What year is it in “13 Reasons Why”? After several episodes of Netflix’s gruelling teen drama, I’m still not sure. The series follows Clay, a socially awkward teenager who finds a mysterious box on his doorstep in the aftermath of his friend Hannah’s suicide. It contains a set of 13 cassette tapes recorded by Hannah, each one addressed to a person who contributed, deliberately or inadvertently, in driving her to her death. There’s the best friend who deserted her, the guy who circulated an explicit picture of her, the teacher who wouldn't listen, and others guilty of far worse crimes.
Clay swipes his father’s boombox to play the tapes, but soon decides he’d rather listen to them on a Sony Walkman, stolen from a vintage Ford Mustang belonging to his pal Tony. At school, two students win a fancy-dress competition dressed as Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungeon. A character rhapsodises about the capacity of 35mm camera film to “make you really focus on the image”. On the soundtrack, Joy Division and The Cure clang doomily away. We could be in the mid-Eighties, were it not for the smartphones and laptops – and even then, in four hours of drama, I’ve spotted a couple of picture messages but no social networking, no Instagram, no Snapchat. In the lives of these supposedly modern kids, the time is out of joint.
“13 Reasons Why” isn’t the only contemporary teen drama to have an odd relationship with retro culture. Also airing on Netflix is “Riverdale”, a deliriously dark series loosely based on the long-running Archie comics. But “Riverdale” makes a deliberate affair of its mixed cultural signifiers: its characters take Ubers, use Macbooks and discuss “Mad Men”, but they’re filmed in Technicolor, dress in mid-century costumes and drink milkshakes in a diner straight out of “American Graffiti”. In “13 Reasons Why” there’s no indication that we’re being asked to consider a metadramatic point; it isn’t recognisably shouting out to the teen movies of the 1980s, for example, even though its cast of bullish jocks, buttoned-up overachievers and pallid nerds could have come (though conspicuously minus the acid humour) straight from “The Breakfast Club” or “Heathers”.
Nor is this strange aesthetic merely a question of adaptation. The series is based on a novel by Jay Asher that was published in 2006, by which time the protagonist, saddled with a shoebox of sorrowful recrimination on Maxell 60s, was already complaining that “no one listens to tapes any more”. Ten years on, with cassettes vanishing into the kind of obscurity once reserved for reel-to-reel tape recorders, that’s even more true, and the central conceit looks even weirder: one imagines poor Hannah in extremis, hunched over her recorder like Beckett’s Krapp. But Netflix’s series departs sufficiently from the book in other areas – bulking up characters, rewriting interactions, introducing huge plot arcs that edge it towards the genres of legal drama, gumshoe whodunnit and whistleblower thriller – that preserving this retro feel hardly seems obligatory.
So what’s going on? Supposedly set in the present day, the show bleeds nostalgia for a pre-digital, offline world that ended long before today’s teenagers were born. Heard in voiceover, the dead girl’s lectures on the internet “ruining everything” and “turning us all into stalkers” seem artfully pointed. “I know, a map, right?” she observes, as Clay peers at the one she’s left him to guide him around town in her footsteps. “Old school again. No chance for the interwebs to make everything worse, like it does.” There is one incident in the opening hour where a revealing photo of Hannah is distributed via picture message, but the show keeps a cautious distance from the dark hinterland of online bullying. One of the main messages in “13 Reasons Why” seems to be that teenagers can be awful whatever their technological medium.
I began to wonder if something else was afoot. The parents and teachers who police the lives of these teenagers are barely present in Asher’s novel, but – presumably so as not to alienate viewers over 30 – their role is substantially expanded in the TV adaptation: we see them remonstrating at PTA meetings, goggling in horror at hostile graffiti in the school loos, hopelessly imposing “open door” policies and futile groundings on adolescents who are, meanwhile, living their own red-clawed dramas of toxic masculinity, violence and desperation. Older viewers, used to straddling analogue and digital, will feel right at home with the adrift-in-time stylings of “13 Reasons Why”; teenage viewers, meanwhile, may find its retro fascinations more confusing than cool.