In the fine arts we are encouraged to go big with our ideas, to allow emphasis on the issue, the illusion, the piece of art being presented on the stage. The purpose is designed to get the point across to the audience, or keep them engaged. The true compliment to an artwork, no matter the venue, is that people continue the discussion beyond the actual event.
Watching 13 Reasons Why, a controversial Netflix series really blew my mind. I felt like I was back in my high school again, experiencing the turmoil that a teenager goes through trying to adjust, fit in, survive the utter chaos of peer rejection and acceptance, all in the same day, every day.
About half way through the series, episode 6, or tape 3 I was riveted to every moment. Watching Clay struggle with the reality of losing his friend was compelling. I watched the behavior of his circle of people, I won’t call them friends, because so often in this period of a teenager’s life it is difficult to define who a true friend is. 13 did an excellent job exploring that aspect of high school.
I felt like I was the student in the room, experiencing the pain that comes with pressure and bullying. While the world goes on around a teenager, their internal struggle is never really revealed, and 13 explored that well enough to suggest this is real behavior. I thought all the characters fit the proper stereotypes.
The parents of each character as they unfolded in the show seemed normal. What I mean is they depicted the dysfunction of raising a family, holding a job, keeping up with or losing touch with their responsibility. I think the relationship that tore me up the most was Justin and his mom, I felt his pain as he leaned against the wall and she closed the door on their communication.
The administrators of the school seemed effectively overwhelmed by their task. There was the initial counselor who basically didn’t get tenure and then the new guy came in and gradually established their grounding as a central figure. In the end, it was clear things were beyond his control. Imagine the guilt we feel as teachers when we realize we missed something, that if we had just … we can settle behind the reality that our role in the classroom is to deliver our curriculum. Clearly that was demonstrated in 13 Reasons Why, but at the same time, we could recognize the vulnerability that children experienced around adults that were not involved. Or, if they were, they didn’t have a clue.
As I suggested in the beginning, in order to keep an audience, a piece has to have big moments. In television plot lines are imperative, and this is where I began to lose my direct connection to the characters in 13. Everything that could possibly happen, did, all impacting this small group of peers. Why such a micro-managed focus on the energy of a typical high school? Because the ability to attach pain and suffering to familiar characters helps get the point across to the audience.
If we accepted our buy in to the characters then everything they went through was plausible. Much like the movie Crash years ago where a diverse populace all experienced tragedies and successes within a literal block of L.A., though perhaps not possible, the experience the characters endured was certainly believable in the right context.
In 13, the key to this story is they deal with every aspect of being a teenager – confusion with sexual identity, clear cognizance of sexual preference and the societal scrutiny, the lifestyle of a jock, of a nerd, a geek, an outlier, a weirdo, In every aspect of student or teenager, the experiences seemed real and tragic.
What is an important takeaway is to recognize the behaviors demonstrated throughout this series were pretty spot on for the most part. The story line of the tapes could actually happen, though the possibility of getting through a dozen involved students probably not likely. But, they all maintained their characters with a haunting consistency.
Finally, let’s not forget this is about suicide, and the helplessness that everyone feels with a loss they believe they are responsible for. Even though in the real world we always blame the person who takes their own life. The movie itself defined the act as weak. I found it interesting that the young woman who revealed her cuttings on her arms, suggested she was doing it right, that suicide is a cop out. I’ve worked with cutters in my hospital work, and there was always a distinction between real and attention seeking, vertical and horizontal cuts as so eerily demonstrated in the series.
13 might be perceived as a segment of peers in a typical high school all being responsible for Hannah’s death, but if that is a takeaway, it is possibly wrong. It really is the remarkable telling of a young person’s struggle to define themselves while walking through life in a world of hurt, and having the fortune to play out the process with direct and frightening evidence, ironically replayed in cassettes with haunting truth.
I believe this series, beyond the embellishment and soap opera moments, is vitally important, certainly not for the eyes of children under 12 – not yet, even though we think they’re ready. It is a wonderfully tragic piece to create healthy dialogue, whether the characters are realistic or not. I was moved.