Tuesday, July 3, 2018

ARMAGEDDON turns 20 this week, so why not buy my book MICHAEL F-ING BAY?

It had completely escaped my notice until earlier tonight that this week is the 20th anniversary of the Michael Bay opus ARMAGEDDON. To mark the occasion, The Ringer has two excellent articles.

The first focuses on the utterly bananas DVD commentary, featuring a possibly inebriated Ben Affleck mercilessly mocking the film. Have you ever heard a commentary like when Ben makes fun of how unnecessarily expensive Armageddon’s production was?

“This is where you just have a random helicopter in the background for no real reason, just because you’re a big movie and you’re expensive and you can,” he says. “You have no idea how much of a headache having a helicopter in the background causes us—safety this and money that, only so many hours they can fly, they’re on walkies, winds blasting everywhere. If I hadn’t brought it up you probably would’ve forgotten about that yellow helicopter in the background by now.”

GOLD.

There's also a tribute to Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss A Thing," a song that was EVERYWHERE in the summer of 1998.

My book MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films is still available on Amazon. The eBook will run you a mere $4.99 and if you're one of those people who prefers paperback books, that'll cost you $10.99

I'm very proud of the book and to be perfectly frank, it would be nice to have a few extra dollars in the coffers this holiday season. So if you're looking for a way to support me, or just want to get a new perspective of some frequently underrated films, do it the capitalist way by buying my book.






His movies have cumulatively earned $2.4 billion in the domestic box office, making him the second most-successful director of all time, right behind Steven Spielberg. If one gathered the top six directors in that category, that same man would be only one of the half-dozen to not also be in possession of an Academy Award: Michael Bay.

Commercial success and meaningful art don’t always go hand-in-hand, but is it possible for a filmmaker to consistently hit his mark with the audience without truly doing something right artistically? Professional critics have long taken aim at Bay’s music-video-honed visual style, full of fast cuts, moving camera shots, hot women. The internet is full of negativity and scorn for the director too, but has anyone truly given Bay’s oeuvre the benefit of the doubt?

Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay’s Films is the first-ever attempt to approach the Bay catalog from an intellectual standpoint. Come ready to find the deep subtexts and profound meanings in Michael Bay’s filmography.

EXPERIENCE – the controversial discussion about man’s relationship with God buried within Armageddon!

DISCOVER – how Pearl Harbor demonstrates that emotional truth is far more vital than strict adherence to actual historical events!

LEARN – how The Island is a pointed allegory attacking the proliferation of remakes and reboots that Hollywood produces!

UNDERSTAND – the vulnerable confession that Michael Bay offers under the cloak of a true-life Miami crime story in Pain & Gain! And much more!
----

If you love Michael Bay, you will find something to enjoy in this book and if you hate Michael Bay you'll probably still find plenty to love here. Every movie Michael Bay has directed is covered here, in all-new in-depth examinations.

If you want a taste of the book, read the chapters on TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION and THE ROCK for free at their respective posts. Also check out "Why I Wrote a Book About The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films" over at Film School Rejects.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Black List launches MACRO Episodic Lab for writers of color

MACRO and The Black List, in partnership with Emmy-Award winning writer/producer/actor Lena Waithe and actress/producer/director Eva Longoria, are excited to announce a new opportunity for writers of color to develop and produce an original digital or television pilot script.

"The MACRO Episodic Lab Powered by The Black List has been created to discover episodic storytellers of color, empower them with creative tools and resources to help launch their careers, and provide industry support to writers from a wide range of backgrounds who typically do not have access to the traditional Hollywood system." And applications are now open via MACRO'S site! 

Submissions will be accepted via MACRO from today, June 6, 2018, until August 6, 2018. Please note that all writers who wish to opt-in to this opportunity must do so via MACRO's website -- initial script submissions will not be accepted via blcklst.com.

Before opting in via MACRO, note the materials needed for consideration in this opportunity: a personal biography of no more than 500 words, a resume, personal social media links, information about your proposed pilot, and an answer to a short-form essay question.

Based on this information, MACRO will then select up to 500 writers to advance to the next round of the opportunity -- writers will be notified of their selection no later than September 1, 2018. Those selected writers will be provided with a code for one free month of hosting and one free evaluation for their pilot on blcklst.com.

At this point, writers will upload their pilot to blcklst.com for evaluation. All data associated with a given script will be considered when making final decisions about this opportunity. The finalists for the inaugural MACRO Episodic Lab will be announced in December 2018. Up to three selected writers will receive development support and a pilot presentation or sizzle at a budget of up to $30,000 each.

Check out our FAQ for additional questions or concerns, and as always, feel free to reach out to Black List support.

MACRO Episodic Lab Timeline 
June 6: Applications open on MACRO's site
August 6: Submission window closes at 11:59PM PST
August 6 - August 31: First round evaluation period by MACRO
September 1: All 500 Black List code recipients will have been notified by this date
September 3 (11:59PM PST): Deadline for uploading pilot scripts to The Black List for selected writers
November 15: Semi-Finalists notified
December 10: Finalists notified

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Clay's downward spiral on 13 REASONS WHY makes for an Emmy-worthy arc for Dylan Minnette

Massive and thorough spoilers for the whole season, including a lot of stuff that's more powerful if you see it rather than read about it. If you haven't finished binging, turn back!

I hadn't planned on writing this post, but over the course of the weekend I had a couple discussions with people regarding the new season of 13 REASONS WHY and I ended up talking myself into writing a companion piece to last year's examination of Clay's character. This also will serve as an appreciation of Dylan Minnette, who probably deserved an Emmy nomination for his performance last year in the episode focusing on Clay's tape and gets an entire season's worth of an Emmy reel this year.

After writing my spoiler-free review and my two posts on the retcons of season two, I took a deeper dive into the fan reaction to this season and saw a bit of criticism of Clay as a character. It feels like something important is being missed by the fans in a "big picture" way. Clay is not in a good place, and his condition is quite a bit more severe than his friends are noticing.

If season one was structured around the mental breakdown of Hannah Baker, season two is about the breakdown of Clay Jensen. In a chilling parallel, just as those closest to Hannah failed to realize the significance of her struggle until it was too late, there's no one around Clay to realize how hard he's taking everything. For a show built around raising awareness of the need to be empathetic, the characters fail to learn the lessons of their biggest failure in that regard.

That's not a shot at the writing, by the way. Everyone's behaving reasonably for what they know - it's just that they have huge blindspots.

Clay's journey last year was his discovery of what destroyed Hannah Baker's life and how she became so depressed that she ended it. He carried guilt over what he didn't know, what he didn't do, what he didn't understand. Their last significant contact was at a party where they spent half the night getting closer, only for Hannah to freak out and push him away when things got physical. At first he blamed himself for whatever he did to upset her, and then when Hannah's tapes basically absolved him of guilt, taking all responsibility for how things went bad, he cracked. He blamed himself for leaving the traumatized girl in tears, setting off a chain of events that made things go much worse.

Hannah wanted Clay to know her whole story - to know that she believed him to be good and kind and everything she couldn't see in herself. It feels like she wanted Clay's tape to set him free. Instead, it's clear it broke him.

Through the season, we see Clay experience most of the Five Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.

Clay ended last season by going to extremes to get justice for Hannah and then reaching out to a troubled former friend, Skye. When the show picks up five months later, Clay and Skye are now boyfriend and girlfriend. Skye is a cutter and clearly has some emotional issues. Even last season it was pretty clear that the lesson Clay took from Hannah's death is that he should reach out to someone like Skye before she heads down the same path.

Clay can try to "save" Skye, but in his heart he knows they're not meant to be. When the two of them are about to have sex for the first time, Clay sees Hannah briefly in her place. It's a representation of how both his heart isn't in this relationship and how deeply he's scarred by the way his own intimate encounter with Hannah ended. Poor Clay. He's trying to do the right thing, but he can't lie to himself and he's breaking down. Or to put it another way, Clay starts the season in Denial.

My own guess is that guilt is what's kept him with Skye this long - the fear of what losing him would make her do. That scenario plays out after a fight the two have and Skye goes home to attempt suicide again. She's hospitalized and spends several episodes offscreen as she realizes that what she and Clay have isn't healthy.

Clay's revelation doesn't come so easily. By the end of the first episode, he's graduated from visions of Hannah to carrying on complete conversations with an apparition of her. Some viewers have taken to assume that this is an indication of a full-on psychotic break and Clay is exhibiting signs of schizophrenia. I don't think that's the intent, and it feels more like this is how the show dramatizes Clay's internal struggle with how he can honor Hannah, and also how he processes some of the new details he learns about her over the course of the season.

Katherine Langford is playing Hannah in flashbacks, but it's important to remember that when Clay is talking to ghost-Hannah, Langford is basically playing Clay too. Or at least a side of him that's trying to understand Hannah. "Hannah" never tells Clay something he doesn't already know and when he asks a direct question, she either deflects or gives a rhetorical response. She's a sign of his fractured psyche. He talks to her because he has no one else he can open up to.

One thing the Clay/"Hannah" scenes kind of muddy is the sense of loss surrounding those Hannah left behind. Because of how she's "present" she weirdly feels less dead this season than she did last season. Another consequence of this is because we see more of Hannah in what looks like a normal state, it starts to overwrite the memory of the depressed girl she was when she took her life.

No matter how comforting a version of Hannah that Clay conjures in his mind, one of the most quietly heartbreaking things about the series is that we know that hours before she slit her wrists in a bathtub, Hannah said, "Clay Jensen hates me" while talking to Mr. Porter. And just to make that detail more painful, remember that Clay heard the actual recording of this conversation. He knows that Hannah went to her grave believing Clay hated her. That's gotta be gutting.

Hannah Baker may no longer exist regardless, but the more vibrant "Hannah" that Clay engages with in his mind had ceased to exist well before she bled out in a bathtub. It makes some sense that Clay's coping would involve reflecting on the old Hannah, but it's also a manipulation of the audience.

Clay's downward spiral continues across several episodes, as everything that happens seems to be aimed at hitting him where he's vulnerable. Where last year, Hannah's tapes at least assured Clay that she loved him as much as he loved her, and that their romance only was aborted because she felt she wasn't worthy of him, this year Clay learns that Hannah spent the prior summer sleeping with Zach. Though that provokes some expected hurt and jealousy on his part the real pain of this comes from the new context it places Clay and Hannah's aborted hookup in.

Hannah didn't react to Zach's touch with the revulsion she later would to Clay's. Which again puts Clay back in the only position he can retreat to - wondering what he did wrong that night. No matter what comfort Hannah attempted on his tape, Clay has all that ripped away from him. Everything he believed about what he and Hannah meant to each other is put in question.

(I don't like the Zach/Hannah hookup for precisely the reason that it muddies up that climactic moment in season one, but taking it as canon for season two, it's a pretty rock solid way to add a few more layers of guilt to Clay in terms of triggering the chain of events that led straight to Hannah's death.)

Then in the following episode, written by Brian Yorkey, Clay takes the stand in the lawsuit against the school board. He's hoping that he'll be able to tell Hannah's story - get justice for her. Crushingly, he makes things worse. His own actions last season - sending a naked picture of Tyler around school as retribution, buying drugs from Bryce as a pretense to getting his (inadmissible) confession - come back to haunt him on the stand. He ends up only making things worse.

If Clay wasn't there already, this event drives him to the next stage: Anger.

This is the point where Clay fully breaks and does the one truly indefensible thing: he releases the tapes anonymously over the internet. As he prepares the files, "Hannah" appears to him. Remember - she's not really there, so this is really just a dramatization of the conflict in Clay's head as he prepares to cross a line he can't come back from.


HANNAH
Don't do this.

CLAY
I'm doing it for you. I'm trying to make things right.

HANNAH
You know it won't.

CLAY
What else can I do?

Clay's powerless. He has to do something. He's trying to find the action that will fix what went wrong on the stand. And right now, even he knows that this is a bad idea and one that won't change anything. But he can't be idle. It's an interesting evolution for a character who started the series often defined by his inaction.

HANNAH
You can help Jessica and Justin. You can figure out those pictures.

CLAY
I don't care about the fucking pictures. I care about the truth. I care about you.

HANNAH
Then don't do it. You know I don't want you to.

Clay said in season one that "Maybe it's time to stop thinking about what Hannah wants, and start thinking about what Hannah needs." It's good that the show interrogates Hannah's own decisions, but this conversation is all about Clay's.

CLAY
Well, maybe you don't get a say anymore. People did terrible things to you and they're getting away with it. You left those tapes for a reason.

HANNAH
What reason?

CLAY
To make people face what they did and admit it and understand how fucked up it was.

HANNAH
Do you think I wanted revenge?

I take this as Clay asking himself a hard question he's tried not to consider. A big debate about the first season was if we should take Hannah's tapes as a revenge plot. I didn't interpret it that way, and I don't think Clay did either, but the fact Hannah actually voices this question makes me think he's begun to doubt that interpretation. If he thinks she's out for revenge, it makes releasing the tapes that much easier.

And this is the root of his breakdown - he doesn't know which version of Hannah to believe in anymore. The foundation of his view of Hannah has been shaken too much.

CLAY
I don't know what you wanted, because you left a huge fucking mess. I'm the only one interested in cleaning it up. 

HANNAH
It wasn't revenge. I had to tell my own story. I wanted people to know what happened so maybe it wouldn't happen again.

CLAY
Exactly. So everyone should hear it.

Clay's not making an invalid observation here. Hannah herself used the threat of publicly releasing the tapes as a way of forcing everyone on there to listen. Further, she didn't leave any instructions about what was to happen afterwards.

Notably, it's only seen in the context of being "her story." Clay doesn't consider that "her story" also involves material that a lot of other people would consider "their" story. Sure he gets to out Bryce as a rapist and put his confession out there... but that also means revealing Jess is a rape victim. That's the myopia of this scene - the only thing that matters to Clay in this debate is what he can do and what he thinks Hannah would have wanted.

I think it's notable that neither Clay nor "Hannah" brings up the issue of outing Jess as a rape victim. This would seem to demonstrate Clay didn't think about this consequence AT. ALL. I suppose it's better than him deciding the benefits of releasing the tapes would outweigh the harm of doing so - but it also points to his dangerous tunnel vision. All he's focusing on is avenging Hannah. It's a single-minded crusade he embarks on without weighing the consequences.

Nothing will keep Ahab from his whale.

HANNAH
No, not like this.

CLAY
You don't get to decide. You left.

It's that simple for Clay. But the significance here is that he's reaching the limits of the Hannah apparition being useful to him. He can argue with her, but since he's arguing with himself, Hannah's POV is always going to be handicapped. And something interesting happens when Clay reaches the limits of how much he can argue her side of things...

In the eleventh episode of the season, "Bryce + Chloe," written by Marissa Jo Cerar & Thomas Higgins, Bryce takes the stand and tells a mountain of lies about his history with Hannah. He claims they had an off-again, on-again thing. It's all lies, but he's trying to undermine Hannah's rape accusation. Clay doesn't take this well and demands that "Hannah" tell him it's all lies. Of course, "Hannah" can't do that. All she can offer is, "Don't think about it, Clay. Just think about me. Think about touching me. Think about hugging me. How it felt when we were close."

But Clay is past taking solace in the good memories. He says, "I don't want to think about that ever again. Just tell me what's true."

But she can't. And when Clay doesn't have an answer that his subconscious can express through "Hannah," guess what happens? "Hannah" starts reciting some familiar words:

"Here we are. Tape 12. If you've listened this far and you haven't heard your name yet, well, I bet you know exactly what's coming now. Or maybe you don't have any idea."

Tape 12 is the tape where Hannah describes how Bryce raped her. And from this point on in the episode, all "Hannah" does is recite the tape, dramatizing how it's all Clay can think about - how Bryce violated her, broke her... and how he's going to get away with it.

When Clay comes into possession of a gun late in the episode, he heads straight for Bryce's house. We see him followed at every step by "Hannah," eerily keeping pace with him as she narrates that awful night.

HANNAH
When I tried to climb out of the hot tub, you pulled me back in... You told me we were "just having fun."

CLAY
I'll make him hurt. I'll make him understand what he did.

HANNAH
I struggled, but you were too strong for me. You pulled my underwear down and used your body to trap me there.

Justin pulls up, tries to reason with Clay even as he sees Clay has a gun. But Clay's attention is still pulled by "Hannah."

HANNAH
You gripped my wrists and pushed yourself inside of me.

CLAY
Get out of my way, Justin.


JUSTIN
Come on, Clay, this is fucking crazy.


HANNAH
It felt like a knife cutting me open.


CLAY
No one's gonna get justice for her.

Clay pulls his gun on Justin, and as unhinged as he is, I'm going to mark this sequence as when Clay hits Depression, for reasons that will soon become clear. (Yes, this means that as best as I can tell, the show skipped Bargaining.) While Clay and Justin argue, we keep hearing Hannah's narration.

By the way, this first person account is unique to this season. Last year we only saw the events depicted on the tapes - we didn't hear Hannah narrate the play-by-play, which is almost as brutally devastating as experiencing it as a scene. Katherine Langford didn't get as much meaty material this season as last, but this confrontation makes up for it.

HANNAH
I begged you, "Please, Bryce," but you told me to relax... You said you would go "nice and easy," but you went harder and faster... When I cried out in pain, you grabbed my hair like the sound of my pain made it better for you.


CLAY
I can't count on anyone else anymore. I have to do this myself.

JUSTIN
You don't have to do this yourself. We can get him tomorrow.


CLAY
I need to do it now.

Minnette really sells his desperation here. It's another scene that should be a red flag to Justin that Clay needs some serious help.

HANNAH
I just tried to leave my body. I tried to forget the anger and pain.


CLAY
For Hannah. 

JUSTIN
Listen, Clay, I know you loved her, but she's gone. And going in there and hurting Bryce now is not gonna bring her back. She's gone.


HANNAH
If you're lucky, you live a long life, and one day, your body just gives up, and it's over.


CLAY
How do I make her stop? She won't stop.

JUSTIN
Make who stop? Who, Clay? Who are you talking about?


HANNAH
The way I see it, there are two kinds of death.

Clay takes his gun... and points it at his own head.

HANNAH
...If you're not lucky, you die a little bit...

JUSTIN
Clay, come on.

HANNAH
...Over and over, until you realize it's too late... 

JUSTIN
Just stop. Give me the gun.

Bryce steps outside, sees Clay with a gun to his head and Justin trying to talk him down. Clay freezes, lowers the gun.

HANNAH
...And in that moment, it felt... it felt like I was already dead.

It's one of the more tense moments of the series, and the heartbreaking look that Clay imagines on "Hannah's" face gives all the window we need into the pain he feels and the violation he feels a duty to avenge.

It also hammers home just how much the tapes messed with his head. Whatever Hannah intended, this is the result, and Minnette makes every second of it agonizing to watch. My only gripe with this scene is that "Hannah" should really be appearing as the short-haired depressed incarnation rather than her regular appearance.

This is Clay at his lowest point. He's convinced to walk away without violence and gets his head a little bit better together. By the time of the final episode of the season, he's moved closer to Acceptance.

In this final episode, written by Brian Yorkey, he and "Hannah" have a happier interaction. They sit by the shore together and watch the sunset, as "Hannah" asks him to remember a happy memory. Clay gives a speech at her long-delayed memorial service. As he speaks, he sees "Hannah" walk into the church and take a seat in a back pew...

CLAY
Hannah Baker came into my life at the end of one summer like a star that fell to Earth. Like nothing I had seen, like no one I had ever met. She was funny, and smart, and moody, and and maddening, and beautiful. And I loved her. I loved her so much. And I ask her every day why she did what she did.

But I get no answers. She took those with her when she went. Leaving me, all of us, angry, empty, confused. And I know that hurt won't ever go away. But there will come a day when I don't feel it every minute. And the anger won't be so hot, and the other feelings will fade, and I'll be left with only love.

A good friend once said to me, "I can love you and still let you go." So, Hannah, I love you, and I let you go. And I miss you. And I hope that wherever you go next, you feel peace, you feel safe in a way that you never did here.

Wherever you go next, I hope you know that I love you. 

Hannah's memorial service is a sequence that on its own justifies the entire second season. By the time Clay finishes speaking, "Hannah" has stood up and walked out the back door into a bright light. The implication is clear... he said he was letting go, and he meant it.

I'm still bothered that Clay's breakdown went largely unnoticed by his friends and family and if there's a third season, it really would be a good idea to see Clay getting some professional help, but Minnette makes the entire downward spiral and reach for recovery incredibly affecting and compelling.

And still... there's the realization that letting go doesn't mean that Clay's fully healed. In a scene that really should have been the final moments of the season, Clay attends the spring dance. Everything is going well until the DJ plays, "The Night We Met." It's the song that he and Hannah shared their one slow dance to at last year's formal.

Clay wanders the dance floor, looking like a man totally lost. Tony, as soon as he hears the song start, says "Shit. I have to find Clay," and so he's the first to find his friend and pull him into an embrace as they both weep. And then Jessica is there. And Alex. Followed by Courtney. And Ryan. All these people touched by Hannah's loss huddle together around Clay, comforting him and each other.

It would have been a perfect ending. Grief and hope. The hint that whatever Clay still has yet to face, he won't have to do it alone.

There's one final scene, with Clay facing down a school shooter. He puts himself in the path of an assault-rifle toting Tyler to talk him down. This comes AFTER he tells his friends not to call the cops on Tyler. On one hand, you can say that Clay is reaching out with empathy, trying to keep Tyler from throwing his life away.

On another hand, you wonder if he has a death wish, and you question how irresponsible it is to show that the "right" thing to do is not call the police to the scene of a possible mass shooting. Maybe in his mind, he's trying to do for Tyler what Justin did for him by talking him down outside Bryce's. Maybe he sees some of Hannah in Tyler and is trying to stop a life-altering mistake.

It's not a perfect fit with the rest of the episode, but Minnette does his damndest to sell it in the moment. You might question it later, but he makes you believe this is something Clay would do. Season three might be well-served by Clay realizing how very lucky he just got, or by giving him a "Holy shit! What did I almost do?" moment.

Either way, if Minnette's there, I'll be there. He and the writers have made Clay Jensen one of the most compelling teen protagonists in the history of the genre.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Prosecuting and defending the big retcon in season 2 of 13 REASONS WHY

SPOILERS AHEAD FOR SEASON 2 of 13 REASONS WHY

The People vs. The Retcon in "The Smile At the End of the Dock."

For the facts of the case, check out yesterday's post.

PROSECUTION OPENING STATEMENT:

Ladies and gentlemen of the Court, it is the position of the Prosecution that the retroactive continuity established in Season 2, Episode 6 of Netflix's 13 REASONS WHY, "The Smile at the End of the Dock," written by Julia Bicknell, i.e., the aforementioned mutual-devirginizing of Hannah and Zach (hereafter referred to as "the Retcon," constitutes an egregious continuity breach that threatens the integrity of the entire series. The grounds for such a finding are:

1. It takes a simple, understandable story pillar and complicates it beyond comprehension. In the 11th episode of season one, discussed in this entry, Hannah and Clay start to hook up, only to have Hannah's PSTD triggered but the sexual activity. On the tape, Hannah narrated her breakdown thusly:

"I wanted you to do everything you were doing, so I don't know why my mind took me everywhere else and I thought of every other guy.... and they all became you."

At this point in the series, every contact of a sexual nature that Hannah experienced was some kind of violation or sexual molestation. To a first time viewer, the build-up to Hannah and Clay's hook-up and the subsequent reversal is brilliant because it utilizes all that history to quickly reverse Hannah's emotions in a fast 180 degree turn. It's instantly understandable and clear because OF COURSE she's been trained to have a negative association with that kind of touch.

The Retcon muddies this beyond belief. What was once a carefully built climax now has to account for an entire summer of Hannah being sexually active and enjoying it. Had the creators left the Retcon at merely an unsatisfying de-virgining, the story might have held, but the PTSD that Hannah invokes in the first season has been rendered confusing.

This confusion is even voiced in the show, when Clay wonders why she freaked out with him and not Zach. It's a question that has no answer and because of that, it compromises what was a carefully built and ingeniously revealed climax to the Clay/Hannah relationship in season one.

2. It undermines Hannah's integrity and calls into question the authenticity of what's on the tapes. Zach and Hannah spend months hooking up, getting close and generally being too adorable for words so long as you forget the events that landed Zach on the tapes in the first place. Then he breaks things off when his friends return to town, ostensibly to protect her from being teased by them. Given the scale of what Hannah's experienced, this should be a heartbreak that that rates higher than almost anything else on the tapes up to that point - she let herself be vulnerable and got hurt for it.

But there's not even so much as an allusion to it on the tapes. Zach's "reason why" on the tapes is a pretty severe one, despite what his defenders might say. He lashed out at her when she rightly asked him to leave her alone. Some side with Zach when he says that Hannah brings a lot of pain on herself, with others going so far to call her a bitch, but from her POV, why WOULD she trust the guy who hangs out with jocks who say shitty things about her and who is friends with the guy who just molested her?

Zach does two shitty things, but only one makes the tapes. Clay ends up on the tapes because her story's not complete without him, but Zach gets a free ride on the worse of his two transgressions? It can't be that Hannah limits herself to one tape per person because Justin gets two tapes covering separate points in the timeline.

What reason does Hannah have for keeping this story secret considering she spilling far more intimate and revealing secrets? If we accept this happened as Zach testifies to it, it calls into question everything on Hannah's tapes. There's telling the truth as she knows it and there's deliberately omitting relevant parts of the narrative.

The Retcon is not only a misstep for season two, but it threatens to ruin season one. The damage to Hannah's arc is that severe.

Thank you. Does the defense wish to make a statement?

DEFENSE OPENING STATEMENT:

The Prosecution throws around outrage quite dramatically, but the Defense is ready to challenge those claims. We contend that:

1. Dramatically speaking, the Retcon makes perfect sense within the narrative context for Season 2. Before Clay can move on from Hannah, he needs to move past the pedestal he's put her on. The entire season puts Hannah's perspective on trial and also reminds us that she was a more complicated person than even her tapes reveal.

2. As this is a show that reaches a lot of teenagers and speaks to the authenticity of teenage life, it's commendable that they showed a sex-positive attitude to contrast the slut-shaming common to the genre. Hannah has agency in her sexual choices and is shown to be proud of them. Exploring this and using a beloved character like Hannah to do so is not outside the realm of 13 REASONS WHY. Another excellent point is made by Justin, "Hannah: she sleeps with one guy. She has a crush on another guy, being me, and she kisses a third, being you. And it's whatever, it's all fine, right? All of a sudden, she's a slut? All of a sudden, you don't know who she is?" He notes that he's a player and celebrated for it, so why is Hannah judged for the same behavior?

3. The fact that the show has Clay voice many of the prosecution's own arguments shows that the creators were aware of the discontinuities and apparently were able to reconcile them in their own minds. Clay's anger at Zach does have a jealous twinge to it - which is not unexpected of a teenage boy - but in time it's clear that his anxiety is driven less by the jealousy that Justin calls out and more because the big question in Clay's mind is this: "She lost her virginity to Zach. I mean, Zach. Then, like, a month later, she hooked up with me, and then she freaked out. But she didn't freak out when she hooked up with Zach?

The show clearly wasn't ignorant of the implications of the continuity change. Thus, we have to assume the ambiguity is a deliberate choice and not a mistake.

4. Season 1 cannot be "ruined" by a subsequent plot twist. I checked my Netflix and the season 1 that was released last year is still there, just as it was. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I, like many of you perhaps, was very much disappointed in the Star Wars prequels, particularly Hayden Christensen's portrayal of the future Darth Vader. In my youth, Vader was one of the great villains, and it's difficult to reconcile him with his younger depiction in the prequels. But as disastrous as it may have been, when I watch Star Wars, I don't think about Hayden Christensen or the prequels - Vader remains to me in my 30s the same person he was when I was 7.

By the same token, what Hannah and Clay experience in season 1 cannot be "ruined" by anything in season two. Season 1 will always be what the viewer experienced it as. The prosecution is being typically hyperbolic with this charge.

In fact, the Zach/Hannah revelation barely has any lasting implications for season 2 once it's out in the open.

The defense rests. Does the Prosecution wish to rebut?

PROSECUTION REBUTTAL

Yes, we do. Just to address the Defense points that the topic of sex-positivity is somehow a mitigating factor in this offensive and avoidable continuity violation - it would have been a simple enough matter to relocate the Zach/Hannah affair to a better point in the timeline.

There are three unaccounted for weeks between the party with the aborted Hannah/Clay hookup and the party where Hannah is raped. That would be more than enough time for Hannah to explore her sexuality with Zach, perhaps even doing that as a way of trying to get past whatever triggered her with Clay. True, that would remove the "summer love" of the romance, but three weeks is a long time in a teenage lifespan, and more than enough time for Hannah to develop feelings for Zach and be hurt when he hides the affair.

There were alternatives to making total hash of continuity, and the mere fact that the show acknowledges the inconsistency via Clay's unanswered question does not excuse it.

The Prosecution rests.

So which do you think is the stronger case? If you've seen the show, where do your opinions lie? What verdict would YOU render?

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

What is a retcon and how was it used in season 2 of 13 REASONS WHY?

Having given my overall thoughts in a fairly non-spoiler fashion for the second season of 13 REASONS WHY, this post will be rife with spoilers as I take on one of the more contentious reveals of season 2. If you haven't seen it yet, this is your warning - turn back now.

Season 2 of the show uses a trial as a framing device through most of the episodes, often interrogating characters about their perspectives and calling into question some of the things Hannah told us in Season 1. This is what's known as a "retcon," short for "retroactive continuity." It's what we call it when backstory is established or changed after the fact. In some circles, "retcon" is used to imply "bad retcon," as in an instance where a newly-established backstory actually contradicts and overwrites previously established facts.

In general, any time a new detail about a character's history is revealed, that's a retcon. I first heard this term in comic book circles, where DC Comics would often rewrite the history of their characters and pretend the new history had been there the whole time. (Hawkman's storyline became a mess because of this kind of thing in the 90s.)

Some TV shows have handled this elegantly. One of the best examples I can think of is ANGEL, where the 100 year-old vampire's history was revealed in many flashbacks over the course of five seasons. The flashbacks often challenged assumptions the fans had about Angel's history, but never actually violated what had been said before. For example, Angel is cursed with a soul in 1898 and fans assumed that he walked the Earth as a tortured soul until 1997 when he was given purpose and became an ally to Buffy.

We came to learn that wasn't the case, that even after he was ensouled, Angel struggled long and hard not to prey on people, with a relapse or two along the way that eventually propelled him to the rock bottom spot he was in just prior to meeting Buffy. It gave new dimension to what was known, but never compromised existing continuity.

Which brings me to 13 REASONS WHY. Via the trial, we hear testimony from several characters that adds to the story Hannah told on her tapes. Some - like Stephanie's tale of getting a willing kiss from Hannah - don't match what Hannah said, but it's easy enough to reconcile the differing recollections and find a way for both stories to be consistent.

That's not the case with three reveals on the stand:

1) Zach Dempsey reveals that in the summer before Hannah killed herself, the two of them became close. She decided to "get it over with" and lose her virginity to him, after which she initiated regular hook-ups with Zach over the course of the summer. It came to an end when his friends returned and he kept the relationship secret, claiming it would protect her from being harassed by his jock buddies.

When Clay finds out, he's heartbroken. He asks the spectral-Hannah he sees in his mind a question she could never answer, "If I'd been there [in town during that summer] would it have been me?" His old jealousy rears up, but his hurt is coming from a deeper place than that. As far as he - and we - knew, Hannah was a virgin. A month before she died, she and Clay almost hooked up at a party, but as they kissed and things got intense, Hannah's mind could only take her to all of the groping, sexual assault and humiliation she'd suffered up to that point. Freaking out with PTSD, she saw in Clay every guy who'd ever touched her without permission and told him to get off her.

So learning that Hannah not only had sex with Zach, but a LOT of sex, he can only ask, "Why did she freak out with me and not him?"

2) The second major retcon is a bit more minor. It comes out that Hannah's father was cheating on her mother, and Hannah found out about it last spring. She demanded her father come clean with her mother. He ended the affair and tried to work things out with his wife.

3) A third retcon is the discovery that last spring, Hannah and Clay spent all night with Jeff and a few other friends doing some trippy drugs. As they came down from the high, Hannah made some remarks to the effect that she was considering suicide.

As to the second one: There's no indication in season one that there had been any affair and especially no indication that Hannah knew. In fact, on Tape 6, when talking about Valentine's Day, Hannah talks about how her parents have the perfect marriage saying, "My parents were high school sweethearts. So shoot me: I still believed in romance." Though the flashback takes place before the cheating, Hannah's VO comes from a time after she knew about the affair. It's incredibly hard to reconcile that with what she knew to be true. It needlessly compromises Hannah's perspective in season one, especially since it would be easy enough to rationalize her parents breaking up in the aftermath of her death.

And the third one? Clay and Hannah seem a bit TOO familiar at this point in their timelines, but that's less of a blip than the fact that both of them spending all night with Jeff undermines Clay's angry "You didn't even know [Jeff!]" when an emotional Hannah approached Clay after Jeff died in episode 10 last season. If this was the only continuity hiccup it would be easily ignored, but the other retcons earn this one more scrutiny. In a big picture sense, it's not terribly severe though.

But the first retcon is a bit more complicated for me. It's revealed in the sixth episode of the season, "The Smile at the End of the Dock," written by Julia Bicknell. It's the first truly great episode of the season, which is not a surprise because Bicknell also wrote the fifth episode of the previous season, which I raved about here. The prior episodes are all pretty strong, but Bicknell's script instantly has more depth, nuance and complexity - with so much of the story driven by strong and relatable emotions from the characters.

But it IS a surprise because the Zach/Hannah relationship revealed within is a development that I have a strong objection to. I don't know if I've ever seen a plot point I disliked so much done in such fantastic way that I was still marveling at the quality of the writing, performances and the direction. I could probably eviscerate and defend this plot line in equally passionate measure.

So in the spirit of the season-long trial storyline, that's what I'm going to do. Today I'm going to prosecute this retcon, going into all the reasons why it's a massive misstep... then tomorrow, I'm going to defend it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Season 2 of 13 REASONS WHY is a different show, but still emotionally powerful

For my 13-part series discussing the first season of 13 REASONS WHY, go here.

Don't worry - I don't think I can get 13 distinct posts out of the new season of 13 REASONS WHY, but I am going to be talking about it this week, starting with this broad review - and I assure you, I've taken great care with this to discuss the high points of the season without including any spoilers that would ruin the experience.

Last season ended with Clay listening to the last of the tapes Hannah Baker made before her suicide, seemingly answering all questions as to why she took her life. (And showing us those heartbreaking moments in painful detail.) He confronted the counselor who failed to act on her suicidal behavior and got Bryce Walker, the star athlete who raped Hannah, to admit to that act on tape. Hannah's parents were delivered copies of the tapes, at last getting a window into what preceded the worst weeks of their lives, and Clay reached out to a depressed friend, Skye, literally driving off into the sunset with her.

It could have ended there, even with the two loose threads of creepy photographer Tyler stockpiling guns and the suicide attempt of Alex, both of who were named on the tapes as reasons Hannah killed herself. I wrote last year of these loose threads:

"If that's foreshadowing a school shooting story, I'm gonna get nervous. Part of the appeal of season one is how universal many of the traumas felt. If we get to school shootings and rape trials in season two, a little bit of that verisimilitude gets lost and this could become just another teen drama. As a writer, I get the appeal of "13 Reasons Why... I shot up my school" though."

Welcome to Season 2, where indeed there are stretches where the reality is slightly heightened from what we experienced last season. At times it DOES feel like "just another teen drama," albeit a well-written and exceptionally well-performed and produced one. To be fair, this was pretty much the only option if the show was to evolve out of its old model

Season one had a tight focus, using Clay's journey through Hannah's tapes as its spine. Half of an episode was devoted to Hannah's fall while the other half was Clay's reaction to what he learned, which spilled over into smaller threads involving Hannah's parents and their plan to bring a lawsuit against the school, as well as other students determined to stop Clay from completing the tapes. Despite all that the show explored, Hannah's suicide was always the core, explored from both sides, with the emotional heart coming from the love story between Hannah and Clay.

In contrast, season 2 splits its focus amongst multiple subplots that make this more of an ensemble than season 1. The Bakers' lawsuit against the school goes to trial, which makes for the most unifying thread of all the stories, as the subjects of the tapes take the stand and testify about Hannah, often bringing new details that they remember differently from Hannah, or in some cases, that Hannah didn't disclose at all.

Most of the divergences from what we know of Hannah's story seem to play fair. I've seen some fans react to season 1 with the notion that any time a character's version of events didn't match Hannah's, that meant that she lied on the tapes. It's a notion that overlooks the idea that they other person's recollection is just as subjective and that Hannah is only telling the story as she experienced it. Most of what season 2 adds to Hannah's story fleshes out some relationships in ways that ring true - though two major discoveries (which I won't reveal here and will handle in later posts) threaten to change not only what we knew of Hannah, but also undermine some of the most resonant aspects of season 1.

Katherine Langford's participation isn't limited to just these flashbacks this time around, and by the end of the first episode, she's appearing to Clay as a sort of ghost. Ghost-Hannah personifies his developing conflicted feelings about the Hannah he thought he knew and the new truths he's discovering. Yes, it's a conceit to keep the excellent Langford around and in scenes with Dylan Minnette, but it works. At first, Hannah haunting Clay threatens to become too cute a concept, but in the back half of the run, Clay allows himself to feel more anger at Hannah, and an even later use of Hannah's ghost in an intense episode soon before the finale delivers a Minnette/Langford scene that's as haunting and heartbreaking as some of their best work last year. (Their interaction in the finale is about as perfect a conclusion to Season 1 as one could hope.)

Wisely, the writers never stray from the idea that whatever ghost-Hannah says is a figment from somewhere in Clay's mind. She represents whatever side of Hannah that Clay is fixated on, someone to confront with the hard questions that he can't really know the answers to. And her appearances remind us just how much what Clay experienced last year has left some permanent psychological scars.

Though Minnette and Langford both delivered Emmy-worthy work last season, the clear breakout was Langford, in her first major role. This year, it's Dylan Minnette who's leading the charge through the emotional grinder, with Clay's breakdown over the course of the season. I suspect he'll be overlooked again, but he has to go to some dark places this year. His journey alone makes this season worth it.

Season one trained us to expect that Minnette, Langford and Kate Walsh would break our hearts. One of the delights of season two is how every returning supporting player has raised their game. Alisha Boe is the standout among this faction of the cast, as her character Jess deals with the aftermath of her rape last season.

Also excellent is Justin Prentice as Bryce Walker, who is so good at being the intersection of white privilege and toxic masculinity that it could typecast him for years. Alternately charming and chilling, Prentice plays Bryce as the cool jock everyone wants to be while effortlessly letting the monster he is peek through the mask now and then.

Miles Heizer's Alex is dealing with memory loss after surviving his suicide attempt, and the frustrations that come with it and his relationship with Jess both play one of the season's core themes of healing. Ajiona Alexus is another returning actor who gets meatier material this year as Sheri and really stands out for it. Ross Butler brings some welcome depth and conflict to Zach, a jock who faces the struggle of being a nice guy amid a social group of sociopaths, and I underestimated Brandon Flynn, who gets a pretty powerful arc that takes him from Clay's adversary to ally and carries material I wouldn't have expected him to handle after season one.

Christian Navarro's Tony seems to get less interaction with Clay this time around, in a story that deals mostly with his anger management issues, but he really shines in scenes where he gets to play his devotion to Hannah. And I can't forget Sosie Bacon's Skye, who becomes the first overt echo of Hannah's problems in a season full of them.

Plotwise, I wasn't too far off-target with some of my guesses. One of my private suppositions was that Clay and Skye might get involved in a relationship out of his desire to prevent another suicide, but that they ultimately were too different and Clay might find himself guilted into staying with her out of fear that leaving her would trigger another depression. It seemed like an interesting dilemma that could grow out of his survivor's guilt. It's probably also a bit obvious, which is season 2 front-loads this story and doesn't spend too much time dwelling on it.

The trial storyline unfortunately locks Kate Walsh's character into a plot where she ends up playing many of the same emotional beats as season one. She has more screen time, but a lot of it is eaten up looking tense at the plaintiff's table in the courtroom. When they hand her the ball, she drives it into the end zone, though, as with one moment where she recalls offering Hannah advice on her appearance and now laments, "Why couldn't I just tell her she was beautiful?"

For the first two-thirds of the show, the trial works better as a device to interrogate the players on the stand than it does in reshaping our opinions about Hannah. In particular, great use is made of Clay's more questionable tactics in season one, when his shadier actions compromise him on the stand and his anger at making things worse for Hannah leads him to do something that may be his most ill-advised action yet.

The Bryce Walker storyline soon expands to reveal a years-long buried history of sexual assaults involving the top jocks at school. Clearly taking its cue from rape cases like the Stubenville High School events, the show explores it as a mystery-thriller. Related to this are a series of mysterious Polaroids left for Clay, telling him "HANNAH WASN'T THE ONLY ONE." Someone seems to be targeting several of the people on the tapes, threatening them physically and with notes. This show isn't totally built to be a thriller in this way, and some of the creaks show now and then in the first 2/3 of the arc. Where it ends up is pretty effective, though.

Less successful is the running subplot surrounding the bullied Tyler. I've enjoyed the irony that this is a series about someone who was bullied and about how many of the characters learn they need to be more empathetic... and then proceed to shit all over Tyler at every turn. Not that Tyler hasn't done some stuff to earn their disgust, but it's interesting to see the "Be careful of people's feelings" get harder to follow when the victim isn't a pretty and charismatic teenage girl. But the fact remains that Tyler just isn't as compelling as some of the other characters and so his evolution into a potential school shooter becomes one of the season's lesser threads.

Throughout the season, the show finds ways to engage with criticisms levied at it. One scene threatens to make the subtext into text, as the school principal speaks of the damage that Hannah's tapes could do if people see them as empowering, while Clay counters that Hannah's suicide has started a much-needed conversation about things no one was talking about. In other occasions, Hannah's motivations for making the tapes is called out. Did she want revenge? Or was she just trying to tell her story? Did she lie? The show presents a counterargument to many criticisms of it without pretending there are easy answers, and without seeming too defensive.

And importantly, the show explores many alternatives to suicide - through Jessica's story and her friendship with another rape survivor, through Alex's recovery from his attempt, through Skye, through the grief of everyone touched by what Hannah did. If season one started a conversation, season two definitely makes an effort to deepen it in a way that should redress much of what people found missing the first time around.

Overall, while season two hits some powerful emotional heights, it's by design less often less intimate and personal than season one was.  One of the major exceptions to this is the season finale, which feels like an almost-perfect conclusion to two seasons of story. For those who find parts of season two too great a departure from the first, the finale binds everything together in a way worthy of the best episodes of season one.

There's a genuine sense of closure to a lot of character arcs in the finale. Minnette and Langford again share some powerful scenes where Clay finally sorts out his feelings about Hannah. If that doesn't reduce you to tears, a late callback to a significant moment from season one should melt even the most hardened heart. Without giving too much away, I'd argue THAT scene would have been the perfect conclusion to this episode and the series.

I don't know where a season three of this show can go, or even IF the show could go own, but this is a group of performers and creators who I will make a point to follow for a long time to come.

Friday, May 18, 2018

As 13 REASONS WHY returns I reflect on why you should write what you love

13 REASONS WHY returns at midnight tonight on Netflix and I'm very excited for season two. You might remember that I wrote a 13-part series on the first season last year:

One result of that was that my friend, GAWKER V. THIEL screenwriter John Gary, insisted it was past time that I write a teen drama spec pilot. To him, it was unbelievable I had done it yet. (The closest I'd ever gotten was showrunning my college drama while I was still in college, but I'd never written an original spec, or even a spec episode of a teen drama.) He said something like, "You watch all these shows! You know all these shows. You should WRITE one of these shows."

Despite John's advice to write what I love, I resisted this. I gave the same excuse Bryan Singer gave for not pursuing Star Trek, "I think I'm too big a fan of Star Trek. You'd feel like you were watching WRATH OF KHAN" again.  I knew the genre too well that I felt paralyzed by every wrong choice. With every notion, I either felt, "I've seen that, and they did it way better" or "This is exactly the kind of thing that I've railed against because the ways it can go wrong are A, B, C, etc."

He said, "No you have to do it."

So I did... and people really seemed to like the spec.

And then to compliment it, I wrote a spec 13 REASONS WHY and despite MUCH anxiety about if I could pull that off... my readers are liking that too. I forgot what a relief it was to hear "This feels like the show and everyone's voices are in-character." So if nothing else, I have two strong samples that weren't in my portfolio a year ago.

What I'm saying is, I owe John and 13 REASONS WHY a pretty big debt. I tweeted a few of these sentiments and John added his own thoughts: "Write your favorite genre. Write the thing you love to watch the most. Write what you know the best. Write who you are. Write you."

One thing I did while breaking the spec episode was go back and rewatch season one again. The internal timeline of the show is a couple of weeks, and we're given a couple hard dates to work with in there. We know that Hannah Baker killed herself on October 10 and that the deposition that is shown in the last episode happens on November 10th.

Given that Clay is said to take a few weeks to go through the tapes, and that the show starts a couple weeks after Hannah's death, I was curious if the timeline as presented on the show stood up to scrutiny. Turns out that it does! Here's the way the timeline seems to break down:





The biggest assumption you have to make is that Clay takes the weekend off between listening to Tape 4 and 5. (I'm referring to each individual side as a tape just for simplicity. I know that technically that's "Tape 2, Side B" and "Tape 3, Side 1." It's just easier to think of it as one tape per person.)

That weekend isn't depicted on-screen, but the first four episodes all are clearly back-to-back and would take us through an entire school week. When Clay gets to the fifth tape, it's ALSO a school day and it's a case where it's not directly tied to the end of the previous ep. Further, the episode dealing with Tape 7 ends up spanning a school day, a weekend and the start of the next school week. So week 2 of tapes has some wiggle room, just so long as we assume that episodes 5-7 cover one week of time for Clay.

It's neat to see the writers were clearly tracking this, and it drives home just how glacially clay must have moved through the tapes compared to the others. He's the 10th person to receive the tapes, so they passed through nine people in the span of October 11 to the 21st. (Clay receives the tapes via mail on Monday the 23rd, which means the person before him would have had to send them out on Saturday the 21st.) It's doable, especially if you assume that some people might not have mailed the tapes and instead delivered them to the next recipient personally.

[UPDATE: Season 2 has given fixed dates to details that had to have been worked out from context earlier:

- the date of Hannah's death is stated multiple times on screen to have been October 9th. I had presumed October 10th because that is the page we see Mr. Porter rip out of his planner. I'm guessing that the writers' notion was that was the back side of the page that he ripped out... October 9th. Originally, I thought this was a mistake because we see Hannah get the tape recorder from Tony at school and if she's getting it on that Monday, she couldn't have killed herself the same day, but...

- Episode 11 of Season 2 attaches the date of September 30 to the party where Hannah is raped by Bryce. This fixes one detail - giving Hannah an entire week to record the tapes and set up her plan. However, it also contradicts something Clay says in Episode 12 of Season 1, when he says that Hannah slit her wrists "less than a week after" that party.]