Netflix might have another “Stranger Things”-like addiction on its hands with “13 Reasons Why,” an intensely binge-worthy teen drama that plays like a more ambitious version of the scripted fare on MTV or what was once known as ABC Family. Constructed around the mysterious suicide of a teenage girl, there are abundant reasons to keep watching.
Adapted from a 2007 young-adult novel, and counting writer-director Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”) and Selena Gomez among its creative team, the series oscillates between the recent past and present, gradually puttying in the circumstances surrounding Hannah (Katherine Langford), who, a la “The Lovely Bones,” essentially narrates her own tragic tale.
The twist is that Hannah recorded a series of cassettes detailing what transpired, which are being circulated posthumously among her friends. “I’m about to tell you the story of my life,” she explains in soothing tones near the outset. “More specifically, why my life ended.”
Each hour thus advances the ball forward gradually, highlighting the contributory role of a different peer in Hannah’s orbit. The current story primarily unfolds from the perspective of Clay (Dylan Minnette), a shy boy who worked with Hannah and obviously harbored feelings for her.
Beyond chronicling the cruelties and pressures of high school’s caste system (certainly pretty well-worn territory), “13 Reasons” unwraps a series of escalating incidents and consequences. The made-for-Netflix device, meanwhile, enhances the mystery, since many of the kids have already heard all the cassettes, know who Hannah blames and hint that she might not be a wholly reliable narrator.
The producers have done an exceptional job casting the teen roles. Despite its focus on the kids, though, the show doesn’t completely reduce the parents to a Charlie Brown cartoon. Kate Walsh plays Hannah’s desperate mother, while Steven Weber is the school principal, clearly concerned about liability issues regarding the tragedy that occurred on his watch.
From a commercial standpoint, “13 Reasons Why” feels like an ideal Netflix show – tailored to a hard-to-reach demographic, offering the kind of mystery that’s meant to be binged.
The main disclaimer, having seen the entire first season, is that the show doesn’t deliver a tidy ending, which merely creates possibilities for a second season. It’s worth noting, too, that the drama doesn’t shy away from several key moments that are clearly not for the faint of heart, so if teens tune in, younger siblings should beware.
The grim details are arguably necessary to tell Hannah’s story without romanticizing it – always a danger when dealing with teen suicide – and help viewers understand why she felt so hopeless. “Maybe you did something cruel,” she says on the tapes during the second episode. “Or maybe you just watched it happen.”
In a sense, “13 Reasons Why” turns its audience into voyeuristic bystanders as well. Yet while Hannah’s fate isn’t pleasant, as presented in this enticing, slickly constructed package, it’s hard to look away.
“13 Reasons Why” premieres March 31 on Netflix.