I haven’t watched “TV” — as in, tracked television programming on the idiot box, in the good old way that we used to by tuning in night after night — in forever now. We haven’t consistently had satellite TV for many years. Barely a year after we first entertained the idea of doing away with it, we actually went ahead and kicked the idiot box out of our lives. Though we had our TV hooked up in our last home in Goa, only sporadically got the TATA Sky going. Typically, only when VC’s folks visited or someone mentioned a must-watch show. But it never lasted long enough to hold our interest and invariably our account would expire from sheer neglect.
When we moved to Bangalore, I was determined to keep the TV out of the living room as it had been for the last many years. The new home doesn’t have a conducive space for the TV in either bedroom. So the damn thing is currently languishing in a box in a cupboard, while I entertain the idea of selling it off, from time to time. I’ve gone several years without traditional television, depending on downloading shows when the sweet spot of my interest/inclination to watch something has met with a promising show showing up, and having the requisite amount of time to actually watch it. the number of shows I’ve started and abandoned is embarassing.
But, it would be inaccurate to say I don’t watch TV anymore. With Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar at our disposal, we’ve ben dipping in and out of television lala land. I’m still not quite there yet with binging the way one is supposed to with this kind of access. I don’t know, I suppose it’s watching it on a small screen that doesn’t really work for me. Also, I very rarely have that much time (or mindspace) at a stretch anymore, and I’m far too restless to actually binge watch anything, as the format demands. I do have spurts and the last time it happened was with OITNB, but by and large, I tend to give most of the much-talked-about shows a miss.
All this, to say I only very rarely get hooked to a TV show, and I’m usually very late to get the memo on most “good” TV shows. I just find it hard to keep up. So much TV, so much social media, so much news. Where are you guys also finding the time to read and cook and exercise and have a life? (which is what I tend to choose over TV)
Anyhow, last year, when I was dillydallying over choosing between forging ahead with my writing, or joining VC, I found myself with a lot of time on hand. I told myself it was time that would be hard to come by, depending on which way I decide to go. So I began to watch 13 Reasons Why. Long after everyone had watched, obsessed, critiqued and discussed it to death.
I hadn’t really read too much about it, and wasn’t even fully aware of the plot, so I went in clean. I had a fair idea what it was about, so maybe I had a bit of an expectation of how it could go. So, when it didn’t — and it actually progressively went annoyingly south — I was severely disappointed.
The only thing I really, really liked about it was the title track. I will not lie.
Okay, it’s mildly well-written, given the altered (from book to TV show) plot line, and most of the actors have acted really well. But it’s just, the very premise, and the way the theme has been dealt with, really, really annoyed me.
Straight off the bat, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the entire build up to uncovering and going through the tapes in gory, drawn-out harsh, urid detail, felt like it glorified suicide. It was really hard to ignore that it felt exactly like the opposite of what the show was trying to do.
If the show was supposedly meant to make a case for how suicide should never be an option, how come it comes out sounding like it’s a great way to get revenge. A legitimate way to make yourself heard. To serve justice. To come out victorious.
I know I’m treading thin ice even saying this, but I don’t buy the argument that this show aimed to build awareness. Sure, it got more people watching and talking about bullying amongst teenagers, cyber bullying specifically, peer pressure and suicide, but it definitely did it in a way that sensationalised the issues surrounding teenage suicide, and it exercised very little tact and sensitivity in dealing with the many facets of the issue.
Perhaps because I set off with this notion in my head, and I couldn’t shake it off at all, the show grated on my nerves right through.
I know, I know, you’re thinking why did I bother watching it. Well, I thought at 13 episodes, it’s far shorter than some of the worst shows I’ve subjected myself to. And I wanted to see if anything changed.
It didn’t. The well-intentioned message — that suicide should never be an option — just didn’t come across clearly enough for me. For one, Hannah never talks about having suicidal thoughts or never seeks any kind of help, despite having all the obvious channels for it. I’m not placing the blame at her doorstep, but her parents shock and devastation at having absolutely no idea their daughter was troubled enough to be driven to suicide, was telling. They assumed she was a regular, average troubled teenager, is all. Second, when she does seek help from her counsellor, in the very last episode, her efforts to talk about her troubles are dismissed by a counsellor who belittles and confuses her. This is a horribly wrong route to take, especially if the intention of this depiction is to steer people from towards seeking help, over suicide. This, amongst other things, really made me feel like the entire progression points towards glorifying suicide as a way to make yourself heard, when you have nowhere to go and nobody to talk to.
There is also the graphic representation of rape, twice over, despite the trigger warnings, that really troubled me. I know, you can go ahead and tell me, I shouldn’t have watched it. But here’s the deal, I read the trigger warning and I went ahead and watched it. As would anyone else, I suppose. And I was physically disturbed for several days after. I know it’s a fine line when you’re making a show like this, and you need it to work on a platform like Netflix. But to go so horribly wrong in the accent you take, when dealing with a topic as sensitive as this — it feels like the makers and Netflix kind of just abused the theme to catch as many eyeballs as they could. This isn’t to debate the need for programming to take serious issues into the ambit of production, or to choose a style that favours realistic depiction, but just like we’re increasingly being made to be aware of diversity, inclusion and representation, the issues surrounding mental health, teenage development, cyber bullying and suicide need a lot more awareness building and sensitivity to be woven in.
More than anything, I was hoping the show would tell us things we didn’t already know. I really wanted the show to delve deep into the reasons rather than give me a playback of how horribly wrong things went for Hannah. I wanted it to be more than a lazy retelling of the sequence of events that led up to Hannah’s taking her own life.
Oh yeah, it just occurred to me: in addition to being insensitive, I found 13 Reasons Why to be very, very lazy.
Earlier still, in October, while I was gallivanting around Pondicherry, I got into This Is Us. More because I had P telling me how every episode made him cry. This, I’ve got to see, I thought. And I’m happy to say, it worked out for me because enjoyed the show very much. Since I was on holiday with absolutely no agenda, I binge-watched it.
It is not since watching The Wonder Years or Brothers and Sisters that a family drama has tugged at my heartstrings this much. Possibly because it has been ages since any TV show so unabashedly deals with the story of a family like this, in all it’s dirty, raw, realness — feelings, mess-ups, emotional baggage and all.
A semi-naked Milo Ventimiglia in the opening scene definitely urged me on, but eye-candy aside, it’s a show about entirely mundane, regular family things. Shining a light on every aspect of family — from the immensely special bonds shared by siblings complete with jealousy, competition and an overarching undeniable love, to the frustrations one inevitably feels towards ones parents, the ups and downs of growing up, the triumph of being an adult and parenting your parents, the growing up of owning up to your issues and solving them in the hope of being a more wholesome, integrated human being, and most of all — in knowing that family — in all it’s imperfect glory — happens to everyone. It is not something you can forget, divorce, distance yourself from and ever move on. We are all products of what has happened to us growing up, and the families who bring us up, even if we’re not bound by blood.
It’s intelligent story-telling that weaves two timelines in parallel, creative and beautiful production, has an outstanding soundtrack and background score (by an Indian!), lovely acting all-round and also ticks all the right boxes for me as far as representation goes. It had many a moment that struck a chord so deep with me, as far as theme and plot go. The second season, typically, saw a dip. Especially in the pre-holiday phase, with unnecessarily long and dragged out story lines that say so much but do little to develop the plot or further the story.
Yet, I continue to watch. Because even though the writing may sometimes falter, and the scenarios feel too white or too American, the characters are heartwarming, honest, real and very, very relatable.