“Mean Girls.” “Freaks and Greeks.” “Heathers.”
Perhaps you’ve heard: High school is treacherous place.
Students are ruthless to one another. Hormones are bad-behavior accelerants. And adults? Utterly clueless.
Now throw in social media-shaming, sexism and suicide, and you have the basic building blocks for the addictive mystery that is “13 Reasons Why.”
Directed by Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”), this Netflix original series is based on Jay Asher’s 2007 young adult novel of the same name. A girl ends her own life, but why? The answer slowly unfolds over 13 episodes, each an hour long and all of which began streaming Friday.
Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) appears more confident and insightful than most of her 17-year-old peers at Liberty High, so, when she commits suicide, her parents, the faculty and most of the student body appear stunned. She did, however, leave behind a series of cassette tapes that provide clues to why she ended her life — and who’s to blame.
Thirteen of Hannah’s former friends, tormentors and acquaintances receive packages shortly after her death containing the recordings and a map. Speaking from beyond the grave, she explains they are receiving this package because they somehow contributed to her demise.
The group must listen to the cassettes and follow her instructions on where to find clues. If they don’t? Their secrets will be publicly divulged. Just how Hannah will exact this posthumous punishment is part of the mystery.
Her mild-mannered friend and admirer Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) is stunned to discover himself among the 13. He’s not like most of the other students at Liberty who subsist on making each other miserable. Or so he thought.
To understand where he fits into the puzzle, Clay must listen through the tapes. Along the way, he learns the dark secrets kept by those around him and the lengths to which they will go to keep those secrets hidden.
“13 Reasons Why” plays out over a series of flashbacks, effortlessly hopscotching through different timelines. What could have easily been one more high school drama about bullies and victims, jocks and nerds, popular girls and outcasts, is instead a nuanced story about the complexities of relationships between friends, families and lovers.
The talents of Minnette and newcomer Langford carry much of the story. They are convincing high school outsiders — he still wears a bike helmet, likes science fiction and pays attention to lunar eclipses.
She’s insightful, has a sophisticated sense of humor and is individualistic — all deficits for a girl who wants to fit in at a new high school. Together they bring a depth and charm to their roles, and there’s a chemistry between them that is believable.
In this series, written by Brian Yorkey and executive produced by Selena Gomez, Hannah and Clay are also mirrors that reflect how different the teen experience can be for girls versus boys.
On one tape, Hannah says, “You probably think I’m taking it too seriously. … Here’s the thing. You’ve never been a girl.”
“13 Reasons Why” is not just about internal and personal struggles — it’s also fun to watch, told at a pace that engages even the most distracted of viewers (essentially anyone with cable or an Internet connection).
Though most of the grown-ups are unbelievably checked out, Hannah’s mother, played by Kate Walsh (“Private Practice”), is so convincingly devastated by her only daughter’s death she makes the other adult characters here appear ridiculously one-dimensional.
And the melodrama of high school life can feel tedious at points, which is something you might not want to experience again, depending on where you stood (or stand) in your high school pecking order.