'Thirteen': TV Review

Thirteen S01E01 Still - Publicity - H 2016
Robert Vigliasky/BBC

Thirteen S01E01 Still - Publicity - H 2016

Nuanced and fresh; worth your time.

An intriguing and sensitive look at a familiar story of abduction and return, with strong writing and an excellent acting performance anchoring it.

There are all kinds of ways to tell familiar stories. It should come as no surprise that the best and often most intriguing ones veer from convention. And while viewers have seen any number of angles on abduction (and return) — Room, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Call, Gone Baby Gone, The Family, etc. — depictions and results vary widely. 

BBC America's Thirteen, which premieres Thursday, chooses to stay in the present (without flashbacks), keeping the procedural aspects as secondary elements and instead giving full attention to the fragility of memory, of imperfect victimhood and the collateral damage to almost everyone associated with the crime in a steady, stark but intuitively sensitive way gives this limited series maximum impact.

And at the center is a particularly interesting and peculiar performance from Thirteen's star, Jody Comer (Doctor Foster), who plays Ivy, a girl kidnapped 13 years earlier in Britain who flees into an entirely different world as a 26-year-old.

Created and written by Marnie Dickens (Hollyoaks), the five-part series is most magnetic when the camera — no matter if it's lingering on a close-up or framing her in a corner — captures the subtly changing nuances of Ivy's face. Comer's pale, haunted features speak of unending cruelty (as do the bruises on her body), but the lens also catches glimpses and twitches that indicate lying, then innocent moments of connection to her sister Emma (Katherine Rose Morley, Last Tango In Halifax), or childlike, stunted-growth infatuation with Tim (Aneurin Barnard), the boy she seemed to be in love with 13 years ago. Elsewhere, nuance becomes troubling, when Ivy touches her hair while talking to male detective Elliott (Richard Rankin, The Crimson Field) and viewers are left to wonder if that's a haunted habit of absent-mindedness that seeks male approval or is a more sophisticated manipulation; Ivy bristles at the questions from female detective Lisa (Valene Kane, The Fall).

Thirteen was created and produced entirely by women, with directors Vanessa Caswill (My Mad Fat Diary) and China Moo-Young (Call the Midwife) joining executive producer Elizabeth Kilgarriff (Luther) in helping newcomer Dickens get this story told. That's where the "intuitively sensitive" part of exploring Ivy's psyche comes in and why Thirteen is less nuts-and-bolts retelling of horrors and more a much slower, often mysterious look at the vagaries of an unreliable narrator and how people judge (and misinterpret) the complexities that trigger it.

No one is immune from the fallout of Ivy's return, starting with her separated parents; mother Christina (Natasha Little, The Night Manager) wants everything to be "perfect" for Ivy's unexpected return, telling husband Angus (Stuart Graham, The Fall) that he needs to leave his girlfriend and move back home. Sister Emma's engagement takes a back seat, Tim's marriage is affected and other friends are left to look at their parts of Ivy's past. The ripple effect goes everywhere, but the series is keen not to drift away from Ivy for too long.

There are elements of Thirteen that fall into more conventional storytelling traps — partly due to its short length, partly because British police tactics are different and partly because British television is different — but there's nothing that inherently undermines the greater accomplishment of the whole.

The pacing, the writing, the directing all contribute to making the series seem unusually fresh within the framework of a familiar story, but there's no getting around the fact that Comer, as Ivy, absolutely seizes the opportunity here to be daring. The small nuances she brings to her face and mannerisms from scene to scene make Ivy heartbreaking, pitiable, devious, withholding, lost, sad, odd — it's a rush of perceptions that keep assumptions at bay and make Thirteen worth the investment. 

Cast: Jodie Comer, Natasha Little, Stuart Graham, Katherine Rose Morley, Valene Kane, Richard Rankin 
Created and written by: Marnie Dickens
Directed by: Vanessa CaswillChina Moo-Young
Airs: Thursdays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (BBC America)

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine