All Blame, No Game
Main Cast: Kathryn Langford, Dylan Minnette
Creator: Brian Yorkey
So our basic premise in this 13 (with an extra) episode Netflix adaptation of Jay Asher’s book 13 Reasons Why is pretty straightforward. Hannah Baker (Kathryn Langford) is a teenager who committed suicide shortly before we enter the story. She left behind a series of tapes, to be passed from person to person, illuminating exactly why she did it, and who is to blame. Each episode is one side of one tape, as listened to by Clay (Dylan Minnette).
In the process of Clay’s – I suppose I have to call it a “journey” – through the tapes we see all the things that happened to Hannah during her brief time at Liberty High. They were not good things. She was not surrounded by good people. Clay, however, is a good kid. Smart and generally well liked, but shy and insecure around girls. He obviously had a huge crush on Hannah. And now he is in existential hell as he listens to these tapes, knowing he’s on there somewhere, that he’s one of the reasons she’s dead.
I have so many problems with this thing. I’m hoping like crazy that there will be no second season – there certainly shouldn’t be. Where to begin? Sigh. Let’s start with the stereotypes and go from there.
Every last character in 13 Reasons Why is a stereotype. The kids are jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, Eddie Haskell sycophants, and overachievers (Asian overachiever, no less). The popular kids who rule the school, the rich kid whose parents are never home, the great athlete with the troubled home life. They’re all in there, and more. You’ll recognize every single one of them from countless After School Specials. It’s The Breakfast Club on steroids. They have no depth, they’re shallow and ugly.
Even Hannah – she’s the new kid to whom every single bad thing imaginable happens. I recognize that she’s a composite – the things that happen to her happen all the time, but they piled them all on her to make a point. High school can be brutal. I certainly won’t argue that point, but it’s so much more complicated than this series. So much more. So. Much. The lines between good and bad are never this clear, the distinction between good kids and bad kids, good acts and bad acts, good decisions and lousy decisions – there are so many shades of gray that simply never make an appearance in 13 Reasons Why because the characters have to stay within their designated boxes.
Next up – the adults. Also stereotypes, in the absolute worst way. The way they are in cheap, crappy teen movies that look to demonize and marginalize the influence of adults in the lives of teenagers so that they don’t have to ugly up their casts with anyone over 25. The parents are absent or abusive or too strict or not strict enough or too distracted or pushing too hard or not pushing hard enough. The school personnel are too busy, too clueless, too stupid. That applies to all the adults, they are clueless and stupid. They can’t possibly help anyone, never mind a troubled teenager. Forget that none of them are given more than a passing chance, they’re grown-ups, so how could they understand anything? I honestly do not know a single parent or teenager who fits into one of the boxes into which they shove this group of characters, and the series suffers greatly for it.
But I have to give credit where it’s due – some of the kids here do a really good job even though their parts are crap. In particular, Justin Prentice as a vile adolescent is amazing (watch the final episode – the “making of” and you’ll see what I mean). So is Alisha Boe as one of the blamed kids.
And let’s move on to that blame, shall we? 13 Reasons Why is all about blame. Not only does Hannah decide well before she does the deed that she’s going to kill herself, she spends days preparing the torture she will inflict on those who did her wrong so they can suffer good and hard after she’s dead. That’s the act of a petulant little sociopath who didn’t get her way, not the act of a desperate, depressed and despairing young woman who has been tormented to the point of self-destruction. Every once in a while, some character will mention that no one else is to blame, really, that Hannah killed herself, no one else. But either they’re shouted down by someone who’s supposed to be a better person or they’re one of those clueless and stupid adults. Of course someone is to blame! Hannah says they’re to blame!
But that’s too easy, I think. I understand that the series is trying to send some really important messages about paying attention to how the people around you are being treated, how to treat others in a high school setting, and the unique vulnerabilities of kids in that particularly hellish stage of life. And I applaud them for trying – it’s a vitally important topic to be open about. But it isn’t as simple as a series of unfortunate events, any one of which, if avoided, would have kept this child alive. It’s just never, ever that simple. To dumb it down is to diminish it, even to glorify it as the ultimate revenge against those people who posted a photo of your bad decision on Facebook or passed a note saying you have a nice ass.
Here There Be Spoilers
My final gripe (yeah, I’ll stop eventually) is that buried in this mess are some very, very graphic depictions of sexual assault. My problem isn’t that they’re in here; it’s that they are buried, beneath layers of crappy teen angst and stupid Valentine’s Day stunts. Compared to those assaults, every single thing feels trivial and undeserving of any place in the narrative. And we don’t get to it until far too late. I suppose it’s meant to be the final straw, and the scenes themselves are brutal and affecting (again, excellent job by the young actors in incredibly difficult scenes), but to act like the other instances are in any way comparable is to trivialize just one more thing. Printing a poem without permission isn’t quite like raping someone in the realm of suicide causation.
If you – or more likely your teenager – feels the need to watch 13 Reasons Why (and they will, because all of their friends will), please try to watch it with them. And do everything you can to get them to watch the 14th episode, the extra one in which the producers, actors, and writers talk about their very honorable intentions. The actors in particular discuss how hard it was for them to play these characters, and how the situations portrayed are things they have seen and dealt with in their own lives. That segment has real value. The rest of it is far too shallow, far too vengeful, and far too oversimplified to actually help anyone who struggles with real suicidal ideation, or bullying, or even just the slings and arrows of being an adolescent.
I don’t recommend 13 Reasons Why, but if you or your child chooses to watch it, please make sure it’s a starting point for a discussion. It’s too important a topic to let something this inadequately handled pass without comment. And who knows, maybe the book is better.