13 Reasons Why (Spoilers)

After Two Episodes

I have seen a number of people on Twitter talking positively about the new Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, so I watched the first two episodes last night. I expected it to be a touching drama about a teen suicide, but it appears to be more of a tense psychological thriller, somewhat in the vein of I Know What You Did Last Summer (except that we, the audience, don’t know).

I’m going to start writing down my thoughts about this show. I’m a white guy, and this is a show that seems to be meant for a female audience, so I’m stumbling headlong into a minefield here.

Again, I’ve only seen the first two episodes as of this writing. I will likely watch the rest of it, because the show is getting such good reviews, but I’ll be honest, I’m not super into it. I probably wouldn’t have even watched the second episode if it hadn’t been for the rave reviews. (I had a similar reaction to The Expanse, actually.)

So the basic premise is that there’s a high school girl who committed suicide, but before she died, she recorded a bunch of cassette tapes (yes, actual magnetic cassette tapes, for reasons that so far are not given) and sent them to the people she felt were responsible for her death. That’s not a spoiler because you get that in like the first 5 minutes. (Don’t let the cassette tapes fool you–the story is not set in the 1980s.)

I’ll grant that it’s an interesting idea. There’s a lot of mystery and intrigue and what-the-heck-is-going-on here. (This is why I label it a psychological thriller.)

But I’m really not feeling much of a connection with these characters.

I mean, granted, this is a story about teenagers, and I barely remember what being a teenager was like. And my teenaged years were not even remotely similar to what is happening in this show. So I’m way behind the curve already.

And here’s where I really think I’m going to get into trouble. I feel like I’m supposed to think that suicide girl (aka. Hannah) is a victim and I should feel bad for her. But … I don’t. I mean, I’m sorry she’s dead. But in the first two episodes, she is not shown to be a terribly sympathetic character in my eyes. She’s mostly shown as super manipulative. I kind of … don’t like her. And it’s hard to think of a more sinister, manipulative, passive aggressive move than sending out cassettes to blame people after you’ve committed suicide.

So… help me out here, readers. Am I supposed to sympathize with her? Maybe things will change in future episodes.

So that’s the dead girl. Let’s move on to some others.

I saw that this show is based on a book. I’ve not seen anything about this book, but I’m just going to go out on a limb and guess that it’s a young adult novel. I say that because one of the defining characteristics of the young adult genre is that adults (particularly parents) act like complete morons. (Seriously. It’s a real thing. In middle-grade books, adults are trustworthy, but in young adult books, adults are supposed to be the enemy.)

The adults in this show so far are acting like idiots. “It’s okay honey, I don’t mind you walking around with a huge infected pus-filled gash on your head, I’m sure you’ll let us know if there’s a real problem.” “It’s okay honey, I see that you’re obviously–so, so, so obviously–acting weird and defensive and hiding stuff but we’ll be here if you need us.” Really? Who’s buying this?

(I won’t even go into how young these parents look to me. The teenagers look like they’re about 12 to me, and the parents look like they’re barely out of their 20s. Also, the teenagers appear to have been manufactured in some sort of beautiful person clone factory.)

Now about this kid “Helmet,” who I assume is the protagonist of our story. (I can’t remember his real name. Cory? Chase? Something with a ‘C’ I think.) I have never seen a person stare stupidly at so many things for so long before. I know this is supposed to be serious subject matter, but it’s sooo comical to see this actor staring blankly, consumed by his inner thoughts, when other people are talking. And then he tries to act like nothing is wrong, thereby drawing so much attention to the fact that something is seriously wrong.

I mean, maybe there’s a story reason for this that will become apparent later, but they are selling this kid’s bumbling ineptitude really hard.

After Five Episodes

I’m still watching the show. I’m now interested enough in the central mystery to continue watching even without the urging of the Internet. I would characterize the show as good, but not great. There is still a lot of teenager, teenager, teenager, blah, blah, blah to wade through.

After the first two episodes, they finally started to make Hannah (aka. suicide girl) a more sympathetic character. They started to downplay the super angry voiceover of her cassette tapes and focused more on the behavior of the kids she singled out for “revenge.” The reasons that I didn’t like her at first seem to be because of a “tough guy” facade she created. There’s no doubt Hannah’s been treated badly by her peers.

But. Here’s some dangerous words for a white guy to write: I feel like I could make a case, though, that she was the one who chose to put herself into the situations that could turn out badly for her. A recurring theme in the show is that taking and sharing compromising pictures can ruin a person’s life. Again, I don’t know anything about kids today, but I feel like this is a lesson that everyone should know by now. Certainly if I had kids I would be drilling that lesson every day. It seems like the “taking candy from strangers” lesson of the modern world. I mean, how does Hannah not know to close her frickin’ blinds in her room at night? (I know it’s probably dramatized for effect, but when I’m inside my house, I do think about what people can see from outside the house through the windows, and I don’t even live in a dense neighborhood.)

So I’m not cheering for Hannah quite yet. Yes, she’s had some bad luck. But does it justify her actions? I’m not a big supporter of suicide as a weapon. Maybe she isn’t dead, and it’s a big scam. She’s clearly a smart enough person to pull that off. I feel like I even heard there was some ambiguity about that before I started watching. (I know there is a “season 2” coming.) If she completes her vengeance and then pops up in another city or something (New York, probably), then I might think, “Okay, that was a nifty scheme.” But I might also think, “Wow she put a lot of loved ones through pure hell for her personal revenge fantasy power trip.”

Clay, our protagonist, the bumbling nerd who looks like a teen fashion model, continues to stare blankly at everyone and everything. I swear if he crashes his bike into something or walks out into traffic one more time I’m going to start rooting for a bus to hit him. The gash on his head still looks horribly infected to me. What in god’s name is he putting on it?

There are times when I think, aw this is a tragic re-telling of Romeo and Juliet. (As in that dance, and the “dollar valentine incident.”) Then there are other times when I think, oh man I just want to slap these kids until they stop acting dumb (as in any part where they try to pretend nothing is wrong, or when they feel the need to hide these tapes from the adults who would actually know how to handle it). This is the big problem of watching a show about teenagers when you’re forty-cough-cough.

By the way, nothing like a “dollar valentine” ever occurred at my high school, to my knowledge. I don’t remember any fundraisers of any kind, to be honest. But then I doubt I would have participated anyway. I was not much into “school spirit.”

Speaking of adults, the side-plot about the bullying lawsuit is a pretty interesting subject for me (as an adult viewer), but it’s not getting much attention in the show, other than setting up a big conflict between Clay (who believes bullying occurred) and his mom (who was hired to defend the school and therefore will be trying to prove that bullying did not occur).

I’m a bit too old to weigh in on the whole subject of “bullying” and whether it should or shouldn’t be legally actionable. I have literally no idea what it is like for kids in schools these days. The drama I’m seeing in this show looks completely foreign to me. I can’t say that I ever experienced any inordinate level of bullying. I experienced plenty of embarrassing or humiliating situations, but I never experienced any kind of concentrated persecution, and I never heard of it happening in my school. I don’t remember hearing about anyone committing suicide.

One interesting aspect of the show is that I feel like it is going out of its way to portray events in a multi-sided way–that is, ways that could lead viewers to make differing conclusions about who’s “guilty.” What I mean is, I could easily imagine women watching this show and identifying strongly with the female characters as victims of the male characters’ hostility. But when I watch, I see plenty of things the female characters are doing that are pretty aggressive and hostile and provocative toward the male characters. Which view is right? Probably both.

By the way, I would like to reiterate that there has been no story reason given for the use of cassette tapes. One just has to assume that it’s a quirky weird teenager thing. Or that it’s easier for viewers to see them.

After Thirteen Episodes

Before getting into the meat of this, did anyone else get the feeling like they had seen most of those actors before somewhere? But every time I looked them up on IMDB they were never in anything I would have seen. I’m now completely convinced that actors are stamped out of a factory somewhere, or they digitally alter everyone’s face to look familiar. Either that or maybe all the actors now are children of the actors we used to know in the 80s and 90s. For example, I would swear on a stack of Bibles that Hannah’s mom played by Kate Walsh is the spitting image of Wendie Malick.

Okay back to serious thoughts. Reading back over my notes at earlier points in the show, I’m tempted to delete them, but in the interests of “telling my truth” I’ll leave them.

Because I feel like the show deliberately tried to elicit the exact responses that I wrote about: Initially, I didn’t like Hannah that much. But over time, I started to understand her better. And by the end, my heart just ached for her (and her parents). By the final episode, I was really, really hoping for some kind of magical deus ex machina to swoop in and rescue her, even though there were plenty of instances during the show when they confirmed that yes, she’s really dead, she’s not in hiding somewhere.

I still can’t condone her choice, but I certainly understand how she got there. I’m simultaneously angry at her and sad at her loss.

Again I have to reiterate that I have no idea what high school is like for kids today. What is portrayed in this show is nothing like the high school that I went through. There are similarities of course. The cheerleaders, the jocks, the cool kids, the weirdos, etc. But this show portrays a kind of sinister cabal of puppet masters, including both students and school officials, deliberately covering up major crimes. If anything like that happened in my high school, it was well concealed, because me and my circles were completely oblivious to it. (But to be fair, I was oblivious to a lot of things in my younger days.)

The point I’m trying to make is that I sure hope this fictional Liberty High School is an exaggeration or a statistical anomaly. Because man, what a nightmare.

I’m not sure how I feel about this show continuing into a second season. I could understand one final epilogue episode to deal with the trial and the parents’ reactions to the tapes (and of course Bryce getting arrested and gang-raped in prison), but an entire season? I don’t see that many loose ends to deal with, and starting new story threads seems gratuitous.

I can’t leave without talking a bit more about Clay and his relationship with Hannah and what happened at that party.

To reiterate, I’m a guy, so I obviously can relate more to Clay’s point of view than Hannah’s. I’ve been in situations like that party before where it seems like everything is fine and then suddenly everything is not fine and you’re left reeling and completely unable to process what just happened. Where the other person appears to be giving one kind of signal but they’re saying something completely different, and you just have no clue what to do. So I can completely relate to Clay’s response.

What I loved about the telling of that scene was that they showed two different versions of it. The original version of what actually happened, where everyone went away confused and upset, and then they showed a second version that (I assume) Clay and Tony worked out later that showed what would have been the “right” way to handle the same situation. Or at least, maybe a better way. I think it was important to show that second version to the audience, because it was a really good “teachable moment” in human relationships.

Of course, there’s no guarantee things would have played out any different in the end.

I still think Clay was kind of a goofball. And I swear to God, he did crash his bike again. I mean, seriously. Revoke his license.

There really was an element of Romeo and Juliet in this story, by the way. It played out very differently, but the tragic romance was there, and it’s still just as compelling of a story element as it ever was.

Now I want to talk about that scene between Hannah and the guidance counselor in the last episode, whose name I can’t remember.

I’m not really sure what to say, though.

It’s easy to sit back and think, “What a dick. That guy could have saved Hannah but he blew it.”

But the way the scene played out… it didn’t appear so black and white to me. I felt his side of the conversation was clearly distracted, somewhat insensitive, but … believable. I never felt at any point in this series that the counselor was a “bad guy” trying to harm Hannah by action or inaction. I can imagine that anyone in his position would be forced to say the same thing. Maybe not because they wanted to, but because it’s the unvarnished, ugly truth of the matter.

Again I reiterate what I said somewhere up above, which is that the show seemed to be intentionally portraying events in a way that could be interpreted in multiple ways from multiple viewpoints.

If there was a “bad guy” on the school side, it could only be the principle, played by Steven Weber of Wings fame. (I also remember him perfectly playing Jack Torrance in the television miniseries version of The Shining, which is one of the best Stephen King novel adaptations ever made, incidentally. The Jack Nicholson movie was a great movie but bore little resemblance to the book.) But again, “bad” is a relative term here. It’s literally his job to look after the interests of the school.

In a nutshell, it’s a really good series, but it’s heavy. It very much did turn into a touching drama about a teen suicide, but it took some time to get there. In the first couple of episodes, I actually laughed quite a bit. I feel like the story could have been told in fewer episodes. There were long stretches of time where I was pretty bored and I wished they would get on with the plot.

One more thing, about the music. I don’t know anything about pop music these days. I just sort of assume kids listen to Katy Perry and … you know, ahem, all those other famous names in pop music that I totally know off the top of my head.

But a lot of the music I heard in this show didn’t sound like modern pop music at all. It sounded … well, good. Sort of more like 90s alternative music in a way. It made me wonder if that’s the kind of music kids listen to these days. If so, then good job, kids! You have some musical taste after all.

Okay, one more thing: I don’t remember anything like a Communications class in high school, where you passed notes to each other through paper bags. Is that really a thing? It’s probably a good idea, I guess. The only Communications-like class I ever remember was something like an English Communication, about writing, and I think that might have been a college class.

Okay now I’ll stop rambling. Tough subject matter, but a great, deeply affecting series.

Rogue One (Spoilers)

I did not see Rogue One in the theater. I regretted that decision for a day or two, then felt good about it. I decided that it was “fan fiction”–a term I don’t use in a particularly positive sense. (Sorry superfans.)

I waited until it came to FIOS VOD. Then I forgot about it. Then I remembered it. I went into the movie with very low expectations. I wasn’t expecting “real” Star Wars. (I am expecting to repeat this behavior for the “Han Solo” movie.)

And the results are now in: Rogue One was “okay” but it wasn’t great.

Honestly I think it would have been better if it hadn’t been a Star Wars movie. It seemed like a weird mashup of Star Wars and World War II genres.

I mean, it wasn’t terrible. It just wasn’t great. It was not as good as The Force Awakens. I got pretty bored with the first two acts, actually. I didn’t feel any sympathy for any of the characters. I don’t even know why Forest Whitaker was in the movie, his part was so meaningless. I have literally no clue why these characters suddenly decided it was important to get the Death Star plans.

(Later I learned that the movie suffered from extensive re-shoots and re-edits, which might explain why the first two acts didn’t make much sense.)

On the plus side, the last act of the movie was a hell of a good action ride. There was some really top notch CGI work there. Actually, if you start the movie at roughly the 1:20 mark, it’s pretty good.

Overall I kept getting confused though because sometimes it looked like a Pacific War movie. The rebel uniforms clearly were inspired by Pacific War marines. Star Wars really doesn’t look right on a tropical beach. Other times, especially early on, it looked like a samurai movie. I mean, was it just me? Why in the holy hell was there a blind samurai in this movie?

The K droid was funny as hell. (I’m sure everyone else has his exact designation memorized but I don’t.) But does every Star Wars movie really need a funny droid? It’s sort of a cliche at this point.

It was a real treat to hear Gold Leader again.

The most memorable scene in the entire movie was nearly the last one: Darth Vader trying to get onto the rebel ship. The scene was completely out of place and unnecessary in the overall movie, but man was it bad ass. That was Darth Vader like we’ve literally never seen him before. (It was almost out of character, it was so different.) It was the embodiment of how we always imagined this evil Sith, but seeing it right there in front of your eyes was frightening as hell. That tiny scene was like a miniature horror movie.

Tarkin looked like a talking wax doll. It was very bizarre and off-putting. (His scenes looked like a Bioware game.) His voice sounded wrong, too. How could they spend so much time trying to get the visuals right and blow the voice? Wax-doll Leia looked a little better but only because she didn’t move or say much.

Rogue One was a good try, I suppose, but it didn’t quite do it for me.

Star Wars and X-Files (Spoilers)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Apparently the moratorium on spoilers for Star Wars is over, although personally I don’t think it should end until a film is released to streaming or rentals. The theater experience is not as good as my house, even though I don’t have an especially great television or sound system like I used to. Movies in theaters are generally awful experiences. There are very few movies that would get me to go to a theater anymore. Not any of the comic book movies, not The Martian, not Interstellar, not any of the upcoming nerdy movies coming out this year, pretty much nothing … except a new Star Wars movie. A Star Wars sequel. With the original cast in it.

So I went. Because obviously I had to go on the first weekend or there would be spoilers everywhere. Because everywhere I go on the Internet would be talking about Star Wars. Probably even in-game. Maybe trying not to spoil it, but probably spoiling it anyway.

Anyway, I loved it. They definitely brought the fun back to the Star Wars universe, and that’s what was missing from the prequels. I loved the new characters. I loved them so much that they completely upstaged the old characters. Don’t get me wrong–Han was fantastic, and Ford did a fantastic job of recreating all of the classic Han-isms (I particularly noticed some very familiar hand gestures and how he kind of flails his body around when he starts running), but I felt his character should have matured a bit more. I mean, he’s still a smuggler? Really? I guess some people never change but you’d think he could find an easier way to make a living after saving the galaxy a few times.

I would have liked to see a little more exposition about what’s happened in the Star Wars universe in the last 30 years. We only got tiny little bits and pieces about a few characters, but not near enough to explain anything. Like, for example, what happened to the Empire? It was still there at the end of Jedi, it just didn’t have an Emperor. And if we assume it collapsed into nothing and the Rebellion “won,” why is the Rebellion still rebelling in Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

But then again, the politics of the Star Wars universe was never what made it such a fun trilogy. It’s not like I cared about what the “Galactic Senate” was that Tarkin said they’d swept away when I watched Star Wars as a kid. I was just like, “Space battles! Blasters! Lightsabers! X-Wings! Tie fighters! Cool!” Only as an adult do I wonder about the galactic ramifications of those space battles.

I do think they should have explained how Coke-bottle-glasses-lady ended up with Luke’s blue lightsaber in her basement, though. Just a sentence. “Oh, I found that in a Cloud City exhaust port, along with this severed hand.” It was the biggest head-scratcher I remember from coming out of the theater.

By the way I’m sure all of the above questions have been answered in some weird Star Wars message board where people have already analyzed every frame of the movie, but my point is that it should have been more obvious to a casual viewer. (I, for example, have only seen it once and am already fuzzy on many of the details.) It doesn’t count if you have to study a movie frame-by-frame to find the answers. :)

Here’s the real spoiler: I pretty much expected Han to die as soon as I heard Harrison Ford was going to be in the movie. “Oh, Harrison signed up, huh? I guess Han dying will be part of the plot.” There’s just no way they could have signed him up without killing off the character. So his death scene was not even a tiny bit surprising to me. It was so obviously going to happen that I wasn’t even a tiny bit emotionally affected by it. I was just like, “Oh, okay, checked that off the list.”

Like I said, to be honest, I cared more about the new characters. The part that did emotionally affect me was when Rey pulled that light saber away from Kylo Ren, and that classic Star Wars music swelled (which I’m almost positive was a cue from the original movie–the one with the best music–I feel like it was around the time that Luke was looking at the burned corpses of his aunt and uncle), and Rey was standing there looking like she had just found her true purpose in life (just like when Luke was looking at those burned corpses). I got really choked up at that. And that last scene where Rey held out that light saber to Luke and you could just feel the gravity of it all in their expressions. I was like, yeah, this is what Star Wars is all about.

Speaking of light sabers, I loved how they went back to the old-style fighting, where the light sabers looked like they weighed 100 pounds and everyone was flailing them all over the place. That’s some classic Star Wars, too.

Criticisms: A little too many coincidences. A little too much comedy. A little too much crammed into one movie. Not enough backstory. Kind of a shame we didn’t get to see the old gang together anywhere.

By the way, I didn’t mind the similarities to the original Star Wars because The Hero’s Journey was a classic story with classic archetypes long before Star Wars ever came out.

The X-Files

As if a new Star Wars wasn’t enough, The X-Files is back!

I thought the first episode was a little shaky and had too much compressed into a short time. I didn’t like the “history lesson” at the beginning, and while it was a blast to see the classic credit sequence, I feel like they should have brought it up to date. As far as the episode itself, I honestly couldn’t follow what was going on the first time I watched. Was it an alien conspiracy or a government conspiracy? A government conspiracy, but with aliens on the side, apparently. It was never clear to me why “they” wanted to take over America. But in a way, that’s how The X-Files mythology episodes always were, especially toward the end: Most of the story was in what the characters didn’t say. You had to read between the lines, and watch the episodes more than once. And a lot of things were left to the imagination.

While I was a bit nervous after the first episode, I thought the second episode really nailed the classic X-Files experience. It was a classic Mulder and Scully whodunnit. It’s really surreal to watch these episodes (on live television, with real commercials!). Everything is the same, but everything is totally different. The actors are obviously older, and the characters have obviously evolved (Scully acts so tired all the time, and Mulder looks like he’s barely clinging to his sanity), but they’re still basically the same as they ever were, doing things the same way they always did.

I never missed any episodes of The X-Files for the first seven seasons, then I got a bit spotty on the last two seasons. Not that I didn’t like them, per se. Just my life circumstances changed, and of course back then you actually had to be in front of the television at the right time to see the shows you wanted to see, or wait a year for an expensive DVD set. In fact I kind of liked Doggett and Reyes and I kind of wish we could have seen where those characters were 13 years later. (It’s possible they’re both dead and I just don’t know it… I don’t think I ever watched the entire ninth season… but I feel like they were both in the Series Finale somewhere. I guess they’ve been erased from the canon since then.)

I also wish there was a way for them to work in The Lone Gunmen somewhere, but, well, you know. At least if you watched that short-lived series, you do.

Anyway, can’t wait to watch more. I’m watching them live and also later on-demand to maximize my influence on the ratings. :)

Edit, much, much later, 5/7/2017: I just happened to re-read this post and I wanted to add that they did work in The Lone Gunmen! In a very weird way. But they were there. Also, Reyes did make another appearance, but I didn’t fully understand or like her character’s choices.