A teen drama based on a Young Adult novel might not sound like the stuff that Netflix dreams are made of, but 13 Reasons Why (which arrived on the streaming site earlier this month) is different. Coming with the Selena Gomez seal of approval, the 13-part show is already sparking conversations thanks to its frank take on what it's really like to be a high schooler in the social media era (Gossip Girl, this certainly is not).
From the cast to the soundtrack, here's everything you need to know about your new streaming obsession...
It's a Netflix show based on a Young Adult novel - but don't let that put you off
Just because 13 Reasons Why started life as teen fiction doesn’t mean it should be written off as a guilty pleasure. A New York Times bestseller upon its release in 2011, Jay Asher’s novel has a premise that’s both intriguing and utterly haunting from the outset. Before committing suicide, high school student Hannah Baker records 13 cassette tapes. Each one (and each episode) charts a step that led her to take her own life; each points a finger at someone who, whether knowingly or not, is implicated in her tragedy. Switching from past to present (and often blending the two), the show follows her classmate and friend Clay as he works through all 13. He’s propelled forward on a cocktail of grim curiosity and guilt: we quickly learn that Clay has been sent the tapes because he himself is a ‘reason why.’
There's a Selena Gomez connection (but it's not what you think)
It’s been widely cited as ‘Selena Gomez’s new Netflix show,’ but you won’t see the singer/actress/most-followed Insta-person multi-hyphenate on screen. After reading the novel nearly six years ago, Selena and her mother Mandy Teefey optioned the story, intending that the then-teen star would lead a big screen adaptation. With time, the project mutated, ending up as a 13-part show bought by Netflix, with Selena behind the camera as executive producer. Describing herself as ‘a little controlling’ of her pet project, she told CNN: ‘People – no matter what age – can relate to this story. Everyone has gone through this. And more than ever, this should be talked about today.’ Work your way through all 13 'tapes,' though, and you will hear Selena's voice: she recorded a cover version of Yazoo's heart-breaking 'Only You' (which fans of The Office will have sobbed to as Tim and Dawn finally get together in the Christmas special) for the final episode.
There's a cast of brilliant newcomers
21-year-old Katherine Langford was fresh out of Australia’s prestigious WAAPA stage school when she auditioned via Skype to play Hannah Baker. Given the story’s premise, we only meet Hannah through her tapes (as a voiceover) and in flashback: it’d be hard to find a more challenging debut role, but the Perth native makes this ‘difficult’ character both complicated and deserving of our compassion. She’s also got a pitch-perfect American accent: the only hint to her natural Aussie lilt is a throw-away moment when Hannah quotes from Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom. Starring opposite her is Dylan Minnette as Hannah’s classmate and co-worker Clay, who did child-star stints in US dramas like Scandal, Lost and Prison Break before appearing in 2015’s Goosebumps adaptation. They’re joined by Christian Navarro as the mysterious Tony, Devin Druid as creepy yearbook photographer Tyler and Miles Heizer and Alisha Boe as Alex and Jess, Hannah’s former friends.
It's not afraid to tackle teen issues head on
Since time began (or, at least, since the 90s) teen dramas have long played upon the fact that high school can be utterly brutal. 13 Reasons Why goes one step further, tackling everything from slut-shaming in the social media era to sexual assault and mental health. It's all handled intelligently (and, sometimes, ambiguously) enough, that it manages not to feel like an R-rated episode of Grange Hill: 13 Reasons Why can often make for bleak viewing, but it never patronises its viewers feels like the show-runners have thrown issues around for shock value.
It's a compulsive (and heart-breaking) binge-watch
From the opening moments of the show, we know what happened to Hannah Baker. We just don't know why - and it's this morbid curiousity that drives Clay forward through the tapes (and viewers with him). Jumping back and forward and sometimes melting into 'what if' montages (less cheesy than they sound, we promise), it's a compelling and sometimes frustrating premise. Most intriguingly, we're forced to wait until the final episodes to learn how the seemingly faultless Clay is implicated in his friend's death. The more you watch, the more you'll find yourself rooting for the characters - and wishing they could change the ending that's also the show's beginning...
The soundtrack is pitch perfect
From the obvious callbacks to Brat Pack films like Say Anything and Sixteen Candles to the cassettes that drive the plot, 13 Reasons Why is a show that's in love with nostalgia. It's a sneaky move on the creators' part, meaning that despite dealing with a host of millenial problems, it doesn't feel too achingly 21st century. This is nowhere more in evidence than on the soundtrack: the first episode plays out to Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart, while other 80s tracks and cover versions from the likes of Vienna, The Cure and Echo & The Bunnymen crop up later on. It's not just about the better bits of your parents' CD collection, though: aside from tracks that Selena Gomez has recorded especially, you'll definitely find yourself Googling the song that soundtracks a pivotal moment between Hannah and Clay at their school dance (FYI, it's The Night We Met by Lord Huron). Over on Spotify, the official playlist features just 13 tracks: one for each main character.
The behind-the-camera credentials are impeccable
It might be Selena Gomez's involvement that has garnered the most headlines for Netflix's latest original, but she is not the show's only big name. 13 Reasons Why has attracted a handful of prestigious film industry figures, resulting in an end product that's slicker and more engaging than the average high school drama series. In the director's seat for the first two episodes was Tom McCarthy, best known for 2016's Best Picture Oscar winner Spotlight. The showrunner and writer, meanwhile, is Brian Yorkey, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his musical Next to Normal, which also explores issues of mental health (on a side note, he's currently working on a musical adaptation of Magic Mike, and has thus become our theatrical hero).
How do I watch 13 Reasons Why?
All 13 hour-long episodes are currently streaming on Netflix UK. Catch them before a spoiler catches you ...