, which is, I think, as much of a mess and a misstep as the first episode – but not necessarily for the same reasons as many reviewers suggest.  Yes, the assault mid-way through is unexpected (unless you have read reviews) and brutal, but it is briefer than many would have us believe, and actually less graphic that I was led to believe it was going to be.  Sure, you see enough, but the violence is more shocking than the sexual element for the simple reason that it is on screen, whereas the sexual element is actually implied through various camera angles.   It’s hard to know what to make of it.  There is no real build-up to it, and it does come out of nowhere, and the sexual element of the assault seems almost random.  Yes, it probably is a misstep by the programme makers – whether dramatically or as a matter of taste.

Also problematic for reviewers is the whole school-shooting section.  Some have said that we should not portray school shooters as just a victim, and that makes me wonder if they have actually watched just the final episode or the whole series.  Tyler isn’t just a victim.  He’s exposed as a stalker in the first series, clearly has mental health issues, and spends much of the second series blackmailing people, exposing their bad deeds, and vandalising school property.  To characterise him as “just a victim” of bullying  who goes on the rampage is ridiculous.  Life is more complicated than that.   The whole point here, surely, is that adults should have done more to help Tyler earlier on.

However, much more troubling for me, given the target audience, is the fact that Bryce is seen effectively getting away with his rapes, and Justin ends up with a longer sentence than him despite his crime not being as great (although bad enough).  This is perhaps where the writers have been irresponsible, and not with the sexual assault.  Throughout the series, the kids have fought to expose a rapist, and when they do, he escapes with three month’s probation.  What message is that giving out?  Or perhaps it is just reflecting the screwed-up justice system.

This is one of many times throughout both series where adults fail the teenagers.  They fail them in court.  They fail them as parents (particularly Justin’s, but others too).  They fail them as teachers.  They fail them as a sports coach.  They fail them as counsellors.  And perhaps that is why critics hate the series so much – not because of content that is troubling to teenagers, but because of content that is troubling to adults.  It’s a long, hard look in the mirror.  Society does fail its children.  And if that isn’t enough, the controversial near-school shooting at the end of the series throws one more punch in society’s face, with Clay telling Tyler that shooting the kids in the school will make no impact – adults will talk about it for a week and then forget it.   And how true is that?

Beyond this, there are elements of the show that are clumsy.  The final episode has far too many such moments, most notably the shoehorning in of the “suicide isn’t the answer, kids,” message during the “13 reasons why not” sequence.  Well-intentioned, I’m sure, but horrendously done – as is Clay’s talk with the minister at the end of the memorial service.  Oh dear.  And the jury’s out on the device of using Hannah’s ghost – although her leaving the memorial service and walking out into a bright white light never to be seen again as she wafts up to heaven (presumably) is, unfortunately, laughable.  And these moments are unfortunate in a series that is mostly well-written and well-intentioned

Most of the cast shine – even more so than the first series.  Dylan Minnette seems to spend the first two episodes taking his shirt off, and the rest of the time crying, shouting, or being beaten up.  And yet, despite all of this, he makes the character utterly believable.  Alisha Boe probably had one of the most difficult roles of the season as Jessica – switching between vulnerable, fallible, and headstrong throughout, and, again, she pulls off the difficult role extremely well.  But perhaps the real acting honours go to Brandon Flynn, who is stunning as Justin, managing to make him almost an entirely different character from who we see in much of the first season, and yet being most convincing as the vulnerable, fragile, difficult teenager he has become.   But there really isn’t a weak link in the ensemble cast.

Will there be a third season?  My own guess is that Netflix will decide against it, if only to avoid more accusations of being inflammatory by adults who are uncomfortable with kids watching something that accurately describes what they see at school.  But I certainly wouldn’t object to finding out what happens next to these characters.  Only time will tell – and it’s almost certain that the cliffhanger ending suggests that a third season was planned even if it never materialises.

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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.