Give high school dramas another chance
Christian Bunker | Thursday, April 6, 2017
High school sucks, and everyone knows it. Countless books have been written on it and movies and TV shows made about it. Popular culture’s hate affair with grades nine through 12 is so inundating that freshman already know about the swirlies, the mean teachers, the drama, the cliques and the messy break ups — even though they are unlikely to experience most of these — before they walk through the door. Because of its pervasive and often stereotypical presence, the high school drama is a tempting genre to write off. However, my recent viewing of the first three episodes of the Netflix series “Thirteen Reasons Why,” based on Jay Asher’s 2007 novel of the same name, makes me think that there is still hope for this genre.
The most refreshing thing about “Thirteen Reasons Why” is its fast paced and intriguing plot. No longer am I expected to pretend that a musical, a detention or a book of burns is fascinating enough material to make me watch a high school movie. Instead, I am tossed head first into a life and death thriller where there are many questions and very few answers. Why did Hannah Baker commit suicide? Why did she leave behind a mysterious set of tapes, and what do they contain? How truthful are they?
The first two questions are what made me interested in the show in the first place, but the last is the reason that I want to finish the series. In young adult fiction, the general trend is for the story to be presented through the eyes of one protagonist, usually in the first person, and for that person’s experiences to be taken at face value. Although this is a good way for youth to identify with a character, the downside is the lack of one of fiction’s most effective devices: the unreliable narrator. Without a trusted protagonist as an Archimedean point from which to interpret the events, the audience becomes much more immersed in a narrative since they must formulate their own perceptions in order to judge what is going on.
This is exactly the case in “13 Reasons Why.” While it is recounted through the eyes of Hannah’s friend and protagonist Clay Jensen, the meat of the story is presented via Hannah’s taped narration. Of course, Hannah is dead, so the viewer will never have closure in regard to her recounting. The show itself toys with with this ambiguity as multiple characters have already questioned Hannah’s veracity in the first three episodes. As long as the series continues to play with different interpretations, it is sure to be captivating.
Aside from the plot, “13 Reasons Why” should also be commended for its social commentary. It navigates the ways we handle tragedy in 2017 in several insightful scenes, such as when two girls take smiling selfies with the late Hannah’s locker and enthusiastically post them with #NeverForget. Equally striking is Clay’s conversation with his father shortly after Hannah’s death in which he flatly states that he is fine. The reflexivity with which he brushed off the accusation of having feelings when the viewer knows his inner torment struck me as a sharp but truthful indictment of how our society handles grief.
The criticisms within the show are remarkably poignant, but I do have one criticism of the series itself. Although the plot is thrilling, I fear that by constructing a flashy mystery around Hannah’s death, the series is glorifying her suicide, or at least irresponsibly imbuing it with a sense of purpose when it has none. Divorced from its causes and effects, the act was one of naked tragedy, and “13 Reasons Why” forgets this at times. I’ll leave you with a spectacular line in “BoJack Horseman” delivered by Henry Winkler: “You ascribed a mystery to [her] death to give it meaning, but there is no meaning in death. That’s why it’s so terrifying!”