BINGE-R #35: Thirteen Reasons Why + Red Oaks
THIRTEEN REASONS WHY S1
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All 13 episodes now streaming
The past keeps encroaching on the present in Thirteen Reasons Why, a teenage tragedy where cassette tapes and the pain of looking back give the series a universality. There’s a timeless quality to the flaws and failings that slowly come to the fore – note the absence of slang – so that instead of emphasising the modern malaise of this American high school drama you can relate it back to your own classroom days. Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is prominent in the first episode, a mere 38 years after it was released, and it’s a reminder that not every mystery can be easily revolved, let alone fully understood, but that they never truly leave us.
Adapted from the 2007 young adult by Jay Asher, the latest Netflix original series begins in the hallway grieving for high school student Hannah Baker (Australian Katherine Langford), who has committed suicide. As parents and teachers offer sympathetic platitudes, her admirer Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) receives a package of cassettes recorded by Hannah – 13 sides documenting each person and act that led to her deciding to take her own life. The secret recordings have been passed from one cited teen to the next, complete with a guardian, Clay’s friend Tony (Christian Navarro), and have their own protocols and self-inflicted doubts. The shy, vulnerable Clay has no idea where he falls in the list, or why.
If the concept suggests the episodic, the structure is fluid. Time shifts within scenes, and Hannah emerges as the narrator of her own fall, giving the character a sense of control in how her story’s told. As Clay listens to the tape her presence becomes stronger, and what she describes mixes with his memories and the conversations he has with previous recipients. The intimacy of the voiceover and the diligent scene-setting suggests our recent cultural obsession with podcasts and the first two episodes are tightly directed by Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), so that the sentiment is tied to the structure of an abiding mystery.
Netflix already has a teen soap, the stylised Riverdale [review here], and Thirteen Reasons Why runs at a quiet volume, which accentuates the issues that start to emerge from Hannah’s recent history: shaming by innuendo, false accusations, and the loss of friends (the latter episodes bring harsher scenarios). The narrative steadily unfolds to bring in more students, each a mystery in their own way, as well as Hannah’s parents (played by Kate Walsh and Brian d’Arcy James), but it always gravitates back to Hannah and Clay, whose friendship was formed by working together at their town’s cinema. The dialogue mostly sits between teenage tentativeness and screenplay eloquence, and the slow pace – accentuated by Clay’s fear he’s not strong enough to listen – could easily get a grip on you. After all, the quality that burns through is the show’s empathy.
RED OAKS S2
Streaming Service: Amazon Prime Video
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming, plus S1
A 1980s period piece, Red Oaks has evolved so much from its entertaining origins that it’s close to a different show at the beginning of the new season. The question is whether someone who enjoyed the knowing Caddyshack references is ready for the bittersweet John Hughes back and forth that has come to the fore; like kids, this series has grown up fast. Set at a New Jersey country club where the staff goof off and the hair is big, it initially focused on the misadventures of David (Craig Roberts), who gets a summer job as the assistant tennis pro just as he’s trying to figure out his plans for life.
Pushed by his father (the ever amusing Richard Kind) into accounting, David wants to pursue filmmaking, and soon also Skye (Alexandra Socha), the aloof daughter of the club’s ball-busting president, Wall Street trader Doug Getty (Paul Reiser). The first season was a coming of age tale lifted from the era’s Hollywood comedies. A character like David’s pal, the sardonic parking valet Wheeler (Oliver Cooper), wouldn’t have been out of place in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a connection acknowledged by having that movie’s director, Amy Heckerling, handle a pair of episodes, including one centred on a comic body swap between David and his dad.
The sophomore season begins with David and Skye trying to make a go of it in Paris, and romantic commitment brings a certain melancholy to the fore. Even David’s uproarious boss on the tennis courts, Nash (Ennis Esmer) has his wings clipped this time around. Digging deeper gives Roberts, who made his name playing movie misfits, a chance to shine, but it also exposes the lack of written depth in characters such as Skye. Both seasons subtly point to the cultural straitjacket of 1980s America, but the tone has slowly but steadily changed. Life for these characters is so often not what they imagined it would be, and you may have same reaction to Red Oak’s new direction. Chances are you’ll like one half of it.
>> Bonus Binge: If you want to see Craig Roberts’ definitive teenage turn, Stan has Submarine, the eccentric 2009 feature debut of actor turned filmmaker Richard Ayoade that’s defined by ironic commentary and adolescent fantasies. Imagine Wes Anderson gone Welsh and you’re getting there.
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