Wednesday, April 5, 2017

On 13 Reasons Why

This is a spoiler-heavy post about a television series I binge-watched last night when I was in a rotten mood. You don't need to watch it.

13 Reasons Why (2017), the new Netflix series based on Jay Asher's 2007 young adult novel of the same name, is a noir about teenage suicide. In a small town named Evergreen, which the series suggests is a kind of Everytown, U.S.A., Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) has killed herself at the beginning of her junior year of high school. She leaves behind seven cassette tapes, upon which she narrates the story of 13 people (actually just 12), who did something to hurt her, something to lead her to commit suicide. Most of the guilty are her classmates. They all did something bad, either legal or illegal, something heinous or something just dickish. Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), one of her subjects, has received the tapes and been given instructions to listen to Hannah narrate her story, after which he is to send them to the subject of the tape following his own chapter in her tale. If he doesn't send the tapes, a second copy of them will be released to the public. He doesn't know how many people have already heard the tapes, because he doesn't know at what point he will show up on them. He's a sweet geeky kid with a bad haircut. He likes to talk Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and stupid horror movies. He has no idea what he could have possibly done to Hannah. The viewer of the series, as well as the reader of Asher's book, are supposed to be just as baffled and just as curious.

Other than Kate Walsh, who plays Hannah's mother, there aren't any famous people in the series, at least no one I recognized, no stars to get in the way of being able to identify with the kids. But the directors are heavy hitters and include Tom McCarthy of Spotlight (2015), who sets up the series as a well-paced mystery, and Gregg Araki, the dangerous faggot of indie cinema, whose camera is only as dangerous as the series allows it to be. Selena Gomez is one of the executive producers, and her involvement might be one of the explanations, or at least symptoms of what is so wrong with it.

You see, I just didn't believe in this high school, or these teenagers, the way I could believe in the pimply-faced, awkward kids of Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High (1987-1991) or the miserable private-school attendees in the second season of American Crime (2016). The problems went beyond the Disney-Channel mise-en-scène, in which drop-dead gorgeous 20-something actresses play awkward teenagers, the high-school is perfectly lit, and no one has or ever has had a pimple. I don't know if I've ever seen a serious show about high school more ignorant of contemporary American culture. It's not just the nerds who dig Lord of the Rings. Jocks dig it too and the nerds like basketball as much as anyone else. The show is set in a multicultural universe which works hard to defy stereotypes. Zach (Ross Butler), the star basketball player, is a huge, tall Asian-American, just like Justin Lin, right? Marcus (Steven Silver), the class president, Sheri (Ajiona Alexis), the cheerleader, and Jessica (Alisha Boe), the goofy new girl, are African-American. Alex (Miles Heizer), the effeminate kid with dyed hair and skinny jeans whose manly policeman father just doesn't get him, is, in fact, not gay. Tony (Christian Navarro), the tough-guy hispanic kid with a good heart from the wrong side of town, happens to be gay. Courtney (Michele Selene Ang) the Tracy-Flick Asian-American girl, is a desperately closeted Lesbian despite the fact that she was raised by loving same-sex parents. The show talks the politics of LGBT and gender, but in this multicultural world, no one brings up race. The show is set between the fall of 2016 and November 2017, and its production presumably overlapped with at least some part of Donald Trump's presidential campaign. There is not a town in America which doesn't participate in our national conversation on race. The decision to set the story in a post-racial environment isn't brave or interesting. It's lazy and ignorant.

The actors are okay. Justin Prentice, who plays Bryce the rapist basketball star, and Heizer are particularly charismatic. They all cry on cue, but their characters are two-dimensional, and I mean that two literally. The straight, effeminate kid wants to get in with the cool kids so bad he betrays his two best friends and feels super guilty about it. The Asian-American jock commits a petty act of cruelty against Hannah and feels super guilty about it. A white jock doesn't save his girlfriend from his rapist best friend and feels guilty about it, but (is it a third dimension?), he is also thinking about being violent because he comes from an abusive household. Clay is tortured with fear that he may have done something bad to Hannah. He tries so hard to be a good person and does something mean and petty to the one kid he can get away with being mean and petty to. (Also, yes, it turns out that he didn't do anything bad to Hannah. He was nice to her.) The peripheral characters are one-dimensional. The principal is no different than the asshole from The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985). The baseball star whom Clay tutors is a nice older brother type. Prentice, as Bryce, is magnetic and menacing. He is wisely given only a limited amount of screentime which makes his presence more powerful.

(I'll grant the series at least one, sorta clever, but still pretty obvious touch. Tyler (Devin Druid), the peeping-tom stalker suffers the disgust of Hannah's other bullies. His crime is no worse than theirs, but he fits the classic profile of the creep, and it's easy to look to him as well as Bryce as vessels for the evil and sickness that lie within us all. It's the narrative of M [Fritz Lang, 1931].)

Television has gotten smarter. After decades in which rape was used as a throwaway plot point, The Sopranos (1999-2007) and Mad Men (2007-2015) took the time to explore the after-effects for survivors. The fourth season of Orange is the New Black (2016) introduced us to a rapist who actually feels guilty and confused, and a rape victim who can't completely deny her affection for her rapist. The Sopranos depicted a few suicides in its six-season run, each of which, like many suicides, made some sense and none at all.

Television still doesn't get bullying. As much as 13 Reason Why tries, it doesn't really get the subtle put-downs, the little emotional knocks that acculuate overtime, which together are as destructive as any one of the major traumas Hannah suffers. The dialogue just isn't good enough to capture the high school student's mastery of the slight.

Is 13 Reasons Why dangerous? Maybe. Despite its stated intensions to complicate the issue, it operates on the assumption that suicide can be clearly explained, that there is always an obvious cause and effect, which is just not the case. The show enacts the suicide victim's fantasy, that their death will cause overwhelming suffering and guilt in others, that they will inflict all the pain that has been inflicted on themselves. Hannah's death in the final episode may not be beautiful, but it is pretty.

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