13 Reasons Why is shocking and excessive – but not gratuitous

by Diana Wichtel / 12 May, 2017
Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker.

Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker in 13 Reasons Why.

If you’re finding it hard to be shocked by television drama, here’s something that may help.

Tony Soprano carrying a human head in a bowling bag, Walter White giving poison to a child, Dexter just being Dexter … The golden age of cable television has ensured that it’s difficult to be deeply shocked by television drama any more. Though it has always been TV’s job to keep trying and bingo: Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why left me shocked.

The controversial 13-part series is a little like the adolescent culture it portrays: smart, reckless, heart-breaking, maddening and deeply worrying. Adapted from the young adult novel by Jay Asher, 13 Reasons has a worst-nightmare premise: 17-year-old high school junior Hannah Baker kills herself. She leaves behind cassette tapes, on which she has recorded the “13 reasons” she did it. The tapes are to be passed around 13 people who figure in the stories – of cyberbullying and much worse – that the tapes tell. “Adjust your whatever device you are hearing this on,” she instructs the recipients of her tapes.

That’s a worry for a start. Hannah is dead, yet she remains, through her recorded voice, flashbacks to the events she describes and the chaos her death unleashes, a vivid, disruptive presence in the lives of those left behind. She’s gone, but she’s still exerting a lot of control: that’s a dangerous fantasy. And that’s before we get to gruelling depictions of rape and a suicide scene so explicit as to drive you whimpering behind the sofa cushions.

I’m still struggling to know what to think about 13 Reasons Why. There’s a lot that’s excellent about the series. The pressures of teenage life in the digital age have seldom been better expressed. No viewer who makes it through to the end could be left in doubt about the need to educate about consent or about the devastation that can be caused by casual social cruelties. The chasm that can exist between the most well-intentioned adults and the children in their care is explored.

There are laughs. Hannah’s friends Tony and Clay are talking about her suicide. “You do something like that to your mother, I’ll kill you,” says Tony’s dad. “There’s no sense of irony in that,” sighs Tony. In a flashback, Hannah and her friend Jessica employ gender politics as a sort of chat-up line. They accuse Alex of subjecting them to the male gaze. “We’re not totally sure what it means but you have it.”

Then there are the rape and suicide scenes. They don’t feel gratuitous, just excessive. The series’ makers have justified the portrayal as honest and real. But this isn’t real. The core cast mostly don’t look like your average teenagers. 13 Reasons Why is also entertainment. Its cocktail of bingeable watchability and the heaviest themes imaginable has seen some schools in the US and Canada issue warnings and ban discussion of the show.

Here, the New Zealand Classification Office has created a new rating for the series: RP18, restricting viewing to those over 18, unless the teenager is watching with a parent or guardian. Well, it’s got people talking about the show. Though some might argue even that can be dangerous.

As I write, Netflix has responded to concerns about the series by announcing that there will be additional warnings before the first episode and strengthened advisories and support information for episodes featuring graphic content. Doing that a lot earlier might have helped.

There is, of course, after all the fuss, talk of a second season. The first ends with another character critically injured in what may be a suicide attempt. Tyler, the class photographer and stalker, is revealed to have a stash of guns. We may be buckling in for another boundary-challenging bumpy ride. One strength of 13 Reasons is that viewers don’t get off lightly, either. “We’re a society of stalkers,” says Hannah. “We’re all guilty. We all look.” To borrow a phrase from the show that’s gone viral, “Welcome to your tape.”

This article was first published in the May 13, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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