As I started typing this last night I’d literally just finished watching the second season of the Netflix original show 13 Reasons Why. The first series was based on the popular YA novel by Jay Asher. It showed us the aftermath of a teenage girls suicide and the discover of thirteen tapes she recorded before she died. On them, Hannah outlined all of the reasons she had for killing herself and demanded that they be passed between all of the people mentioned on the tapes. I wasn’t a fan of the first season but mostly because i thought it was just badly made. It was way too long and self-indulgent. On top of that, I think it failed to do what it was trying to. The message it was trying to tell got lost because it was too quick to make entertainment out of sexual assault and suicide. There were far too many depictions of rape on-screen especially considering the audience it was targeted for. It seemed more interested in making headlines than in actually helping people. But mostly it was just boring and bad. Everything was dragged out way too long. What it did have was a complete story. We had reached the end of Hannah’s story
So I was super surprised when it was announced that there would be a follow-up. What more could the programme possibly have to say about Hannah’s suicide? After all, they made a pretty huge deal about the fact that Katherine Langford who played her in season 1 was back in season 2. I just didn’t get how an already dill and problematic season needed to be renewed for a second. Although, I did… it was all about the subscribers. After the controversy of the first series, it was always going to draw people in and Netflix knew creating a second series with just as many headline grabbing issues would mean a huge audience.
But Netflix has agreed to a second series despite the backlash that the first got from Mental Health organisations. The show depicted graphic scenes of sexual assault and suicide. Both of these things are discouraged. The scene where Hannah actually killed herself went against every recommendation for this kind of scene. It was meant to show the horror and pain of suicide but, at the same time, you could say it presented suicide as an option to people. The whole first season showed Hannah trying to deal with issues but finding no support or way out. The only way she could be happy was killing herself. This series in no way explicitly said “suicide is great” but it also never gave Hannah any other options. In fact, it almost presented the act as a way for Hannah to get revenge on her bullies. The fact that she calls them out in the tapes is her further way of punishing them. It was all handled rather badly and I failed to see how a second season would really change this.
Selena Gomez and co are so quick to point out that they want to start an important conversation but all they care about are being controversial. I’m all for highlighting these real world issues in a smart and sensitive way but I didn’t see that happening in 13 Reasons Why. If helping people was their main concern then they would have tackled these matters in a dignified and respectful way. Instead, they constantly show scenes of sexual assault in graphic detail that could not only be triggering but also is completely unnecessary. Their major priority wasn’t to help people but to get views. They wanted to make noise but in the wrong way. A show made by better people and written by better writers would have been able to tackle these issues in a way the people wanted to see without causing such a negative response from so many people.
I understand that people need to know the implications of killing yourself but this show undercut that message with its retelling of Hannah’s death. And it’s something that only continued in the second seasons. The final episode of series 2 featured a scene in which a boy is sexually assaulted with a mop handle. The scene itself was utterly horrific and completely unnecessary because it was way too graphic. You see two teenage boys hold the victim down and take off his trousers whilst a third goes outside to grab a mop. By this point you already know what’s coming. You don’t need to see a shot of the handle about to be inserted or a shot showing the end of the mop move further into the cubicle. As I’ve dicussed on this blog before, I’ve never felt that rape should be used as a way to entertain. There is no justifiable reasons to depict rape on screen. On the one hand, it could be triggering countless people watching. On the other, it almost works towards normalising it. Not in the sense that it is pro sexual assault but in the way that society’s reaction to it gets diluted. In the same way the certain people are so used to film violence that images of people getting blown around the world affects them differently. It has the potential to desensitise us to the idea by linking it with entertainment. It almost becomes something factual instead of real and damaging.
People have defended the scene by saying it highlights the prevalence of male sexual assault and I have to call bullshit. You ask me, yes we need to do more to bring the subject of sexual assault against men into the forefront. We live in a society blighted by toxic masculinity which makes it difficult to discuss something like this. It’s also one of the major reasons that male victims are less likely to come forward. It’s something we have to work on changing. The way to do that is not by graphically depicting such an atrocious act. That scene has haunted me since I watched it so I can only imagine how damaging it might have been for someone with personal experience of sexual assault. I’ve seen a quote where one of the creators defended the scene by saying it was supposed to encourage the audience to feel sympathy for the victim but that’s absolute bullshit. If the only way you can think to create sympathy for a character is by graphically showing an attack instead of subtlety implying it then you need better fucking writers.
And, actually, that’s exactly what this show was missing. It’s not just that the show itself it insensitive but that it’s generally just bad. The writing is dreadful and the entire approach if horrible. It takes some important real world issues and dilutes it with a bunch of ridiculous melodrama. The single most powerful scene of the entire show so far was also a simple one. A victim of sexual assault stands up in court to make a statement and as she does the show’s other female characters all appear on screen recounting their own experiences of sexual harassment and assault. It gives the message that this is an epidemic and that it needs to be addressed. It was the closest the show ever got to being the kind of platform it wanted to be. It made an important point that this is a silent problem for so many women without having to shock people in the process.
But subtlety is something this show has a worrying lack of. Just look at the hackneyed characterisation in the latest series. You learn a lot about these kids in the first season thanks to Hannah’s relationships with them but all of that goes out of the window in season 2. It’s at that point that they become mere over-the-top stereotypes that lack depth. How can you say you want to start a conversation about this whilst refusing to create realistic and relatable characters with which to do so? I have seen so much praise for Justin Prentice the actor who plays Bryce Walker, the athlete/rapist. Yeah the guy does a good job but that doesn’t mean the character is any good. Robert DeNiro does a good job in nearly every film he’s in but that doesn’t mean he’s playing a good part. Bryce becomes nothing more than the poor rich kid whose parents didn’t love him. That’s the explanation for his behaviour. It’s trite and pathetic. Then there’s Justin, played by Brandon Flynn, whose development has seen him relegated to that poor kid who inevitably falls into drug use. Nothing more. It’s stupid.
But bad characterisation in teen television is no new thing. The fact that it’s all stock characters and fairytale villains is nothing. The main problem? There’s just not enough here. There isn’t a story. It’s just repetitive and adds nothing to the first season. It’s badly written, badly laid out, and lacks anything kind of depth. It’s pointless. It’s an obvious way for Netflix to cash in. Wanting to bring in more subscribers and money thanks to the headlines this show would create. Why else would they chose to put it on the site during one of the most stressful times for students? To cause controversy. The more articles about it the more people watch. Everything about this season is boring. At least the first had some sort of sensible format thanks to the 13 tapes. This one just goes wild. And fucking Hannah’s ghost? I genuinely don’t see the point of the particular plot device other than to keep the most known face from the series involved. If anything this adds to the idea that after you kill yourself your story somehow keeps going. That it immortalises you in someway. It’s insane.
I know I’ve ranted about this way too long for a stupid Netflix show but this made me seriously angry. I couldn’t sleep last night after watching the final episode. I applaud anyone who is willing to try and start and honest and open conversation with teenagers on the topics of bullying, consent, sexual assault, and suicide. Teen suicide rates are scarily high and it’s something we need to address. We just don’t need to do it in the way that 13 Reasons Why tries to. I read an article that quoted Brandon Flynn as saying:
I think people have odd expectations with television shows where they expect us to be doctors. We’re making a show, hopefully, for relevant and impactful reasons, but also for entertainment.
If you ever need a sentence to sum up this whole show then that’s pretty darn good. We’re not doing this from a point of realism but to make an impact and entertain. The concern of 13 Reasons Why isn’t helping people but in using important topics to get viewers. It’s dangerous.