Grief, guilt, regret, shame, malice, detachment, denial — the feelings swarming through the kids in “13 Reasons Why” are deep and complicated, lest you think young-adult stories can only be about vampire hunger and love games.
Netflix’s new adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel is an extraordinarily mature — and extraordinary — drama about the aftermath of teenager Hannah Baker’s suicide and the 13 people she blames in the tapes she leaves behind. It’s not an instructive series about shrines at Hannah’s locker and learning to identify the signs of teen depression. It’s a winding and addictive tale, with a vivid set of characters, and it touches on the distinctions between guilt and responsibility, the consequences of passivity and aggression, the hazards of parenting, the dependability of the narrator, and so much more.
The season is structured by Hannah, essentially. Before she killed herself, she recorded a long narrative explaining why she did it, and she set up a system so that the cassettes would be privately circulated one-by-one among the 13. When the show begins, Clay Jensen has just received the tapes, and we gradually listen to them with him. The tapes also come with a map that takes Clay to some of the locations in Hannah’s chronicle, which includes both the smaller slights directed at her and weightier stories of slut-shaming and assault. Those named in the tapes are all keeping them secret, partly out of a sense of remorse, but also because those who were particularly bad to Hannah are afraid of the legal case against the school brought by Hannah’s parents.
Clay is a sweet, low-key guy who’s shocked to discover that Hannah considered him one of the offenders. They worked together at the local movie theater, and he had a major but unexpressed crush on her — unexpressed, that is, unless you looked hard into his spellbound eyes. That’s one of the mysteries on the show: When will we find out what Clay did or didn’t do? But “13 Reasons Why” never feels like a whodunit, which is a plus. The show feels more like a why-dunit, a deep dive into all the factors that can coalesce and lead to tragedy. Another mystery involves Hannah herself, and whether or not her version is reliable.
The storytelling techniques on the show are wonderful, thanks to writer (and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright) Brian Yorkey and a group of directors including Jessica Yu, Carl Franklin, and Tom McCarthy (of “Spotlight”). Like “This Is Us,” the action jumps back and forth between tenses, but “13 Reasons Why” has a dreamier quality that, particularly for binge-ers, becomes mesmerizing. Each episode reveals one more person Hannah blames and builds on the world established in the previous hour, as we continually encounter new facets of Hannah’s life and new characters. The background on the show keeps getting deeper, richer. Hints of other teen series such as “Gossip Girl” and “My So-Called Life” are all over the place, but “13 Reasons Why” ultimately has its own style and identity.
Oh, and “13 Reasons Why” also has a pair of remarkable lead performances that do full justice to the ambiguities of the teen years. As Hannah, Katherine Langford is everything. She gives us a powerful young woman who knows what she likes. “There’s courage in being a nerd,” she tells shy Clay on their first meeting. She’s charming, and cheeky, and she is above the gender clichés of high school. Some of her smartest conversations, we see, are with other girls, before those girls fall back into competition and degrading other girls. Her vitality makes you hope against hope that the suicide will be proven false by season’s end. But Langford’s Hannah is also lonely and susceptible, and she gets pulled into exploitive situations more easily than you might expect. As Clay, Dylan Minnette is a teenage everyboy on the surface, but a passionate and torn-up kid on the inside. When you first see Minnette’s ordinary face, you’re not prepared for the shadings of emotion it will reveal and the aging it will take on as the season develops. Watching these two young actors together is pure pleasure.
One of the appealing quirks of “13 Reasons Why,” which is available on Friday, is the show’s nods to old school technology and music. The violence of social media is certainly a theme, but the cassette tapes add flavor, and so does the old-fashioned movie theater setting. At one point, a couple goes to a costume party dressed as Sid and Nancy. Of course, these details may be a kind of welcome mat for older viewers — but still, they bring texture, distinction, and a hint of timelessness.
There are a few flaws in “13 Reasons Why,” not least of all the overly choreographed script that always seems to be forcing face-offs between foes. Some of the characters, particularly the jocks, with their homoerotic clowning, are stereotypical. But none of these blemishes detracted from my thorough enjoyment. The drama is sensitive, surprising, consistently engaging, and, most important, unblinking.
13 REASONS WHY
Starring: Dylan Minnette, Katherine Langford, Brandon Flynn, Kate Walsh, Brian D’Arcy James, Christian Navarro
On Netflix, Season One available FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.