Monday, May 8, 2017

13 Reasons Why: Netflix Version

I hadn’t planned to watch the Netflix version of Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why.

First: I’d read the book ten years ago, and pretty much hold to my novelist-bias that the book is always better than the “film.” Second: 13 hours is a looong time, and when there’s over-the-top excellence like This is Us to fill one’s screen-time allotment, why waste precious moments over a re-baked story? Third, I knew I’d feel compelled to read the book again, and frankly, there’s too much incredible new YA fiction out there right now (think: The Hate U Give) to spend time revisiting 13 Reasons.

Then, The Daughter, a Millennial, called. She’d read the book as a teen, started watching the Netflix series, and was hungry to discuss. Miniseries are our thing, and we like nothing better than a mother-daughter binge on some good but also some baaaaaaad television. Think: Friday Night Lights (good) North and South, Books 1 and 2 (bad) North and South, Book Three (beyond bad please don’t judge me). She also lives/works in a city away from home, and I’m a sucker for a connection like a common show to discuss. It’s one reason why I became a Game of Thrones fan: my son, who lives (far away) in Los Angeles, got me hooked. Monday Morning Thrones Rehashing became our thing.

Anyway, despite my many reservations I took the 13 Reasons plunge and sometime around 1:00 a.m. this morning came up for air. 

Here’s what I’d say:

This series is graphic, disturbing and depressing, but appropriately so.  It does not glamorize suicide. In fact, Hannah’s suicide scene is so heart wrenchingly lonely and awful, and her parents’ grief when they discover her so brutal, that I’d argue it’s a suicide deterrent.

It deviates in significant ways from the novel, which I’m guessing is partly to add content for thirteen episodes but also to add some great plot twists. And while stretching the story to fill those 13 hours did feel tedious at times (like Tony in the series, we want to shout at the nervous, hesitant Clay, “Just listen to the damn tapes so we can advance the plot!”) I liked the additions.

With the exception of Hannah’s parents, the adult characters are monstrous. Kids are left with no mentors, no good examples, no place to turn. I get that’s the way the teenage mind might process the world, but not only is it an overused YA trope: it’s not realistic. Some parents don’t suck; some adults listen and care. To create such unremittingly awful adults without one brush stroke of complexity is an artistic failure.

In contrast: the teens in the series are also awful, but complex. Even Justin, who is arguably the catalyst for everything that goes wrong in Hannah’s life, is alternately charming/pathetic/cruel/adorable. Granted, the ultimate teen monster in the series, Bryce, is a cardboard-cutout of an entitled villain, but the rest of this hateful bunch is well-developed.

I think the most important achievement here is the realistic depiction of Teen Mob Mentality and resultant cruelty. Certain kids are in control in high school, and they generally are the ones leading the teams or living in the houses where the fun parties are hosted or wearing the stylish clothes or launching the first-strike barbed comments. You live in fear of being their target or, conversely, being made invisible by these people. You’ll abandon compassion and resort to cruelty yourself in order to find your place in this world.  And while most of us survive this experience, albeit scarred, a few, like the very sensitive Hannah Baker, don’t.

Which is ultimately why I think this is a good series for teens and adults to watch and discuss together. Hannah Baker is not mentally ill. There is nothing “organic” driving her despair and plunge into darkness. Her classmates (with the exception maybe of Bryce) are not sociopaths. Everything that leads this character to suicide is circumstantial and preventable. At any turn, a little kindness could have made a difference.

That’s worth talking about. And well worth the 13 hours.