Showtime’s new thriller series Yellowjackets, from Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, offers a fresh female take on the traditionally male-centered Lord of the Flies narrative.
There’s a scene in the pilot of Yellowjackets that completely sets the tone for this dark, graphic series.
During a soccer scrimmage before the championship game, Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) roughs up a more inexperienced teammate, Allie, (Pearl Amanda Dickson) in order to take her out of the upcoming match and help ensure a win. When Taissa sideswipes her with a kick, Allie writhes in pain. Only it isn’t just a kick to take her out of the play; it takes the bone right out of her body. She’s definitely not going to be headed on a private plane for the championship. What should be a major setback, in this case, is truly the save of the game.
Yellowjackets will obviously be compared to ABC’s Lost, for its plot surrounding how a group of people survived a plane crash, but the Showtime series seems to be more properly packed for its high-concept scenario. Whereas all of the energy on Lost was centered around the mystery of the island (even though creators later touted the series as more of a character study), Yellowjackets has compelling characters and storylines with or without the mystery of what happened to the soccer team (although the thread certainly grinds at you like hunger pangs). Plus, you know from the start that they get off the island and that some seriously crazy shit goes down, so the parameters have already been laid out (although a seance adds some supernatural flavor without going full Smoke Monster).
There’s stay-at-home mom Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) and her unhappy marriage to the boy she stole away from her best friend, Nat (Juliette Lewis) struggling with sobriety and functional relationships, Taissa (Tawny Cypress) hoping to make a difference in politics while maintaining a happy home life, and then there’s Misty (Christina Ricci), who might be one of the scariest creatures we’ve seen on television in a while. Many of these storylines and characters work well on their own, and for the first six episodes available to critics, these characters essentially do act as the main ones in their own personal shows (although Lynskey is clearly the main protagonist of this one) before a series of postcards reunites the survivors. Each teen actress and adult actress work well in their tandem-bike-like character building. While the teen-vs.-adult actresses don’t necessarily physically resemble each other (except for Shauna—Sophia Nelisse actually looks like Melanie Lynskey), the actresses take great care and consistency in making two become one (an anachronistic ’90s reference on my part since this show takes place pre-Spice Girls). Lynskey and Lewis deliver awards-worthy performances, while Ricci seems to be having the most fun. Cypress’s character seems more disconnected from the rest, which appears to be on purpose given her political spotlight, but something tells me that’s going to change in the second half of the first season.
Yellowjackets does an excellent job of building tension and implants a lot of foreshadowing through its imagery like deer horns and Blair Witch-like symbols. While some characters feel like forced constructions (Kevyn, Nat’s former high-school-best-friend-turned-cop, appears out of nowhere, even though she was seen with two other boys in the pilot), most of these characters not only feel true to their circumstances, but also to the decade they come from. These girls are multi-layered individuals, and while some of them, like typical teenagers, are interested in the remaining men on the island, the number one priority for all is survival. There’s not a female cliche among them, even in the way these young women are shot when they’re swimming on the beach. They run and jiggle like real girls! Another element that avoids cliche is the music. Bonus points go to the music supervisors for selecting more off-brand alt-girls like Tracy Bonham to really capture the mood of the mid-90s.
I would love to say that Yellowjackets is your next TV obsession, but given the responses to all-female takes on male-centric stories, I’m sure there will be haters (as a woman, I got a kick out of seeing makeshift MacGuyer-type maxi pads hanging on the line by the fire, something island-crash stories NEVER address). Beneath the gory premise, there’s a sick satire within the show, that the town doesn’t make a big deal about the women’s team going to the championship, instead creating a sign to support the men’s losing season. As the show pulls apart its mysteries, I think we all know the joke behind why it takes 19 months to find a group of young female athletes in the wilderness.
Yellowjackets airs on Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime starting November 14.