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13 Reasons Why

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Not all Netflix series are made equal. For every Daredevil, there is an Iron Fist; every Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has its lesser, Fuller House counterpart. And in the wake of pulpy-teen murder mystery Riverdale, Netflix’s new teen mystery 13 Reasons Why is an emotionless, forgettable affair.

Based off the YA novel by Jay Asher and executive produced by Selena Gomez, 13 Reasons Why is the story of Hannah Baker (newcomer Katherine Langford), a high school girl who committed suicide a week before the first episode picks up. Without her present, we follow Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), the quiet teenage boy who was in love with her before she died, struggling with grief when a mysterious package arrives at his door one afternoon. It’s thirteen cassette tapes, each recorded sardonically by Hannah before her death, explaining the thirteen reasons why she killed herself.

Each episode chronicles Clay listening to a different tape, biking around town in an attempt to piece together Hannah’s story. From school jocks who took advantage of her and spread rumours to fickle friends who believed them, Hannah spills the beans on everyone who wronged her – and even when we finally reach Clay’s tape, the story is far from over. As Hannah’s plan to expose the horrible bullying and toxic masculinity of her high school comes to a head, the lines blur between victim and culprit.

13 Reasons Why is incredibly lifeless (sorry) and dull, moving like molasses as its “mystery” is slowly uncovered. Each of Hannah’s stories would be interesting and compelling if they weren’t stretched out over the course of full hour-long episodes; all thirteen episodes could be condensed into four, or even just a movie, with tighter storytelling and quicker reveals.

Instead, 13 Reasons Why pads out its gloomy world, introducing us to dozens of characters who receive such small, infrequent moments in the sun that it’s hard to distinguish one stereotypical jock from the next; Hannah’s selfish friends and disinterested teachers all blurring into one. This becomes a showcase for the show’s terrible soap-opera dialogue and the actors’ awkward chemistry. And as our emotional entry into this world, Clay should be so much more sympathetic than he is – after all, his is the epitome of unrequited love – but he lacks any kind of heart, or character at all, instead coming off as creepy and irrational, made worse by a dull performance by Minnette.

The only compelling character is Hannah: her tapes are full of sarcasm and attitude, but seeing her heartbroken eyes as we learn the tragic story shows us how much she truly has given up on living any longer, made more powerful by an impassioned performance from Langford. The show’s message about the toxic treatment of girls in high school is certainly fascinating and frustrating – from objectification and even sexual assault, this show is not afraid to go there – but its treatment of suicide is occasionally problematic, since, as one character laments, ‘leaving those tapes was a dick move’. Regardless, this serves to make Hannah just more complex and interesting, and her descent into depression is believable and melancholy, as each person turns their back on her until no one is left.

Despite its sympathetic main character, 13 Reasons Why fails to inject life (sorry, again) into a story that we’ve all experienced to a certain degree – coming of age stories should make us feel and remember, but this is just boring. Even for lovers of mystery, Thirteen Reasons Why fails to capture attention and create intrigue – but maybe that’s because this isn’t a whodunit, but a whydunit, and since the “why” isn’t a big surprise, it’s barely even that.

 
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Marvel’s Iron Fist

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Following in the footsteps of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage (and presaging team-up series, The Defenders), the latest Marvel/Netflix series has a lot to live up to – and a lot of now-apparent baggage to shed. Sadly, Iron Fist does neither.

Which is not to say it’s a terrible time, but Iron Fist exhibits a lack of ambition and an inability to effectively define its own identity. It feels by the numbers in a way its predecessors, even when they were working to formula, didn’t. If Daredevil is the opener of the way, and Jessica Jones filtered that narrative model through the lens of a woman’s experience, while Luke Cage steeped it in African American culture and history, then this series does… well, nothing too interesting.

Which may in fact be the best argument for re-imagining Danny Rand as an Asian character, instead of the comics-canonical white guy trained in the mystic East. There’s engaging work to be done in viewing the hoary tropes of the ’70s born martial arts movie through the eyes of, say, a savvy second- or third- generation Asian American.

Instead we get Finn Jones (Game of Thrones) as Rand, long thought dead after being lost in a plane crash along with his parents in the Himalayas, returning to New York City 15 years after the fact. Where’s he been in the interim? Why, learning martial arts in the magical mountain retreat of K’un L’un – hence why he’s now presenting as a shoeless hippie wanderer, a look that doesn’t endear him to the current executives of his father’s former company when he fronts up and informs them that he’d like his billions back, please.

Perhaps the weirdest choice made in Iron Fist is to spend so much time focusing on the machinations and maneuvering involved in Danny wresting back control of his company from his former childhood friends, Ward (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy (Jessica Stroup) Meachum, who are acting as catspaws for their father, Harold (David Wenham, having fun), Rand Senior’s former business partner , who is currently pretending to be dead for nebulous reasons.  If nothing else, Batman Begins handled this entire plot much more quickly and adroitly.

Still we do get some martial arts action, largely from Danny’s reluctant ally, dojo-owner Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), who gets involved in illegal cage fighting in order to pay the bills. And Danny gets some moments to shine, too – his skirmish against a squad of hatchet-wielding Chinese toughs ticks the boxes nicely. But it’s all a bit underwhelming, lacking the audacity and brutality of Daredevil‘s fight choreography, and the casual superhuman power of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. And, forgive us, but isn’t Iron Fist’s whole schtick supposed to be spectacular martial arts?

If anything is a dealbreaker, it’s the series’ failure to fulfill the inherent promise of its premise. We should be seeing some Yuen Woo-ping style wire-fu, some scenery shattering displays of mystic kung-fu power (which we do from time to time, to be fair, but it’s underwhelming), something that takes us above the street-level beat-ups we’ve seen so far and bridges the gap between Daredevil and, say, Doctor Strange. It’s all there in the premise.

But it’s not there in the show.

So far, at least. Netflix put out the first six episodes for review purposes, and it’s possible that Iron Fist picks up significantly in the back half, but it wants to ramp up to an extraordinary degree to make up for its plodding opening act. If there’s one thing Netflix needs to learn – and this goes beyond their Marvel properties to encompass pretty much all their original series – it’s that length is not its own virtue. We shouldn’t have to trudge through hours of makework storytelling to get to the climax. It is, at base, bad writing beholden to a pointless production mandate.

Based on what we’ve seen so far, Iron Fist is for completists only. It’s not a complete mess, but it’s a significant step down in quality.