“Hi, this is Hannah. Hannah Baker. Settle in, because I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended.” It’s a great hook: spooling out one home-recorded cassette tape for each of the 13 people responsible — or so she claims, from the murky beyond — for a teenage girl’s suicide. Adapted from Jay Asher’s best- selling 2007 YA novel, Reasons offers an analog mystery for a digital world, and a deep embed in the hellscape of lust, envy, secrecy, and despair known as high school. It also has a winning lead in newcomer Katherine Langford, a doe-eyed brunette who looks like a baby sister to Ione Skye circa Say Anything — though the present-day heft of the story rests on the hoodied shoulders of Hannah’s classmate-slash-erstwhile love interest Clay Jensen (played by 20-year-old Dylan Minnette, a quietly intense young actor whose resumé includes stints on Scandal, Lost, and Prison Break).
Clay is that kid who hangs with everyone but is ultimately kind of a loner: The guy too cynical to be a student government type, too good-looking to be a total outcast, and too serious to hang with the hard-partying popular crew. Enter Hannah, the pretty new transfer who becomes his classmate and also his coworker at their small town’s local movie theater. (Nothing cements on-the-job bonding like having to endure the same tragic polyester-vest-and-bowtie combo). In the flashbacks that constitute roughly half the series, the pair have an easy chemistry, sharing the annoyances and inanities of modern teendom over bad popcorn and trading goofy banter between lunch breaks without ever quite acknowledging their growing feelings for each other.
So when Clay opens his front door two weeks after Hannah’s death to a shoebox of carefully labeled cassettes and begins to listen, he’s not just shocked that she’s left such a detailed record of her downward spiral, but at how many of the names on her hit list he knows well — including his own. That last detail is a fact viewers will need to take on faith for some ten episodes as he works his way methodically through the tapes, guided by his friend Tony (Christian Navarro). Cryptic, pompadoured Tony clearly knows things, having already listened to the full set (as has nearly everyone else implicated), and takes on the role of a sort of inscrutable spirit guide — or as Clay angrily labels him, “Unhelpful Yoda.”
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But it’s Hannah’s voice that leads the way, counting down the shrouded clique of tormenters, accomplices, and ex-confidantes who led her to take her life. Some betrayals seem relatively small on their own: A nasty note passed, a face-saving rumor spread, a blossoming friendship derailed by a crush. But others are actual criminal offenses: private photos taken without permission, the cover-up of an accidental death, and, in separate episodes, two brutal rapes.
The teen(ish) supporting cast, which includes Riverdale’s Ross Butler and Awkward’s Justin Prentice as swaggering, troubled jocks; Parenthood’s Miles Heizer as a bleached-blond alt kid; and Steven Silver and Michele Selene Ang as type-A overachievers, is impressively diverse, if unusually heavy on neck tattoos for a bunch of suburban 17-year-olds. And the grownups — among them Kate Walsh and Brian d’Arcy James as Hannah’s grieving parents, and Derek Luke as a school counselor — get a surprisingly substantial amount of screen time to flesh out their characters.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the big names billed behind the scenes: Writer Brian Yorkey has both a Tony and Pulitzer for Next to Normal; Selena Gomez and Oscar-winning Spotlight director Tom McCarthy are both listed as executive producers, and McCarthy also directs two episodes, as does indie provocateur Gregg Araki. But the show’s Jenga pile of collaborators, which often shifts from episode to episode, inevitably leads to some tonal unevenness and plot inconsistencies. There are also more than a few moments that tilt too far into the I Know What Your Pretty Little Vampire Diaries Did Last Summer trope of teen shows; the sensationally implausible problems of reckless, poreless youth. But Reasons is also a crackling whodunnit — or at least whydunnit. And as much as it can be hobbled by archetypes and cliché, the series also smartly self-corrects, offering something rare in Millennial mass entertainment: A frank, authentically affecting portrait of what it feels like to be young, lost, and too fragile for the world. B+