13 Reasons Why I find almost equal parts affecting and annoying.
The blurb and publicity tell you what’s going on, but in case you’ve missed it, Hannah (and her family) moved to a new town (or across town, it’s not clear and seems to say different things at different points) and Hannah started a new school. She was around for about a year, then committed suicide, and left a suicide note in the form of 7 tapes, with a recording on 13 of the sides. Each is addressed to a person and usually an incident involving that person and explains how that is a reason that led to her suicide. We rarely directly hear the tapes, although we certainly hear snippets, instead we follow Clay, who is obviously one of the later people on the list, as he listens to the tapes and more or less has a breakdown too - he hears Hannah’s voice, he hallucinates seeing her body on the school basketball court and more, as well as seeing her in more normal flashbacks (in the televisual sense) provoked by memories from listening the tapes. Overall it's a well-shot although sometimes confusing approach, but when your stars are a dead girl and a boy having a breakdown perhaps that is to be expected!
Teen suicide is tragic and while I wouldn’t have been driven to suicide by the events Hannah witnessed and suffered I believe and empathise with her journey. It's easy to say, in my fifties, I'd have made different choices, but in my early 20's I made different choices too to some similar events so I feel justified saying I wouldn't have made her choices in the same situation although I never had the whole collision of events she did in such short order.
At the same time, I struggle with parts of what she says. We have the benefit of being external observers, if not wholly objective ones, and I understand what she feels and thinks, particularly as she’s spiralling into suicidal depression, are not the same as she might think of the same events if she were happy, but there are times when she says things like “I have no friends” which simply appears to be manifestly untrue from what we see. But all of that is ok.
This show annoys me because there’s a sense that “zOMG teen suicide is this terrible new thing, we must do something to stop it!” about it. It’s nearly 35 years since I was a teen and although it didn’t happen at my school, there were 2 teen suicides in the fairly small city I lived in while I was a teen at school. They were separate, and I don’t know if that was an unusually high number or not (it feels like it should be, but a quick dig into the numbers suggests probably not). We also had a teacher at my school commit suicide. Bullying, slut shaming (even if we didn’t call it that back then) and all the rest are as old as the hills, or at least as old as schooling. Social media and cameras on phones change some of the ways it happen and probably change the ways parents and schools need to monitor and intervene about bullying but they don’t change the fact it’s happened forever and it’s not clear to me (or sources like the Samaritans) that they’re increasing the suicide rates. A show (and the book, which is 20 years old and doesn’t deserve the opprobrium) that deals with teenage suicide should be an admirable thing but, for me at least, this felt just too far over the edge into preaching “you must not do it, whatever has happened suicide is not an option” and as you might tell, that annoys me. Talking to suicidal people, encouraging them not to do it, is a delicate thing that I’ve never had the courage to try, although my PhD supervisor did. But this sort of blanket “just don’t do it” approach is not a good tactic. While I'm being grumpy, although it's on a different level, far too many songs from my youth were played with nasty cover versions. Play the bloody originals, especially when you're going to have some insipid cover then belt out the original of 'Vienna' in all its glory.
That said, the show often had me in tears as I watched Hannah’s journey.
Overall there is an interesting level of LGB mix of shown. While, without doubt, the nastiest of the characters we meet here are male and straight (I can’t decide if there are three or four I think would be better dead), there’s a really unpleasant and deeply in denial lesbian who is probably the next worst. She really has no redeeming features that we see. The characters singled out are more complex figures - they hurt Hannah, directly or indirectly, but they’re not shown as not completely bad. This includes a gay character. However, one of the gay characters is probably the most seriously sorted teen in the entire show and while they are not perfect they are far more sorted than any 17 or 18 year has any right to be. Part of me wonders why the lesbian has to be the evil one but the spread across the LGB spectrum is pretty decent.
Recommending anyone watch this is hard. If you do, be warned - it would certainly get a really hard 15 rating and might just get an 18 rating in the UK. There are three episodes that come with Netflix “viewer discretion advised” but if this were fanfic, almost every episode would come with trigger warnings for at least one of slut-shaming, homophobic verbal abuse, violence, underage drinking, drug use, underage sex, sexual violence, suicide or sexual assault. The ones with the warnings plastered on the front are just the most extreme and would almost certainly tip into an 18 rating. That doesn’t bother me personally, although some of the scenes were harrowing, but does make me wonder why, because you’d have thought the market for this would be teens at school, and I think a lot of parents would quite reasonably have concerns about letting their teenaged children watch it.
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