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.