Summer Break: Binge-Watching Netflix’s Controversial Hit ‘13 Reasons Why’
I teach high school creative writing and sponsor the related club twice a month. Every year I have to watch the same suicide prevention training video. I can recite the wooden dialogue from memory. “She wrote this poem about fading away.” “What could I have done?” When I heard about Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and the controversy surrounding it, I was both a mix of dismissive and concerned. What appeal could this high-school drama possibly hold? What effect was it going to have on my students? Unlike the stereotypically-oblivious adults in these kinds of stories, I decided to look into it.
13 Reasons Why feels like a multi-pronged indictment of being “plugged in.” The bitter irony of the school’s Communications class is the most obvious in-road, in which the teacher is laughably inept at teaching anything meaningful about communication and is uncomfortably oblivious to the actual communication going on under her nose. Part of me wants to say that it’s the same old misrepresentation of teachers in any high school story where the students are the focus, but in the larger view of the story, it feels to underscore the disconnect between how people used to communicate and how they do now, and how inadequately people have managed to catch up.
The series is replete with text messages and social media interactions that drive characters neurotic and haunt them beyond the boundaries of physical interaction. There is no safe port in the storm; and the storm is everywhere. Nothing gets deleted. Even the paper documents (“the list”) are impervious to destruction, thrown away only to be resurrected. In the “Communication Age,” your message lasts forever. Dave Eggars explores this idea to a farcical extreme in his novel The Circle (watered down predictably for film), in which everyone is so fixated on image and optics that human interaction becomes a 1984 in which we all turn the camera on each other to shame each other into compliance, with deletion a sin. What may be most disturbing about the approach 13 Reasons takes on the subject is that it hits with near-equal force while avoiding the hypothetical of some far-flung dystopian future. The unrecognizable nightmare scenario is the now.
Refreshingly, all of the characters are portrayed with both strengths and failings. No one is evil. No one, not even the perspective character, is faultless. Clay Jensen embodies the monomyth, the reluctant budding hero who wrestles with what it means to accept the call. He is at once Odysseus in the land of the lotus-eaters, forcing splinters of wood under his own eyelids to stay awake on a gods-forsaken quest. He is the blinded Samson pulling down the pillars of debauchery to crush everything in the vicinity, himself included.
Unsurprisingly, the most impactful cameo in the series has to be the iPhone. The ubiquitous symbol is more than a prop in many scenes, disrupting conversations, directing (and re-directing) motivations, and often stealing the attention (the school counselor even has his phone out on his desk during a meeting and waits until it goes off three times to put it away in his desk).
For all its condemnations of 21st Century life, the series is also unable to avoid its own gaze. It surrenders to image on multiple accounts, from the banal (Clay wears Beats headphones to listen to a vintage cassette Walkman) to the tastelessly shocking (Hannah’s graphic suicide is shown frame-by-frame). A cast and crew “making of” featurette discusses the intentionality of the show’s graphic scenes as honest and provocatively uncomfortable. Which can be fine. As long as they’re executed correctly. What Netflix itself seems to have failed to consider is the nature of its own content. Netflix is keenly aware of the way its content is consumed — in large doses. This is a show that’s meant to be seen together and discussed, to give the audience time and take a break. Just like all the characters on the show who failed to read the signs and take action because they were too busy leading their own lives, I hope Netflix takes a good look at how it could have handled this material better.