The tapes arrive in a box: seven old-school audio cassettes, with 13 of their 14 sides numbered in blue nail polish. They come with simple instructions: Listen to them all, then pass them on to the next person on the list. The tapes were recorded by Hannah Baker, a teenage girl whom everyone on the list knows terribly well, because she recently killed herself. And Hannah’s voice promises two things:
“I’m about to tell you the story of my life — more specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to this tape, you’re one of the reasons why.”
This is the devastatingly simple hook for 13 Reasons Why, a new Netflix drama (debuting next Friday) adapted — by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal) and a group of indie directors led by Spotlight‘s Tom McCarthy — from the best-selling YA novel by Jay Asher. The tapes move roughly chronologically through the brutal last year or so in the life of Hannah (Katherine Langford) as her soul gets ground down to the point where she would prefer death, each side detailing the role one individual played in either hurting her or failing to help her when she needed it most.
When the story begins, the tapes have arrived on the doorstep of Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), a shy kid who worked with Hannah at the local movie theater, harbored a crush on her from minute one, and as far as he can recall, was never anything but nice to her. So he listens to the tapes as much to figure out why he might be on one of them as to learn all the sad details of Hannah’s tale, which we see play out even as Clay, her parents (Kate Walsh and Brian D’Arcy James), and all the other people on the tapes struggle with the aftermath of her suicide.
There are teen dramas that are excellent by the standards of the genre, and then there are excellent dramas that just happen to be about teens. 13 Reasons Why aspires to join the likes of My So-Called Life and Friday Night Lights in the latter group, and succeeds far more than it has any business doing, given some pretty big structural flaws that at times make the season an uphill climb.
Let’s get the bad out of the way first, because there are simply more strains of it, even though the good is so overwhelming that the bad ultimately doesn’t matter enough. The relentlessly dour tone mandated by its subject matter isn’t an ideal thing to maintain across 13 hours; occasional bits of humor (usually banter between Hannah and Clay in happier times) feel like manna in a melancholy desert. There’s also a repetitive and at times padded quality to some of the individual stories of how Hannah’s spirit was crushed; despite the 13 cassette sides perfectly matching the standard episode order for a Netflix season, Yorkey probably would have been better off doing a shorter run that combined some of the overlapping stories into the same hour, or simply doing some briefer episodes. (In the book, which I haven’t read, Clay listens to all the tapes in a single night; here, he does it over the course of a few weeks because each episode spans at least a day in the present. The other characters continually — and justifiably — express disbelief that it’s taking him so damn long, and it never makes emotional sense, despite Clay’s protestations that it’s too difficult to binge the tapes in the way that Netflix assumes you’ll binge the show.)
There’s a running subplot in the present day about how the other kids on the tapes want to stop Clay from publicizing their sins, which on occasion brings 13 Reasons much closer to Pretty Little Liars territory than it otherwise wants to be, and that story thread also features a bunch of ominous and ultimately false teases about why Clay appears on one of the tapes, when the secret’s revelation would play much more poignantly if it hadn’t been foreshadowed with so much phony misdirection. (It also renders one character — Clay’s gearhead buddy Tony (Christian Navarro), who knows more about the tapes than he’s willing to tell — an irritatingly cryptic plot device until the final hours.) And where the self-contained nature of the story — Hannah dies, Clay wonders why, and finds out by the end — would lend itself to a limited series, the season’s final episode clumsily tries to set some plates spinning in the event Netflix wants more, when there would be no point to it, at least not with these characters.
Despite all that, and the fact that the broader details of the mystery are revealed by the premise — this is the sad high school version of Murder on the Orient Express, where (83-year-old spoiler) everybody done it — 13 Reasons Why is so compelling that I gladly immersed myself in all 13 hours over a weekend.
Much of that is a credit to the two leads, of whom much is asked, and even more is given.
Minnette you might recognize, either from movies (Goosebumps, Don’t Breathe) or from the half-dozen TV dramas on which he’s played notable supporting roles, often (on Scandal, Lost, and Awake, among others) as the doomed son of one of the leads. Here, he’s the one who survives and has to live with the guilt. It’s a role that starts off as passive by design — Clay has made himself invisible to the school’s ruling class of jocks (many of whom play significant roles on the tapes), and he spends a lot of the season simply listening to Hannah’s story and looking at places where she once stood — and grows more active once Clay has heard too many dark tales to just ignore. That much screen time doing so little is a heavy burden to place on any actor, much less a young one, but Minnette shoulders it ably. There’s an open vulnerability to him that makes Clay into an easy viewer proxy; we didn’t know Hannah before this, but we’re going through the experience at the same pace he is, and learning to feel the pain in the same way. And when the turn comes for Clay to do more than merely listen, Minnette is believable and incredibly easy to root for.
13 Reasons Why is the first significant screen credit for the Australian-born Langford, and it’s a star turn that will hopefully make the series her “I knew her when” for the cool kids. Hannah is an even more impossible role than Clay: Her presence hangs over all the present-day scenes, and everyone has a completely different take on her in the past. She gets slut-shamed early in her time at the school, but the girl who’s the subject of the gossip isn’t at all the one that Clay knows, and that person in turn only has a passing resemblance to the one that Tony knows, or the one who used to be friends with Jessica (Alisha Boe) and Alex (Miles Heizer from Parenthood), or even the one her parents thought they understood. The flashbacks are all told from Hannah’s perspective — when Clay finally gets to his own tape, he complains to Tony, “She’s not telling the truth about the way things happened,” to which Tony replies, “She’s telling her truth” — but still has to contort to fit the terrible narrative the other students hung on her like a stone, and Langford manages to be all these different Hannahs at the same time she is always being the Hannah that no one else truly saw. It’s remarkable, and makes the whole thing work even more than Minnette’s performance, because we have to care pretty instantly about this dead stranger in order to slog through so many hours of her unrelentingly sad story, and of the wreckage left by her absence.
Most of the other performances are excellent as well, though the kids get much more to do than the adults. (Derek Luke, Steven Weber, and Keiko Agena from Gilmore Girls play faculty members at the school, and Amy Hargreaves, Josh Hamilton, and Mark Pellegrino are among the actors playing parents oblivious to what’s really going on with their sons and daughters.) And while some of the individual hours are sluggish and/or repetitive, the design of Asher’s book lends itself to episodic treatment, with the best episodes functioning as haunting short stories about the ways that kids don’t really see each other, or hurt one another without meaning to, or even realize that they’re doing it. (Hannah, lamenting how she’s never quite fit in anywhere she’s tried, observes, “Some girls know all the lyrics to each other’s songs. They find harmonies in their laughter. Their linked elbows echo a tune. What if I can’t hum on key?”) Along the way, we see that Hannah wasn’t the only one who suffered, even if her suffering proved to be the most unbearable, as the other kids’ stories deal with bullying, low self-esteem, coming out of the closet, sexual assault, and more — all in a thoughtful and nuanced way, rather than as a series of dramatized PSAs. And while the finale’s brief attempts to set up an unnecessary second season are frustrating, the actual conclusion of Hannah’s story is unflinching and shattering.
Hannah Baker never made the connections she needed to survive the hell that adolescence can be. Clay and others realize far too late all that they could have done with her, and for her. It’s a tough story. An honest story. And a story that beautifully connects its Baker’s dozen of tales and characters with each other, and the audience, even though there are some bumps and missteps along the way.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org