I've been mostly an absentee landlord here of late. After eight years, it's hard to come up with new takes that don't feel like something I've written already, and when you couple that with the time I've been spending on other projects, there just hasn't been much motivation to keep up with perfunctory posts. That changes today, with the first of a 13-part series of posts delving into things to take away from the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. The show's been released to Netflix for over a month and a half, but I only just finished it. I've seen some of the cultural conversation about the show, but this is a series that's lingered in my brain well after I finished it and so it seemed appropriate to make a return with this run of posts.
Warning: I will be spoiling plenty about the show, and I'll make an effort to make these "lessons" accessible to those who haven't seen the show and perhaps don't have the time or interest to watch it.
There are plenty of remarkable aspects to 13 Reasons Why that we'll explore in this 13-part series, and one that I've seen little attention given to is the grounded world it creates.
It surprised me to realize this, but there really aren't that many grounded teen dramas on TV at the moment. Everything is in a heightened reality of some kind, and that adds an extra veneer of artifice to the tone and characters. I had a great deal of praise for how Riverdale was able to deftly deal with bullying and slut-shaming this season, but as relevant as it was to the age we live in, it still took place within the Twin Peaks-y reality of the show. That grounded storyline existed alongside nighttime soap trappings like land power plays, street gangs, incest, family rivalries, and of course, murder. That's not a knock on the show, which eventually came to remind me more and more of Veronica Mars with the soap quotient cranked up a few notches, but just an observation on how the teen world is reflected and translated in media today.
13 Reasons Why is different in that it feels like it could all be happening in the school down the street, or a neighboring town. Yes, this despite the high concept premise that builds the show around a series of tapes left behind by a recent suicide victim named Hannah Baker. There are 13 sides to the tapes in all, each one devoted to a different person whose actions eventually pushed Hannah to take her life. If you're on the tapes, they get passed to you and you have to listen to them all and pass them to the next person or else Hannah has arranged for a second set to be released. The presumption is that what's on these tapes is so horrible that none of the 13 would want that to become public knowledge. The show is structured so that we experience the tapes through the perspective of Clay, a classmate and friend of Hannah's.
The hook is certainly high concept, but the world in which it happens isn't and that's a crucial key to 13 Reasons Why's success. The story's impact comes from recognizing how this could be (or could have been, if you're like me and are a number of years removed from high school) happening right now in your school. I tried a number of times to imagine other teen dramas dealing with this sort of storyline. A show like Dawson's Creek could never have sustained this because of the darkness inherent in accusing the main cast of being complicit in a chain of events that led to suicide. The narrative would have to "protect" too many people from actions that are difficult to forgive, even after accounting for obvious villains. One Tree Hill might have embraced the melodrama more readily, but again, that's a world where the teen characters get instant careers as pop stars and fashion designers.
The vast majority of teen drama is about wish fulfillment and escapism. We don't want to see OTH's Haley James struggle with the real consequences of becoming a teen bride, or being a forgotten sibling in an overstuffed family. Instead, we want her to follow her dreams of being a musician, see her somehow make her young marriage work (after an obligatory struggle), wear awesome clothes and be loved. Surround her with familiar archetypes we all love, cast them with insanely attractive people all wearing the clothes you wish you could afford and tune in every week to have your feelings affirmed by a pleasing soundtrack.
And by the way, there's nothing wrong with liking a show like that, or making one. (Though the better ones find ways to play in that kind of sandbox and create interesting characters at the same time.
The world of 13 Reasons Why is not that sort of comfort food. One of the earliest things that struck me is that while familiar archetypes show up (the popular girl, the BMOC jock, the awkward outsider hiding behind his camera), we never got what I call "the gerrymandered lunchroom." You know the scene I'm talking about. It's in most teen movies, where the new arrival to school is basically given a map to the way all the lunch tables are divided by cliques, as if these were tribes that never interact. ("Here are the jocks, the burnouts, the nerds, the popular girls, the emo girls... etc."). It's not a Saved by the Bell reality where everyone also neatly and immediately fits into their particular clique on sight.
That feels true to my own high school experience, where everyone certainly had identities that could fit some of those identities, but it was more common for them to be straddling several different types of social circles. Life there was more likely to be explained by Venn Diagrams than a strict hierarchy. And in the series it works this way too. Clay, who's something of an outsider, is able to move pretty freely among the groups when he wants to. Even Hannah, who isn't one of the popular girls, still pops on the radar of most of the boys, to the point where the alpha jock seems impressed she came to his party. (As opposed to the "what are you doing here, loser" that the teen movie outcast is often faced with.)
In the movies, the Regina Georges of the world announce themselves in every deed and action. And because of this, the morality is simpler, even when we understand why she is who she is. Regina is bad and if you're around her, she either corrupts you or you resist her and become the hero by default. 13 Reasons Why shows a high school where the villains are less self-aware in their malevolence, and the heroes aren't given an easy path to doing the right thing. It makes some of Hannah's friends into even scarier villains because we can see how good people contribute to another good person's pain through action or inaction.
We're shown Hannah's world, and it's built in a way that we understand how from her perspective, every aspect of that world seemed to be set against her.
And then we realize her world is our world. Not Capeside, not Beverly Hills, not Tree Hill... a community very much like ours.
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge