Saturday, April 1, 2017

Conceits Undermine The Punch Of Thirteen Reasons Why Season 1

The Good: Decent acting, Important social messages, Some interesting characters
The Bad: Some truly underdeveloped characters, Narrative complexity distracts from some of the important issues, Casting
The Basics: Thirteen Reasons Why unsatisfyingly draws attention to a number of important issues facing young people today through a series of fairly unmemorable characters.

If I learned anything from reviewing the first season of Netflix's A Series Of Unfortunate Events (reviewed here!), Netflix shows based upon popular novels with a devoted audience are fairly pointless to analyze for the fans. People who have a high nostalgia quality for the source material generally don't want to hear a critique of their beloved work and that is fair. I did not read Thirteen Reasons Why before sitting down to watch the first season (and, presumably, only season) of Thirteen Reasons Why when it made its debut. As a result, this review is ideal for those who know nothing about the book, the show and want to know whether or not the content of the show is worth taking in.

And . . . for the first thing that will undoubtedly piss off those who love the book, the final analysis is "no." Thirteen Reasons Why Season 1 is not a Netflix show I'm recommending, would tell a friend about or will ever watch a second time.

Thirteen Reasons Why is a good idea that gets distracted from its own potential greatness by conceits and melodrama.

A short time after high school sophomore Hannah Baker killed herself, Clay Jensen receives a box with audio cassettes in it. Clay begins to listen to the tapes and discovers that Hannah recorded the tapes and he almost immediately learns that he is not the only person to know about or listen to the tapes. Clay begins to listen to Hannah telling her own story of moving to the small city and meeting various classmates who contributed to Hannah's suicide. While Clay learns the story of the girl he had a crush on, through stories of her interactions with Jessica (another recent-arrival at the school), Alex (another new transfer who befriended her and then dated Jessica), Justin (the first boy she had a crush on, who betrayed her trust and got her labeled at the school as a slut), and others, like her stalker, Tyler the photography geek, he begins to have interactions with people in his high school.

And in the present-tense, post-suicide storyline (and trying to blend the two stories) is where Thirteen Reasons Why falls apart. Clay suddenly has a guardian angel around school (and his life outside school) in the form of the good-natured Tony. Tony does his best to look out for Clay as other students - most of whom are worried about the fallout that would happen if it became public knowledge that Hannah attributed them as a factor in her suicide - begin to exert influence on Clay. Clay begins Thirteen Reasons Why as a pretty solid geek who has lost one of his few friends in the world. And while Thirteen Reasons Why gets some of his grieving right, other aspects - most notably a scene where he and Alex feel pressured into speed-drinking 40 oz. beers - feel entirely forced, especially given Tony's presence nearby. In other words, Clay has no emotional investment in the people attempting to peer pressure him into drinking, which he is not inherently interested in doing, and he has an easy way to avoid their threat of a beating by just leaving with Tony.

So, in the present-tense storyline, Clay's grief is undermined by contrived plot events surrounding other people's reactions to what they heard on the tapes and tangential in the town. While some of the plot and character threads make sense - most notably the fact that the Bakers, Hannah's parents, are suing the school district - others, like fleshing out Tony by having him act like a mob enforcer, are far less satisfying and distract from the main narrative. There are moments where Hannah Baker's suicide is treated like a mystery and in the best of those moments, Thirteen Reasons Why feels like it is trying to be Veronica Mars (reviewed here!). Unfortunately, Thirteen Reasons Why never rises to the greatness of Veronica Mars. Veronica Mars managed to find the right balance between witty lines, engaging circumstances, clever characters, good performances and genuine human drama; Thirteen Reasons Why starts with a serious purpose and is so unclear in what it wants to be that it quickly begins to feel melodramatic. In fact, the tone of the first episode is such that I had a reasonable concern that Thirteen Reasons Why would end up as some form of convoluted I Know What You Did Last Summer or have a twist where Hannah Baker was still alive. The only thing that convinced me to actually continue with Thirteen Reasons Why was jumping ahead to the last episode to make sure that Hannah actually was dead.

Yeah, that's pretty harsh. But here's the thing, Thirteen Reasons Why is established with a number of conceits that become more problematic the longer the season goes on. First, the fact that the tapes are delivered to Clay's house instantly clues the viewer into the idea that someone other than Hannah knows about the tapes, listened to them, and delivered them. That creates an artificial sense of mystery, especially after it becomes immediately apparent that Tony knows all about the tapes and is characterized as a good guy. Thirteen Reasons Why does not explain in a satisfactory way why Tony goes along with Hannah's plan for so long before doing the right thing. The show pays lip service to what takes Tony so long to get where he ultimately goes.

But one of the more problematic conceits of Thirteen Reasons Why is that multiple young people all work to reinforce essentially the same conspiracy. The dumb jock teenager characters all buy into the same idea as the brainy, ethically unchallenged characters and it is a tough sell to believe that they all respond the same way. So, for example, Clay gets the tapes well after Justin, a no-good jock who Hannah attributes as her first crush since her move and her first kiss. But after their first kiss, Hannah withdraws, Justin takes an upskirt picture of her and shares that picture with all of his classmates. The viewer is asked to believe that the adults in the world of Thirteen Reasons Why are so stupid and out-of-touch with their kids (and students) that when all of Hannah and Justin's classmates all end up in possession of a photograph of Hannah in a compromised position, none of the adults find out?! Seriously, the series of escalating events surrounding Hannah Baker's death seem like they could have been cut off at virtually any moment had any school official or parent noticed the picture and acted like a concerned adult. You know, like a concerned adult who doesn't want to end up on a sex offender list and who recognizes that a photograph of a minor child on a cell phone in their name could cause problems down the line and turns it over to a legal authority . . .

But, that doesn't happen in Thirteen Reasons Why. Instead, the viewer is compelled to believe that in addition to the dumb jocks closing rank to protect one of their own from the content of the tapes, they all believe that they have to pass the tapes on?! The people who have heard the tapes and might believe that they contributed to Hannah Baker's death are warned that there is another copy of the tapes and told not to destroy the tapes, to pass them on instead. And they all believe that and do as the (now dead) Hannah Baker tells them to. It seems to me that if I were a guilt-ridden dumbass who emotionally abused someone who then killed themselves, I would probably want to make sure no one else heard that and find out if there actually was another copy of the tapes to prevent the truth from ever coming out.

That feeling becomes more reinforced as the tapes go on and multiple people are implicated in being horrible to Hannah Baker. Thirteen Reasons Why is a fairly small city, where most all of the students at the high school know one another - in fact, one of the decent scenes early in the first episode features a character who recognizes how Clay feels because she has known him her entire life - so when the season turns into a mystery involving sexual abuse, the show becomes burdened by a failure of suspension of disbelief. The viewer is asked to believe that all of the characters who already listened to the tapes passed the tapes on even though there are people who do far worse things than they are implicated in (like rape). Again, even a dumb jock who might know which of their peers is guilty of rape, seems smart enough to make sure that no one else would listen to the tapes and thus risk one of the subsequent people who heard the tapes learning of the rapes and figuring out who the guilty parties are.

Which brings us to the protagonist of Thirteen Reasons Why. While some might debate who the protagonist is - Hannah or Clay - Clay is the protagonist, as he has both the flashback and prime post-suicide storyline. Clay is such an unremarkable protagonist, set in such an indistinct setting, that almost immediately in Thirteen Reasons Why viewers are given an easy conceit to differentiate the time period scenes are set in using Clay. Clay gets into an accident while using his bicycle, which leaves him with a head wound. Viewers, from that point on, know whether they are witnessing a flashback or a post-suicide scene by whether or not Clay has a bandage on his head. Sadly, the high school Clay goes to features a number of scrawny white boys with short haircuts that look very similar (whether it is a part of the book or not, it seems like a big reason Miles Heizer's Alex has blond hair is just to help differentiate him visually from the other boys in the class), so keeping track of the characters and time periods needed visual cues like Clay's head wound and the length of Hannah's hair.

Hannah Baker's story is both tragic and all-too common and the important aspects of Thirteen Reasons Why are important for young people to be aware of, sensitive to and for American culture to become more educated about to prevent. Young people, especially young women, face bullying, exploitation, sexual abuse, and depression and they can lead to suicide. Those are tragic and deserve to be the subject of a well-executed drama. Thirteen Reasons Why graphically explores the daily horror and ultimate tragedy of the events that could lead a young person to suicide. Unfortunately, Thirteen Reasons Why gets sidetracked with melodrama and keeping the viewer watching using sensationalist techniques and the tone of a mystery so it does not service its subjects well.

Thirteen Reasons Why is not the story of two characters, deeply affected by their peers descending into depression and trauma; it is one person, enmeshed in a group of people who are looking out for themselves in a half-assed way and trying to influence him, learning about what led the girl he had a crush on to kill herself. And it does not do justice to the issues it attempts to explore.

For other works from the 2016 – 2017 television season, please check out my reviews of:
The Walking Dead - Season 7
Grace And Frankie - Season 3
Iron Fist - Season 1
Love - Season 2
Santa Clarita Diet - Season 1
One Day At A Time - Season 1
Travelers - Season 1
"Happy Fuckin' New Year" - Sense8
The OA - Season 1
Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life
"Invasion!" - Arrow
"Self Control" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"Abra Kadabra" - The Flash
"Doomworld" - Legends Of Tomorrow
"Distant Sun" - Supergirl
Luke Cage - Season 1
Stranger Things - Season 1


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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