On the surface, Thirteen sounds like a winner, combining the intriguing premise of the recently canceled The Family (abducted child returns years later) with the BBC prestige of Broadchurch (artful shots in moody blues and greens). But instead, Thirteen only highlights how both of those shows surpass this one: yes, even The Family, which was admittedly a bit of a train wreck, but at least it was a suspenseful one.
In this five-episode miniseries, Ivy Moxam (Jodie Comer) is the Thirteen of the title; that’s the age she was when she was taken, and how many years she’s been away. Granted, someone who had been kept in a cellar for over a decade would be irrevocably damaged. But Ivy’s main character traits are “flighty” and “disconnected,” not to mention “disheveled” and “rundown”: Her hairstyle and wardrobe bring to mind what would happen if someone decided to give the girl from The Ring her own five-hour miniseries to run around in. So Ivy doesn’t really grasp our sympathy, and it’s also hard to understand why her high school sweetheart, Tim (Aneurin Barnard), say, would still be so taken with her. Ivy’s air of mystery is more like befuddlement than anything else.
On the police side, things are even worse. Broadchurch is energized by the unbridled compassion of D.S. Miller and the hilarious causticity of D.I. Hardy, and most importantly, how well those two play off of each other. Thirteen tries to give us a supposed version of that, with hard-ass D.S. Lisa Merchant (Valene Kane), and more empathetic D.I. Elliott Carne (Richard Rankin), but neither of them manage to charm. Merchant, in particular, is absolutely awful, harsh, and cold to Ivy: The detective throws around the phrase “Stockholm syndrome” a lot, but she apparently doesn’t understand it one iota. Midway through the series, the plot takes an unsettling blame-the-victim turn. It’s ostensibly meant to raise the suspense stakes—Ivy’s captor has kidnapped another girl, and could Ivy be helping him?—but given all she’s been through, it just seems cruel. It also makes any attempt to drum up a romance between the detective pair all the more dumbfounding, since they seem to be on the opposite side of everything.
Unfortunately, Merchant is just one in a string of shrewish female characters: Ivy’s mother is so tightly wound, she can’t let the poor girl breathe for a moment; Tim’s wife is churlishly jealous of the becardiganed, although that’s at least understandable; and Ivy’s only friend doesn’t do much more than put a necklace on a table, while her only sister doubts her validity at first.
Which is another of Thirteen’s many unanswerable questions: Why in the world would her sister doubt that it’s Ivy, when she looks exactly like her? Why did Ivy fail to recognize her friend? Why did the creators of this show feel that artful, slo-mo shots and thoughtful music could stand in for sympathetic characters and a compelling story?
Because Broadchurch has all those picturesque qualities, but it also has heart. The Family had less polish, but knew how to propel a story forward. Thirteen’s pace is mope, plod, mope, plod, then rush to a too-quick conclusion. There are interesting areas here that the show takes tentative steps toward exploring, considering how things are different now between Ivy and everyone she knows: Her parents are estranged; her little sister is engaged; her boyfriend is married to someone else. She’s like a Rip Van Winkle, except she wasn’t lucky enough to be asleep all those years. In a way, she’s in a state of arrested development, so that the things that would resonate with a 13-year-old girl—playing the same song over and over, pinning up pictures of her intended—make her feel safe.
Over the course of the series, everyone in Ivy’s life is pulled away from her, so that we can almost see how it would be possible for her to turn toward her captor, to feel more comfortable in that cellar than outside of it. These are by far the most compelling parts of Thirteen, and there unfortunately aren’t enough of them. An intriguing miniseries could be made about Stockholm syndrome, but this isn’t it. Instead, it’s just a pale, murky example of how an artistic surface can’t gloss over an unconvincing foundation of plot and characters underneath.