[This is a review of the Thirteen series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
BBC America’s newest drama — replacing Orphan Black in the Thursday night 10pm slot — is UK miniseries Thirteen. The series premiere, ‘Episode 1,’ introduces viewers to 26-year-old Ivy Moxam, played by Jodie Comer (My Mad Fat Diary, Doctor Foster), as she steps out of a house with a red door and proceeds to make her way to the closest telephone in order to alert the police that she’s escaped from her kidnapper after being held for 13 years.
Thirteen was created and written entirely by Marnie Dickens, who has worked on Hollyoaks and Ripper Street, while Vanessa Caswill (Love Matters) served as director on the first three episodes of the show’s five. The miniseries aired in the UK earlier this year before making the leap across the pond — much the same way seasons of Sherlock and Downton Abbey air in the UK prior to the United States.
After Ivy escapes from her abductor in ‘Episode 1,’ she is questioned by D.I. Elliot Carne (Richard Rankin) and D.S. Lisa Merchant (Valene Kane), who are working with little precedence since they’re informed the UK has never had a case of an escaped captive. The majority of the episode follows Ivy as she attempts to help the police in their investigation, grows to trust Elliot, and tries to return home to her family: her separated parents Christina (Natasha Little) and Angus (Stuart Graham) as well as her sister Emma (Katherine Rose Morely) and Emma’s fiancée Craig (Joe Layton). Ivy’s childhood friend Tim (Aneurin Barnard) also returns, but the pressure of reconciling her old life with what’s changed proves tough for Ivy.
In terms of the basic plot, Thirteen follows the standard story of a long-since-kidnapped child returning home — most recently explored in ABC’s The Family, though it’s a familiar premise within crime dramas and sci-fi as well. However, where other similar narratives have focused the mystery on whether or not the person returning home is who they say they are, Thirteen quickly bypasses this particular story beat; though Emma is suspicious of Ivy at first, DNA confirms her identity and the story quickly moves beyond this mystery to focus on the complicated relationships Ivy is attempting to build and/or rebuild.
Rather, the mystery/thriller aspect of Thirteen comes from the identity of Ivy’s abductor and whether she has been entirely truthful with Elliot and Lisa. Though Ivy initially tells the detectives that she wasn’t ever allowed out of her abductor’s cellar, they find evidence at his home that points to the contrary. Their discovery reveals that there’s more to the 13 years she spent with the man than she’s willing to divulge — at least, until she begins to trust Elliot and the two form a sort of a bond.
However, while the end of ‘Episode 1’ adds another layer to the mystery of Ivy’s abductor — in that another girl has been taken — the series premiere at times seems pulled in two different directions: the case of Ivy’s disappearance and the life to which she’s returning, with the episode struggling to figure out which way it wishes to go, either with compelling familial drama or mystery thriller. Though the DNA proof that Ivy is who she says she is quickly nips that question in the bud, there is still plenty of mystery to the Moxam family, but it isn’t fully realized in the series premiere.
The overarching theme of ‘Episode 1’ helps to tie the story together as the lives of everyone in the Moxam family are shaken up by the return of Ivy and they each struggle to figure out where they fit as well as how to proceed going forward. Christina and Angus are awkward in their approach to parenting Ivy, each using their own disparate methods; Little and Graham do much to add nuance to the relationship between the estranged partners, even as the storyline feels cliche.
As for Comer’s performance as Ivy, she manages to hold the episode together, compellingly playing each of the character’s wide range of emotions throughout the series premiere, from her childlike trust of Elliot and eagerness to learn more about Tim’s life, to her panicked escape from her kidnapper’s house and her later escape from her own home when it’s filled with too many people. Certainly, with both the relationships of the Moxam family and the ongoing mystery of her time with Ivy’s kidnapper, the success of Thirteen rests largely on Comer’s shoulders; in the premiere, at least, she carries the burden well.
Though the direction of ‘Episode 1’ was a bit heavy-handed at times, especially when showcasing certain gestures or movements that Ivy was focusing on between Elliot and Lisa, the running sequences of Ivy’s escapes helped to elevate the series premiere’s thriller aspect. The early sequence sets the tone for the series, with the later scene bringing Ivy’s emotional arc throughout the episode to an interesting point — and which will likely be impacted by the revelation that her kidnapper has taken another girl.
All in all, Thirteen is somewhat of a retread of other television series with similar child abduction/returned premises, though it is made better by the performances of its core cast. The series premiere sets up plenty of story and emotional arcs to be explored over the next four episodes of the miniseries, but doesn’t quite manage to give the viewer a good idea of what to expect from those four episodes.
Thirteen continues Thursday June 30th with ‘Episode 2’ at 10pm on BBC America.
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