When I was 17 years old there wasn’t a Friday morning that I didn’t discuss an exciting little E4 drama called Skins in class. Now, almost ten years later, there hasn’t been a week that I haven’t waxed lyrical about BBC3’s Thirteen in the office.
But while many would pop Thirteen and Skins in the same “teen drama set in Bristol” bracket, the reality is they’re very different animals. The one thing they do have in common, however, is that they’re both exceptionally good series.
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After watching episode one I was happy enough to predict that Marnie Dickens’ little drama about a girl who escaped from a cellar after “Thirteen” titular years in captivity was a perfect start to BBC3’s new online future.
Five glorious episodes of Thirteen later, I’m convinced that it’s one of the best dramas the BBC has served up this year.
Of course it’s not a heavyweight like Happy Valley or The Night Manager, with Sarah Lancashire or Tom Hiddleston leading the charge, but in Thirteen BBC3 has produced a drama that feels as though it hits the 18 to 35 year old audience in a way no series has managed since the days of Skins.
At least that’s the sense you get if you’re following the hashtags and Facebook posts anyway. Debuting online hasn’t hurt the series – if anything, it seems to have given it an edge. Even YouTube stars like Zoella have been singing its praises.
Thirteen doesn’t need a YouTuber with endless Twitter followers to succeed though, because in Jodie Comer (formerly of My Mad Fat Diary and the girl who slapped Suranne Jones in Doctor Foster) it has found a formidable new leading lady. Ivy Moxam is a fascinating and frightening character, and Comer plays her with the perfect balance of fragility and ferality to leave us questioning her motives at every turn.
Did Ivy escape the cellar? Or did she simply choose to walk out? The answer to the question both plagues and excites us from beginning to end.
This is no whodunit, it’s not a mystery about who kidnapped Ivy. It’s the internal workings of the 26 year old’s mind that are in question from the off.
And what’s going on in Ivy’s head is a mystery as frustrating and fascinating as “who killed Danny Latimer?”. It’s Ivy, not her kidnapper, who gives Thirteen that air of menacing mystery to rival the first series of Broadchurch. It’s Comer and the cast of characters who make the series utterly addictive.
Of course Ivy isn’t the only one with secrets to hide: childhood sweetheart Tim’s not exactly being honest, her parents have plenty of skeletons in their closet and even the detectives charged with taking care of her have their own dramas to deal with.
But it’s while attempting to figure out how her mind works that these characters really reveal things about themselves.
Aneurin Barnard’s Tim reverts to his teenage state whenever Ivy’s in the room, beautifully portraying the search for a childhood love lost. And Richard Rankin’s DI Elliot Carne is a wonderfully torn and tortured soul, who’s not quite sure how to tread the line between the personal and the professional.
Meanwhile, Valene Kane is superb as Lisa the equally admirable and abhorrent “bad cop”, who asks the necessary questions – even though they aren’t always nice ones. The former star of The Fall’s scenes with Crimson Field alum Rankin (who’s soon to appear in Outlander) are among the show’s most intriguing, simmering with sexual tension and professional frustration.
Speaking of questions, each episode leaves us with more of them than answers as the mystery of Ivy’s time in captivity becomes even more complicated. And it’s the twists and turns that leave us banging the desk in excited frustration at the end of every 60 minutes.
So why should you watch Thirteen? Well, it’s a great story with a cracking cast and a marvellous mystery at its heart. It is exceedingly good.
Thirteen may be a world away from Skins’ Mad Twatter style villains, comedic college capers and teenage angst, but we’re sure Ivy Moxam will take her place alongside Tony, Cassie and Sid as another Bristolian young’un we’re unlikely to forget any time soon.
This article was originally published in 2016