This is a spoiler free blog about my opinion on whether people should watch “13 Reasons Why.” My spoiler filled thoughts will follow soon in a separate post.
As whispers of controversy about the new Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” began to arise, I started to get questions from parents, young adults and teens as to whether I had seen it or what I thought about it. The people I visit with wanted to talk about the details or were wondering if they should even see it.
I had seen the description while perusing Netflix so I was aware of the plot. A teenage girl commits suicide and leaves tapes explaining why. I made a couple assumptions at first sight.
- This is the kind of show that people are going to form strong opinions on without even seeing.
- It will probably be very difficult to watch.
I still stand by those assumptions. The well founded fear that it would be hard to watch kept me from it for a while, but as people brought it up more and more I decided that I needed to see it for myself so I could be educated on a topic relevant to the people I care for. So, last Friday night I started watching and on Sunday I had finished. I binge watched because I had to know how it would end.
There were a lot of questions and concerns that I had before watching that I want to clear up for anyone else considering it. I don’t consider these spoilers.
Q: Is it worth watching?
A: Definitely! I’ll just get this out of the way now so you know where I am coming from for the rest of the review. I’ll discuss triggers and safety concerns later, but for the most part I think everyone that can watch this should watch it. If you are a parent, teen, young adult, teacher, counselor or have anything to do with teens, then it is an extremely valuable insight into many serious but rarely discussed issues related to teens.
Q: What kind of content will it have?
A: The show is rated MA and for good reason. It addresses some heavy stuff including suicide, bullying, death, sex, grief, violence, rape, drugs and alcohol. But the important thing to consider here is that those are very real issues that need to be addressed and addressed honestly. The show is graphic but not gratuitous. There are several scenes that are difficult to watch, and the producers admit they were made intentionally uncomfortable. As I said, it was difficult to watch, but it always had purpose.
To be more specific, there is no frontal nudity, but several sexual situations and bare butts. There is extensive vulgarity throughout the show. There is nothing I would consider gory or excessively violent, but the suicide is depicted clearly without fading to black or anything to spare the viewer. Drugs and alcohol use are prevalent. Again, I firmly believe that everything included is included for the purpose of authenticity and connecting the viewer with the pain and stresses of the characters’ lives.
Q: Will this have a realistic ending? *Minor general spoiler*
A: For all I knew, this would be some sci-fi show or have a supernatural twist ending. I was worried throughout that it was going to have one of those “it was all a delusion” type endings, or that she would not really be dead. I was immediately enthralled in the show and found it haunting, but in a very real way, and as I grew to appreciate how good the show was, I dreaded that it might have an awful ending that ruined the whole experience. Let me say, it of course could not really be a happy ending, but it was a satisfying, realistic ending.
Q: Will it glorify or romanticize suicide?
A: No. One of the many morals of this story is that understanding a behavior is not the same as excusing a behavior. This show is an exploration of all the forces that could lead someone to commit suicide and it challenges viewers who may be quick to say they would never do it to consider what if every anchor that kept them grounded got taken away. One of the reasons that the suicide is graphically depicted is so that it is seen for exactly what it is.
Q: Will this show encourage or lead people to commit suicide?
What? Didn’t expect that answer? Well, one of the many things the show encourages is honesty. And doing something. Let me clarify my answer. There are enough hurting people in this world, that odds are, someone will take this show and find in it some reason to tip the scales towards suicide. And that is tragic beyond my ability to write. Some would say that this possibility alone should get the show banned. But I firmly believe that the show will save so, so many more lives. To even weigh human life like that seems so awful that most just avoid the conversation altogether. You can’t be wrong if you don’t have an opinion. But that is one of the biggest points of the show, you can. Not doing anything is possibly the worst and most common mistake. The show models its own point. It is not afraid to try to help.
Q: Will I be able to watch this?
A: I don’t know. If you have experienced suicidal thoughts, the suicide of a loved one, sexual assault or other traumas then you should consider not watching it. There is no shame in recognizing what you are not ready for. Don’t let curiosity, the fear of missing out or perceived weakness to put you in a position to be re-traumatized or worse. It takes strength to accept that you have limitations and take care of yourself. Perhaps some counseling, time or learning about grounding techniques will prepare you to watch it someday. For some people it could be very therapeutic, but it might be wise to have a trusted friend watch it with you or on standby. Perhaps you should pace yourself.
If you are not worried about being triggered or traumatized, but just wondering if you will be able to handle some of the material, let me say that it is paced well in the show. The main character struggles with his own inability to listen to the painful stories. About halfway through, there is an episode that serves to renew strength and hope to persist in the process.
This discomfort that you may want to avoid is a key element of the show. On the other side of that discomfort is the ability to connect with people, help them and heal yourself.
Q: Should parents watch this with their teens?
A: My daughter is only 4, but if she were a teen I would watch it with her. If you have the kind of relationship with your teen where they would agree to watch it, be prepared for some awkwardness. Perhaps you should even watch it alone first to be prepared. Still, it could be an invaluable conversation starter.
However, I think a lot of teens would not want to watch this with their parents. The disconnect between teens and adults is a common theme. So if they do not want to watch it, do not pressure them. That attempt to control and force them to share with you is one of the things that builds up walls. It is of course understandable to want to do everything you can and be willing to upset them in an attempt to save your precious child, but one of the hardest things to accept is that you can not control your teen. Trust and respect are one of your best bets at fostering a relationship where they can actually talk some day.
Q: Should teens watch this?
A: I watched this as a man who was socially awkward in high school two decades ago, as a parent, as a counselor and as a human being. I found it useful for all those roles to give me a greater understanding of others and myself.
And understanding is one of the things this movie offers to teens. Another key theme in the show is the confusion and inability to express emotions that so many teens struggle with. This is one of the reasons I said before that I believe this show will save lives. Being able to see the whole story, being able to feel like you aren’t alone in your struggle and hearing the characters muddle their way through their feelings are invaluable tools to help teach teens how to make sense of their own experiences. For some, especially those who have secret traumas, this show may be the only source of guidance they feel safe enough to allow in their lives.
As I said before, anyone who can watch this should watch it. The show depicts very realistic, in-depth human characters. They are all flawed, and their fears and concerns are universal. The show explores how easy it is for our baggage to cause pain to others and keep us from connecting with each other. The relationship dynamics are spot on. The show is clearly an act of love, done tactfully, respectfully and perfectly.
And remember, In case you missed it before, understanding allows us to connect with people and it is not to be confused for excusing or justifying their behavior.
So, anyone who wants to be a better person should challenge themselves to watch 13 Reasons Why and allow the difficult experiences and the authenticity of the characters to help move them toward a greater understanding of a whole constellation of issues relevant to teens.
One last tip: The soundtrack is excellent. Be prepared to hit the button to continue with the credits so you can sit with the music and decompress a while before it fires up the next episode.