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Thinking pop culture

13 Reasons Why and Ageing Out of Pop Culture

You’d think I’d have learnt my lesson. It was, after all, the same social media feed chiming that 13 Reasons Why was as enjoyable for angsty adults as adolescents that also claimed Kendrick Lamar was God’s gift to feminism.

Questionable praise aside, the show currently has a 9.1 on IMDb and a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. Acclaim and the high likelihood of my students writing about it this semester meant I had to have a look.

No stranger to masochism, I didn’t use my safe word when I should’ve - i.e., at the fifteen minute mark when it became clear that this was no Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) (let alone Twin Peaks or Veronica Mars) - and persevered for the whole thirteen hour-long episodes.

In its favour it starts with Joy Division, ends with Bob Mould, and reverse engineers the story of a suicide. It’s the long-winded ramble in the middle that led to the hair pulling.

The protagonist is dead high schooler Hannah (Katherine Langford), who ends it all by slashing her wrists in a bathtub. But before she performs her gory swan song, Hannah uses a cassette recorder - think aesthetics rather than logic - to name and shame all those who she considers culpable. Cue all the Very Special Episode tropes of every teen series since the dawn of time. Nasty bathroom graffiti, slut-shaming, rape, betrayal, and cause célèbre: cyberbullying.

Solid acting by adults doing the American thing of playing teenagers, along with a pretty great soundtrack - though, did anyone really need a crappy cover of “Under Blue Moon” when Echo and the Bunnyman’s version is superior? - and yet 13 Reasons Why was some of the most tedious television I’ve ever watched.

Partly this can be explained by its repetitiveness: there really wasn’t thirteen episode-length motivations for Hannah to get into that tub. Add to this, some of the script is truly cringe-worthy. Hannah’s line “we lifted our mugs and we lifted each other” about sharing a hot chocolate with friends still makes me wince.

But my hunch is, at 36, I’m actually just too old for this shit.

13 Reasons Why only makes sense and, I’m guessing, only truly holds appeal, if you imagine yourself as a certain kind of teenager.

You assume, for example, that your life is not only completely fascinating but it’s so very much so that it should be chronicled in a multiple-tape audio diary.

While you believe this diary is heart-breakingly riveting you also acknowledge the fickleness of your peers and so you force them to listen via some hazy from-the-grave threats. In ways you couldn’t achieve in life, you inject yourself into their lives and cajole everybody into realising that yes, they really should have paid you more attention, loved you harder and recognised what a true gift you were to Crestmont.

You likely studied Romeo and Juliet at school, perhaps read a little too much Sylvia Plath. This, compounded with a recognition that, as a teenager, you lack the capacity to truly make a difference/get noticed/get remembered. So you romanticise suicide knowing that in your podunk town you’ll finally get your moment in the sun. Like you so richly deserve.

And you immaturely justify your suicide, at least in part, by naming and shaming people who failed to meet your standards. Standards predicated on placing you at the centre of their universe.

I feel I have a pretty good grasp on teen broodishness - in fact, at 36-years-old I’m not entirely sure I’ve shaken my own - but after devoting far more time to this show than was warranted, I’m left suspecting that perhaps I’ve moved past it at least enough to see 13 Reasons Why as just thirteen episodes of whiny indulgence.

In my first week of teaching this semester, I was talking to a class about the Declaration of Human Rights. While giving my students time to assemble their thoughts on the inclusion of the word “dignity”, I mentioned an episode of the Simpsons where Luann Van Houten draws it with great aplomb.

Crickets. I’d later check. The episode was from 1996. Pretty much none of my students were born then. This is the kind of “generation gap” I understand. The gap I’m less comfortable with is ageing out of popular culture.

Nudging the bottom of my ranking of 2017 films is Before I Fall. Pitched as a kind of teen angst Groundhog Day, it is beyond awful, and offered nothing new to the well-worn storyline - used in two zillion Christmas films - of a time loop only being broken when lessons about kindness and crap are learnt.

At no point during watching the film however, did I think I was too old for it. Too restless for it. Too bored by it. But not too old. And yet, when it comes to 13 Reasons Why I’m not sure there’s another explanation: I’ve aged out of this kind of material put together this way.

At my age, if I’m to enjoy pop culture set in high school - a time in life disproportionately credited for the formation of self, but I digress - it needs to have an edge that extends beyond just a little Elliott Smith on the soundtrack. Equally, such a show needs to be abreast of modern modes of consumption and the different ways a 36-year-old values her time compared to an adolescent. Netflix, as usual, dropped the full 13 episodes at once. So it was always going to be binged. A binge-worthy show however, doesn’t need so many bloody the recaps: it hasn’t been a week since we last convened with these characters; viewers remember who’s who and what inane drivel has been said already. Just because the title has the word 13 in it truly doesn’t necessitate thirteen individual episodes.

On the upside, it’s actually a very a good collection of much-loved songs (think The Call, The Cure, Nick Cave), and, happily, it introduced me to Lord Huron. “The Night We Met” (2015) is totally a song worth listening to on repeat and having a recreational sob.

Lord Huron “The Night We Met” (2015)

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