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Confessional TV: 6 Shows Told Through Diaries, Letters and Other Personal Accounts

From “13 Reasons Why” to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the epistolary storytelling format is enjoying a resurgence on the small screen.

"13 Reasons Why," "The Handmaid's Tale"

“13 Reasons Why,” “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Netflix, Hulu

As producers continue to experiment with TV storytelling, the epistolary format has recently popped up multiple times – from Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” to Hulu’s highly anticipated adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Epistolary storytelling — told through diaries, letters, newspaper clippings and other documents — has long been a staple of the fiction world. The digital age has allowed this documentation to evolve from the written word to include formats such as emails, recordings, interviews and blogs.

READ MORE: ’13 Reasons Why’ Review: Netflix Brings Adult Edge to a Tale of Teen Suicide

These accounts can lend a sense of realism and authenticity to a story because of the highly personalized voices that mimic how people really communicate, vs. the somewhat omniscient tone of a narrator.

Check out some of the best examples of epistolary storytelling on TV:

“13 Reasons Why” (Netflix)

Dylan Minnette, "13 Reasons Why"

Dylan Minnette, “13 Reasons Why”

Beth Dubber/Netflix

The Plot: After classmate Hannah (Katherine Langford) commits suicide, Clay (Dylan Minnette) receives a box of cassette tapes recorded by Hannah. The tapes were sent to various other people before Clay received them.
The Storytelling Device: Hannah recorded the tapes themselves as sort of an extended suicide note. In them, she goes through 13 people whom she claims contributed to her death, and recounts stories of how they treated her. Hannah’s high school experience unfolds as Clay listens to each tape and uncovers the mystery of why she killed herself.

“The Carrie Diaries” (Netflix)

AnnaSophia Robb, "The Carrie Diaries"

AnnaSophia Robb, “The Carrie Diaries”


The Plot: Sixteen-year-old pre-“Sex and the City” Carrie Bradshaw (AnnaSophia Robb) escapes the confines of her sleepy Connecticut town by getting an internship at a law firm in New York City. There, she falls into an actual job at Interview Magazine.
The Storytelling Device: The aspiring writer records her internal musings about her life, boys and career in her diary, which helps build the voice that older Carrie used in her weekly newspaper column.

“Doogie Howser, M.D.” (Hulu)

Neil Patrick Harris and Max Casella, "Doogie Howswer, M.D."

Neil Patrick Harris and Max Casella, “Doogie Howswer, M.D.”

Fox Television/REX/Shutterstock

The Plot:Genius Doogie Howser (Neil Patrick Harris) is a 16-year-old physician who tries to balance his work with being a typical teen.
The Storytelling Device: Doogie typically ended his day (and the episode) by typing in his diary that he’s kept on his computer since he was 6, thanks to his dad who required him to keep a nightly journal in exchange for the computer. The entry usually summed up the lesson he learned from the day’s or week’s events in a pithy way.

”The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu)

Elisabeth Moss, "The Handmaid's Tale"

Elisabeth Moss, “The Handmaid’s Tale”


The Plot: In a dystopian future, the land of Gilead — roughly where the New England states once stood — has reacted to the widespread sterility of many of its residents by forcing fertile women to become “handmaids” and breed for the higher ranking government officials.
The Storytelling Device: The central protagonist played by Elisabeth Moss recounted her experiences onto tapes, which then became the record that we supposedly have today.

“My Mad Fat Diary” (Hulu)

Sharon Rooney, “My Mad Fat Diary”


The Plot:Overweight Rae Earl (Sharon Rooney) left a psychiatric hospital where she spent four months to treat her mental health and body image issues. She’s now trying to have a normal life — hanging out with friends, getting a boyfriend — but hasn’t told anyone the real reason she was gone.
The Storytelling Device: Rae uses diaries to reveal what she really thinks about the guys she’s mooning over and how she feels about her looks. These entries are often displayed as on-screen graphics that include writing and drawings.

The “Star Trek” franchise (Netflix)

Star Trek

“Star Trek”

The Plot: Set in the 23rd century, the various series follow the interstellar adventures of a starship captain and his or her crew.
The Storytelling Device: Most of the captains informed their superiors of what was happening on their missions and created a historical record for future generations by the use of the captain’s log, which served to frame the story for that episode.

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