Over the course of a week and a half, my wife Rose and I watched the recently released Netflix show 13 Reasons Why. For us, with two small kids, that was binge watching, even though I realize many will watch the entire 13 episode season in a couple days. Here’s a few adjectives I’d use to describe the show: horrifying, painful, illuminating, raw. It took me right back to my own difficult days in high school, while simultaneously showing the different difficulty students are faced with today.
I should mention at the outset, I found the show extremely difficult to watch. I couldn’t help but think of my own children, friends who had similar struggles in high school, and students I’ve had the joy of caring for over the past decade. Knowing some of what the show portrayed is what they face every day in school is enough to bring me to my knees in prayer.
While it portrayed the lives of high school students, I do not recommend that high school students watch the show. In fact, plenty of adults who could be triggered by the content would do well to avoid watching. The graphic portrayals of drinking, drugs, rape, and suicide, along with excessive language, could clearly do immense harm to those who watch it. The show (for me) was not entertaining, but it was educational in a dark way.
In conversation with others, I’ve had a few people tell me they thought the show was “great” or “entertaining.” If this is your response to the show I think you TOTALLY missed the point of it.
A brief background on the show for those who haven’t seen (no spoilers in here): Hannah Baker (the main character) has committed suicide, but before her death she recorded 13 tapes for 13 separate people (hence why the show has 13 episodes) describing the reasons why her life no longer felt worth living. The show moves back and forth between the present day and stories she recounts on the tapes.
My Short Take on the Show Itself
As a work of art, the show is okay. It has moments where it stands on its own, but more so the difficulty of subject matter carries through rather than great acting and production.
While on the surface it has the same high school over-generalizations from movies I grew up on like She’s All That and 10 Things I Hate About You and Bring It On, instead it sheds light on reality rather than trying to provide comedic relief from it. On this alone it should be commended.
The show does not avoid any of what led to the suicide of its main character, Hannah Baker. None of the hardest scenes ever seem truncated. In fact, the hardest scenes were the most honest. It was the interactions less connected to the weight of the action that seemed unnatural.
There are plenty of moments of terrible acting. Too many scenes repeated the same points, and most of these were drawn out to the point where I felt myself disconnecting. Oh, and the ending was horrible.
But I’m not sure we can critique this show like a typical television show. Despite not being a student myself, I felt like I was engaging a cultural moment—when the veil of student life in America is pulled back and many are forced to grapple with the scene. Any criticisms I might have of the show feel unnecessary because of this.
Addressing the Pushback
I’ve heard plenty of criticisms of the show, both in person and online. I thought these two (HERE and HERE) were especially helpful.
- Some have said the show makes light of suicide and rape, even to the point of glorifying it. Can anything be portrayed in cinematic form without being glorified? Seems to me this criticism is part of a larger one, beyond just one show. My concern is more that the show might allow a person to see suicide as a possibility to help rectify their pain.
- The show hits “trigger points” for those who have a history with the various issues approached. Yes, I think this is absolutely true. One of the points made in the show is that the 13 tapes recorded by Hannah were “her truth,” as one of the characters said. If someone else’s truth is that the show is hurtful, they should not watch it. The producers could have done a better job of warning people.
- I’ve heard that Hannah’s 13 reasons are her passing blame onto others for her own death, while in reality only she was responsible for her death. To this I would say I don’t think we should be evaluating the rationale of someone who took their own life, even if it was fiction.
- Lastly many have said the show is over the top, portraying an overly dramatic picture of high school life. Many students don’t face the issues presented to the level of the show, some have it even worse. What’s true for some may not be true for others. This doesn’t make it false.
But, the Show Didn’t Go Far Enough
After we finished the last episode I told my wife that while I thought the show had notably raised awareness around often ignored issues, I thought their “solution” wasn’t enough. In watching a follow-up show the producers mentioned their desire for acceptance of people rather than judgment and bullying, and for increased dialogue around the pressures students feel.
While this may prevent suicide, does it lead to flourishing?
Seems to me we’re settling for something less than what’s best. What the show missed is that no person or group of people can ever show those around them enough love and acceptance. Eventually, their love and acceptance will fall short.
While some of what the show is pushing for might be helpful for students, it will never be enough to help them find the kind of flourishing life they desire deep down.
There is only one person whose unconditional love can fill the void students feel and his name is Jesus.
You might say, “well, Tyler you’re a Christian pastor, of course you think Jesus is the answer.” To that I would reply by saying the show did a great job of showing how broken everyone is. Every character in the show, no matter how perfect on the outside, displayed varying levels of brokenness, but none of them felt comfortable exposing it.
The Christian faith provides the only answer to liberating people through their brokenness. Not avoiding it. Not going around it. Christ takes on the shame of your brokenness, sees you for who you are, redeems your life from the pit, creating a new life. John Newton, the writer of the hymn Amazing Grace understood this as well as anyone, saying:
“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”
A Final Thought
For those who have watched, if you are not getting more involved with youth at your church or in your community after watching, I think you totally missed the point.