Kevin Di Camillo writes regularly for The National Catholic Register and is a Lecturer in English Literature at Niagara University. His latest book is Now Chiefly Poetical, and with Rev. Lawrence Boadt he edited John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words. His work has been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and he was awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends Yale University’s School of Management Publishing Course.
Regarding Netflix’s new series Thirteen Reasons Why: To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “Only a man with a heart of stone could watch it without laughing.”
The irony of the popularity of Netflix’s miniseries—which, if we prove to be extremely un-lucky will become a full-blown series-- is that it is, at base, terrible TV on almost every level. The seriousness with which Thirteen Reasons Why has been greeted, assessed, addressed, lauded, applauded, and preached from the pulpit (indeed, this is how I first heard of it), is, if not unprecedented, at the very least unusual. But here are some things to at least keep in mind if you are going to suffer through this insufferable series.
1. It’s just entertainment.
What you are watching is not a Frontline Documentary, it’s not “based on real events”, it’s not—once you start watching it—even based in reality. It is for entertainment purposes only. Whether or not you are entertained by this show depends on your taste.
2. It’s not educational.
Thirteen Reasons Why, though it rips off almost every 1980s afterschool special on everything from teenage suicide to date-rape, is not a pedagogical tool about how parents should talk to their children about suicide, or how to prevent it. Parents who plan on learning some helpful tips to keep their kids from dying by their own hand best look elsewhere.
3. The lie of political correctness in personal conversation.
In this TV-alternative world of high-school make-believe we are supposed to buy into the fact that a homosexual mechanic, a Chinese-adopted daughter of a gay couple, a mixed-race transfer student, a black student-body president, and a tall Asian jock (with the last name of “Dempsey”) all somehow get along and never, ever refer to each other using racial slurs, epithets or homophobic language when the others are not around—THAT would be an abomination towards The Cult Of Diversity. Of course, ganging up on the goofy harmless Caucasian kid because he doesn’t fit into this Benetton-esque clique, is to be accepted as fact. The only time homosexuality is made fun of is… by the homosexual characters themselves.
4. It’s a rip-off.
If that background music sounds weirdly familiar to those of you old enough to remember this reference, it’s because it’s an almost perfect replication of the eerie stuff from Twin Peaks (which, if you are going to watch something truly original and entertaining on Netflix, I’d recommend instead of Thirteen Reasons Why).
5. The total lack of God.
Most of America believes in God, much of America is Christian. Other, better TV shows — The Sopranos (with Fr. Phil), The Wire (with the deacon and the ministers who pretty much control Baltimore’s City Hall), The Shield (which was actually set in an old abandoned Church and whose lone homosexual character routinely prays) were NOT “spiritual programming” by any stretch. However, they at least acknowledged the existence of (a) the import of religion in daily life, and (b) if not the existence of God, the presence of his clergy.
6. No characters.
I’d say that the characters in Thirteen Reasons Why are one-dimensional, but that would be being overly kind. At best they are all caricatures: the clueless parents, the stuffed-shirt principal, the even more clueless guidance counselors; and among the panoply of students: the jocks, the creepy goth-chick, the outcast year-book photographer, and, of course the Sylvia Plath-esque Hannah Baker who “heroically” kills herself. Throw in the brain-dead baseball-player-with-a-heart-of-gold, and that’s the sort of depth-of-character you will meet.
7. Based on fiction.
If you think the book-version of Thirteen Reasons Why is going to help you better grasp the fraught existence that has befallen our nation’s teenaged population, alas, you are mistaken. The only parallel I can come up with is someone wanting to “understand” Organized Crime in America, and then watching The Godfather. And then, even worse, reading the Mario Puzo novel upon which the movies were based.
8. The acting.
What the show lacks in depth-of-writing, it is even more deficient in terms of acting. When a student who clearly is developing ulcers due to the stress of his classmate’s suicide has stomach pains, he grabs his gut and doubles up in pain—again and again. And again. Subtle it is not.
9. The nonstop flashbacks.
Ever since it succeeded in Pulp Fiction the concept of the nonstop non-linear storytelling conceit in film and TV has really gotten run into the ground. I’d thought this had reached its nadir in the otherwise well-done show DAMAGES—in which all five seasons were a loosely-bound collection of smash-cuts to times past and future—and if you wanted to make any sense of the show (let alone the series) you kind of had to suffer through it. The problem with this approach to Thirteen Reasons Why: there’s no compelling reason why the story should be told that way. A fairly straightforward premise: a teenaged girl kills herself and leaves a set of tapes for her classmates, gets mangled almost to the point of incomprehensibility simply by the way it is presented.
10. The lack of common sense.
Teenagers, of course, are not known for their common sense. However—and here I guess I should say “Spoiler Alert”—when the main character, Clay, is subjected to a random contraband search at school and is found to have a bag of a cannabis, his immediate claim to the vice principal, teacher, and guidance counselor (and police officer) is the classic line, “That’s not mine!” However, despite the fact that his mother is a high-powered defense attorney it apparently never occurs even to her (or her son) to demand that the bag be tested for her son’s fingerprints—which would exonerate him since, indeed, the drugs were planted on him by his evil classmates, and he has never even touched the bag. However, it’s not just the characters that lack common sense here, it’s the entire series.
11. How peer pressure works.
I’m no psychologist, but it doesn’t take Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung to tell you that the biggest amount of peer pressure comes not from one’s peers, but often from one’s-self: you do what you think your classmates might think is cool even before they suggest it. However, this sort of understatement would be lost in such a ham-fisted show like Thirteen Reasons Why, so kids are forever forcing other kids to imbibe copious amounts of liquor, among other sins and crimes. Perhaps because I grew up in the self-indulgent 1980s (the key word there is “self”) my peers weren’t about to share their drugs or alcohol with anyone, friend or foe: it was their beer or marijuana. If you wanted some, you had to go buy your own.
12. Selena Gomez as “producer” of the series.
Child-star-turned…well, I suppose she’s parlaying that into a bunch of different things from a successful singer to a peddler of fragrances. However, to be specific: she is an “Executive” Producer of Thirteen Reasons Why. Which is to say she probably has little-to-no say in the creative concept and content (which, if true, is to her credit). As anyone who has sat through the opening credits of any TV series—Boardwalk Empire and House of Cards come to mind here—the number of “Executive Producers” is (a) almost infinite and (b) almost laughable. I think there were 9 to 11 “EP”s on Boardwalk, and about the same number for House of Cards. Anyone who thinks nearly a dozen “producers” matched with the actual writers, editors, producer, and showrunner could get a show off the ground (let alone on the air), is mistaken. In short: Selena Gomez’s name helps sell the show. But her active and actual role in the “production” is at best dubious.
13. The message.
Marshall McLuhan is, of course, famous for saying, “The medium is the message”, but later finessed this to, “The medium is the massage”. Vis-à-vis Thirteen Reasons Why both the “message” and “massage” are this: this is just another message-less binge-watching set of shows from the same place that brought you Orange Is The New Black, and House Of Cards—nothing less, and certainly nothing more. Thirteen Reasons Why is just as vapid and even less entertaining than anything else Netflix has produced.