Netflix’s newest drama may have its roots in young adult fiction, but its appeal is much broader thanks to a tight opening episode and a brooding juvenile cast.
Based on the book Thirteen Reasons Why, the backdrop to this is certainly grim.
Hannah Baker (Aussie Katherine Langford) is looking back on her teen life.
“Settle in. I’m about to tell you the story of my life,” she explains.
You see, Hannah ended her life and now she is about to tell her closest friends the 13 Reasons Why she took such devastating actions, via a series of cassette tape diaries.
“If you’re listening to this tape, you’re one of the reasons why,” she reveals. Ouch.
But it is her former classmate Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) who is the central character here. An introspective young man, he received the cassette tape collection mysteriously left on his doorstep and as he hears the voice of his recently-departed friend, becomes entangled in a web of mystery, drama and regret.
The cassettes serve as a clever plot device piecing together the final weeks of Hannah’s young life, as the story juxtaposes the past and the present. This helps to plant Hannah into the world as a three dimensional character, rather than just as a ghostly voice, and wins our sympathies. As we watch her make new friends, and experience her first kiss we are mindful that it all goes terribly wrong -but how?
Compelled to know how he fits into Hannah’s jigsaw, Clay begins to become our detective, in order that the truth helps put meaning to Hannah’s life and death. There are also ominous hints that add a sense of jeopardy for our young hero, after Hannah put an elaborate scheme in motion before ending it all. Clay is heading down a rabbit hole of actions plummeting to and end he cannot see.
Underlining this teen mystery are some serious themes: the ramifications of social media, bullying, gossip, peer pressure, public humiliation, betrayal and of course, suicide. While it’s not as melodramatic as the murderous Riverdale, nor as poetic as a teen Twin Peaks, the mystery elements are confidently executed by writer Brian Yorkey and director Tom McCarthy.
The juvenile cast are quite wonderful without over-playing their hand. Dylan Minnette gives a sensitive, restrained performance while Katherine Langford is a bright discovery as Hannah, in a role that will clearly put her on the map. Kate Walsh, best known for Private Practice, appears as Hannah’s mother alongside Brian D’Arcy James.
Without having read the book I’m unclear whether this is too light on its profound story subject, or whether the audience will be faced with deep despair, mourning and consequence at a later stage.
Until then, 13 Reasons Why is certainly off to a good start.
13 Reasons Why begins Friday on Netflix.