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13 Reasons Why

I’ve held off writing about 13 Reasons Why for some time. Why? Well, you might be pleased to know there aren’t 13 reasons.

I was impressed with it immediately. My partner and I watched several episodes each time we turned it on, and we got so caught up in the characters and their story that we knocked over the whole series in a matter of a few bleary-eyed days.

At the end, when I was ready to sing the series’ praises from the rooftops, a friend posted an article criticising it for the way it portrayed its prime protagonist. That protagonist (there are two) is dead as the series begins, having committed suicide and left thirteen cassettes for her schoolmates, who she collectively blames for her decision to take her own life. My friend’s post was quickly joined by a cacophony of condemnation for this series that had seemed to me remarkable in terms of its quality of dialogue, characterisation and cinematography. These criticisms, all of which were centred on its sociological context rather than its dramatic qualities, seemed well formed to me at the time, and left me feeling disappointed—maybe even guilty—that I enjoyed the series so much. Some felt that Hannah (the deceased character) should have demonstrated an average of journeys to suicide, rather than presenting just one experience. Others felt that her portrayal of the act of slitting her wrists, and the very explicit nature of her suicide, was a bridge too far, and that the act of killing herself should have been omitted. And some were deeply concerned with the fact that Clay (the other protagonist) accepts her laying the blame on her schoolmates.

Having thought about it for quite a few weeks, I now believe these criticisms almost entirely unfounded. I regret being swayed by them. This is truly a masterpiece of modern television, one that deserves every accolade. Indeed, I think the criticisms themselves a testament to the quality of writing, directing and performance on display (there would be no criticism if the show didn’t make an impact).

I think one of the reasons I may disagree with the show’s detractors is that I am principally concerned with the dramatic art form, whereas they seem more concerned with the sociological effects of the work. While that is a noble concern, and one I share, a critique of an artwork must remain couched in the terms of the art form. We don’t assess psychologists’ performance based on the dramatic tension in the room as they work, or their ability to convince us that they care, so why would we assess a dramatists’ work based on the psychological health of the audience? The fact is, dramaticised stories don’t deal in generalities. Hannah could never portray the full gamut of life experiences that may lead a person to take their own life. Likewise, Clay could never portray the full gamut of responses to suicide. These are two specific characters, living in a specific context, and they tell a specific story. Generalities are tolerable in literature or the visual arts, but they have no place in the dramatic arts.

In the course of telling their story, they should prompt more general discussion, but it is not the role of a dramatic work to lock down our response to suicide (or any other social concern); rather, it is our role to open it up. And on this front, 13 Reasons Why performs brilliantly. The characters present a broad range of positions and opinions. Their reactions and responses are diverse. Some of them are positive and helpful, others are less so, and some are downright dangerous. And in presenting this range in an engaging and forthright manner, 13 Reasons Why has opened conversations, allowed us to make judgements and form opinions that we might not otherwise address.

Clay, the protagonist we follow throughout the series, is a brilliant composition. He responds from the gut, sometimes with emotional intelligence, other times without, but he is genuine and relatable throughout. This is a remarkable achievement. We can be frustrated by the foolishness of his response, or by the slowness of his response, but we can’t criticise him for being an automaton or a mouthpiece for a psychologist. He’s an adolescent character that rings true with our emotions and reflects our values.

Perhaps it is because Clay is the narrative voice throughout the series that some of the series’ detractors feel that he must be an omniscient presence. As if he not only knows everything that happened, but also knows how to resolve it in the best way possible. Clay, though, is an adolescent dealing with a deeply troubling event. His narration must be read as his thoughts, and nothing more.

And because Hannah also bears the hallmarks of narrator, through her tapes, she, too, can be mistaken for an omniscient presence. This is an equally errant reading: Hannah is even more compromised in her ability to assess the actions of others. her narration, too, is just her reading of the situation.

Perhaps what annoys me most about the criticisms of this series is that too many people seem to be caught up on the notion that what the protagonists say is the whole truth. A protagonist can only ever speak their own truth. And most of the time, the truth is actually in between the lines; in the subtext. And the truth in this case is deeply complex, opening up challenges and dilemmas, and expecting the viewer to resolve them. Just like all good dramatic works do.

Ultimately, that is why I am so impressed by 13 Reasons Why. There is no apology. There is no hiding from the complexity. They don’t even hide from the blood. And as the player in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead says when he sums up the essential truth of all dramatic works:

“We’re more of the blood, love and rhetoric school. Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, or we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three, concurrent or consecutive. But we can’t give you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory — they’re all blood, you see.”

 
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Posted by on Tuesday, 13 June 2017 in Netflix, Television, Uncategorized

 

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Underbelly Razor

Chelsea Preston-Cormack as Tilley Divine

I missed the earlier installments of the Underbelly series, and after seeing this season, that’s something I regret. What I’ve seen has been impeccable drama. It is rare to encounter a historical series that marries great dialogue and characterisation with historical accuracy, but Underbelly Razor has done just that. Remarkable, too, because it comes from the WIN Network, who usually avoid broadcasting anything of substantial quality at all costs.

The clever use of music from recent decades covered as jazz numbers from the nineteen twenties is a touch of genius. It stamps the series as modern (just in case you’re not watching it in HD), and draws the audience into the period with much-needed humour. The dialogue only occasionally diverted from the vocabulary of Australian English in the period, and the settings for the action of the series are impeccably depicted. Few films manage such superb historical aesthetics, but it is especially remarkable for a television series.

The series’ two protagonists, Kate Leigh and Tilley Devine, are played by Danielle Cormack and Chelsie Preston-Crayford respectively, and their performances have been thoroughly engaging. While Danielle Cormack is a familiar and welcome face on our screens, I’ve never seen Preston-Crayford, and she is equally noteworthy. She also gained my attention because she’s playing the namesake of one of Canberra’s best-known cafes, and this explains a lot for those of us who live in the capital!

Danielle Cormack as Kate Leigh

Dealing with Australian history in this manner is refreshing. I have recently been working on a play set in Sydney in the 1880s and was surprised that I could not find a single novel, film or play that takes the city as its setting in this era. Our focus on the bush was not just dominant; it was absolute. The focus of Underbelly Razor on a Sydney story in the era of Dad and Dave, when we generally like to see ourselves as a quaint agrarian outpost of the British Empire, is both novel and redresses an unfortunate imbalance. I hope its a sign of a maturing national image.

Underbelly Razor is, of course, not without its historical faults, though most are negligible. The one notable problem is the way the police are depicted. The senior ranks of the New South Welsh police seem genuinely concerned with law and order, which seems to be at loggerheads with the histories I’ve read covering law and order in Sydney in this period. The police were as actively involved in the underworld as Tilley Devine and Kate Leigh, and to depict them as antagonists is taking a lot of dramatic licence! The inherent and utter corruption of the New South Welsh  Police Force is known to have been a key factor in the development of the Sydney underworld from the early nineteenth century until the end of the twentieth, and this series treats police corruption merely as a minor theme.

I will accept this as dramatic licence, as the research required to depict the rest of this world must have been substantial, and I can’t see how the writers could have been entirely ignorant of the key role the police played in the Sydney underworld. And forgiving them this licence leaves possibly the best television series I’ve ever seen; and I love television! Underbelly Razor has the production qualities of our best films, with excellent performances, great dialogue and a great story, well told.

Now I want to see the earlier seasons!

 
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Posted by on Sunday, 6 November 2011 in Nine Network, Television

 

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Gruen Nation

Wil Anderson is, in my humble opinion, Australia’s most serious comedian. He may not admit it, but just about everything he says has a point, and most of those points are both scathingly critical and bitingly relevant. The only comedian that comes close to him is Paul McDermott, but his humour is very gentle by comparison, and almost exclusively aimed at politicians. Interestingly, both have spent formative years in Canberra, but the announcement that Anderson will be refitting the magnificent concept comedy The Gruen Transfer especially for the election makes me think twice about simply labelling him a ‘comedian’. The Gruen concept, which allows Anderson to refrain from making too many comments that aren’t funny, while still getting to a more salient point.

In the ABC’s weekly newsletter, Gruen Nation is touted to dissect the advertising of the parties and “decode what’s going on for the audience and point out the many strategies political parties use to influence voters”. In his rather more forthright style, Anderson himself describes the show as the “national bullshit detector”.

Analysing election campaigns is mostly about detecting disingenuity and calling candidates to account for their policies in the hope that voters may make an informed decision. Unfortunately, the media, which was enshrined in both our country and the Americans’ as a balancing force in government, is not particularly good at this. Probably because they no longer have the time to undertake thorough investigation, their work is driven by media releases, which are innately untrustworthy. These days, dissecting how political parties construct a sales pitch in the context of an election is the best way to analyse their motivations and question their integrity. We may even find that this heightened scrutiny is a game-changer for federal elections.

And if not, it’s still bound to be a great series.

 
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Posted by on Tuesday, 6 July 2010 in Television, Zapruder

 

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The Road to Guantanamo

There is a particular atmosphere in films that depict the victims of the Holocaust, and I found it incredibly disturbing to sense that same atmosphere in this excellent documentary recently aired on the SBS.

The Road to Guananamo is the story of several Pakistani Britons from Birmingham who found themselves caught up in the war in Afghanistan immediately following the 9/11 attacks, and who are ultimately imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, accused of being members of Al Qaeda. That this can happen to innocent travellers is hardly surprising, but the stories of their treatment at the hands of mostly American guards is no less shocking and outrageous than the many depictions of Jewish victims of the Nazis during World War II.
Apart from its moral position and emotional impact, which is similar to what I have felt when watching depictions of how the German Jews were treated in the early forties, what I found astonishing was the realisation of how conditioned I am. As these young men were relieved from their Afghani captors and handed over to the Americans, I felt, when I heard the American accent, a sense of relief; I felt their ordeal was finally over. Of course, the worse was yet to come, and the Americans proved themselves incapable of justice.
The film unselfconsciously takes advantage of our conditioning, allowing us to feel some confidence in the American gaolers before showing them to be as evil and conniving as their Nazi predecessors; and putting the story into this context highlights that the problem lies with the fascist element in the perpetrating society. While I cannot vouch for the voracity of the prisoners’ accounts of their gaolers’ actions, I am more inclined to trust their accounts than the rantings of governments beseiged by criticisms. What appalls me more than the behaviour of the American guards is the knowledge that Australians were imprisoned with these Pakistani Britons, and that our government was no more loyal to our people than the British were to theirs.
It is rare to see such a cogent and compelling story about the need to heed the lessons of history. While I know that the American people are every bit as honourable and worthy of respect as the Germans are, this film demonstrates that no people, least of all the Americans, should be complacent in holding their politicians accountable.
 

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