REVIEW – 13 Reasons Why provokes and prods

Even after writing this review, I have mixed feelings about the show.

A warning: this post discusses suicide, rape, and other topics that may be traumatic for some. If you need help, there are resources available and you are not alone. Click here to be redirected to a list of call centres in B.C. and in Canada. ^RR

I’m always getting recommendations to ‘watch this’ or ‘listen to that,’ and 13 Reasons Why is no exception. At first, I’d turned up my nose at the dozen or so rave comments made to me by others who’d swiftly finished it. “You have to watch this! It’s so good!” I’d say it wasn’t my thing, mostly because 1) the show is based on a young adult novel, written by Jay Asher in 2007 – and my palate is generally NOT geared toward young adult novels these days, and 2) these, to me are usually angsty shows involving teens in pseudo-bar fights at house parties and overdramatic yelling and crying I’m not interested in.

That latter line made my experience watching a touch better. I’ll get to that later.

Like the book, the show – produced by singer Selena Gomez – focuses on Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), who ends up killing herself after being bullied one too many times. From a classmate posting an out-of-context photo of her, to a friend throwing her under the bus, there’s no shortage of hurt. At least one bright light in her life: Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) who is one of the few people she’s cool with most of the time. Our story begins with Clay being the latest recipient of a mysterious box of tapes circling the neighbourhood; the tapes were recorded by Hannah, and chronicle the 13 reasons why she died.

When you take the seemingly sensationalist events out of the equation, the show is not bad. In fact, Minnette, Langford, and many of the other cast members are strong young actors. I enjoyed Kate Walsh, who plays Hannah’s mother, Olivia; she straddles this fine line between being the mother who is and isn’t let in – ultimately the latter prevails. What’s more, her cognizance of the ignorance of school officials who seem to let the mistreatment among the students carry on like it’s no deal is admirable, and I truly respect her performance.

If there’s one reflective point I took away from watching the show, it was this: I don’t have the right to judge a teenager’s experiences, or anyone else’s for that matter; how they’re feeling and why they do. I don’t have the right to say that what and/or how they’re feeling is right or wrong. I shouldn’t be saying I went through worse, or that kids were nastier before this day and age. Each person’s experience is their own, and the more respectful parts of the show is a good reminder of that.

The soundtrack is also impressive. I liked quite a few of the choices: songs by The Call, Sir Sly and The Alarm, but I think the most notable song, featured throughout the show comes to us courtesy of Lord Huron. “The Night We Met” is haunting, regretful, lonely, and transcends age. Yes, there are a few more songs on my playlist because of this show.

Now, the tough stuff: for those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, there are two – arguably three major parts – two of which pertain to Hannah in which people have reacted differently.

Spoiler alert – and it’s contained to this paragraph, but there are two scenes in the entire show that have had tongues wagging. There’s one scene where Hannah is raped by student and all-around popular jock Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice). In 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons, Katherine Langford explains that, in the script, the scene calls for the camera to continue focusing on Hannah’s face until it’s uncomfortable. It was uncomfortable, and it worked. However, the scene in which Hannah kills herself was too much for me, and I would argue uncalled for. I think there were far more effective options to tell this part of the story; I would argue Hannah’s mother and father (Brian d’Arcy James) finding her in the tub resonated with me more than the actual act. Clay also talking about how alone Hannah was in her last moments also carried more weight than having to watch her slit her wrists. A second character, Jessica (Alicia Boe) is also raped by the same student, and while I understand its place in Hannah’s narrative, once again, I feel like the show went about telling it the wrong way.

There is a difference between the need to talk about rape and giving survivors a safe space to share their stories, and then there’s glorifying it for hits and ratings on Netflix. I feel more weight towards the latter in this case, namely because we live in a day and age where there are ways to talk about the issues and showcase them without being gratuitous. The first half of the series is fine; it’s actually written well. When we get to the back half, it’s as if all bets are off, and, ironically, some of the more sensitive material is treated without sensitivity and empathy. If you’re trying to be a show that urges people to get help; to talk about suicide and sexual assault, you can’t glorify it the way this show did, especially if it’s indirectly for profit.

If you’re itching to watch it, watch with a critical eye. Don’t watch passively; think about the images you’re seeing and the dialogue you’re hearing. I chose to watch this way and it allowed me to be reflective, but it’s a show I didn’t desperately need to add to my repertoire. While there’s some solid writing and conceptualization, there’s also this bizarre justification by the producers to show scenes that I don’t think needed to be. I’m giving the show three out of five.

 

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