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Showtime's Yellowjackets is the best of the Lost clones, brilliantly mixing teen angst, cannibalism and midlife crisis

  • Vox

    "It has gotten to the point where calling a TV show the next Lost is a weird kind of curse, both because of positive associations the later show can never hope to live up to (Lost is one of the best TV shows ever made!) and because of all the negative associations tied to so many shows that tried to be Lost and failed horribly," says Emily VanDerWerff. "I would never, ever, ever place the burden of 'the next Lost' on a TV show that’s just trying to chart its own course and do its own thing, especially a show I really liked. But, she says, Yellowjackets is the next Lost. "I’ve seen six episodes of the 10 that will make up Yellowjackets’ first season, and in almost every way, it’s my favorite kind of TV show: One that goes so hard that even when it stumbles, it plows ahead so relentlessly that you have to admire its gumption nonetheless. It’s the TV equivalent of a gymnastics routine with a score ceiling so high that even abject failure becomes a kind of success," says VanDerWerff. "(Eventually, the show introduces a fourth timeline — the girls before they were even on the soccer team — and you have to applaud the ambition, if nothing else.) There are some obvious Lost comparisons to be made here: Yellowjackets is also about a group of people who survive a plane crash that strands them in a remote location where weird and scary things happen to them. The show evokes a vague sense of supernatural menace that never tilts over into anything outright fantastical, and it employs a kind of flashback storytelling structure. (They’re not really flashbacks — more on this in a second — but they’re close enough for comparison’s sake.) Even the stuff that doesn’t work is stuff that doesn’t work in a very Lost season one way, where you can tell the show is trying so hard to make everything cool and mysterious that it just needs to lay off the gas every once in a while. Oh, and just like in Lost season one, there’s a scene in one episode where a bunch of characters try to interpret a cryptic and creepy message that is in French. And yet Yellowjackets couldn’t feel more different from Lost when you’re watching it, despite all those similarities."


    • Yellowjackets will crawl under your skin: "In both its flashbacks to the team’s desolate hell on earth and the almost bleaker present, Yellowjackets presents realities so taut with tension they seem likely to snap at any given moment," says Caroline Framke. "It also balances two timelines, each surreal and terrible in their own ways. In 1996, we see a once joyous team of star athletes — including pragmatic Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown), 'burnout' Natalie (Sophie Thatcher), overeager fangirl Misty (Samantha Hanratty), popular Jackie (Ella Purnell) and her best friend Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) — go through high school dramas and the worst tragedy of their lives alike. In 2021, each of them grapple with the visceral trauma of their past, and its sudden reemergence in their adult lives, with a shared terror that’s almost thrilling. There are so many ways this premise could fall apart. Sometimes, when the script falls flat and stilted in its attempts to flesh out its many characters as quickly as possible, it almost does. But unlike something like Amazon Prime Video’s The Wilds — which strands teen girls on a desert island as a result of some convoluted larger conspiracy — Yellowjackets works best when it stays as grounded as possible in the basic physical and mental horrors of survival. The show’s visceral gore won’t be for everyone; the second episode’s commitment to showing the plane crash’s devastation in gruesome detail is especially disturbing. But keeping the series’ survivalist components as rooted in reality as possible makes the moments when it does flirt with something less tangible, and even more otherworldly, ring terrifyingly true."
    • Yellowjackets is a fun, pulpy twist on a midlife theme: "In its promising early episodes, Yellowjackets ... seems to have learned a more important lesson from Lost: that you win over an audience not just with plot twists but also with distinctive characters whose lives are worth exploring forward and backward," says James Poniewozik. He adds: "Knowing what eventually became of the teens, but not how, propels one half of the story; the reunion of the survivors, trying to protect their secrets from a persistent reporter and a mysterious blackmailer, drives the other. But at heart, Yellowjackets is a fun, pulpy twist on a midlife theme that runs back to Thirtysomething and beyond: How did I end up here? The series arrives in the same year as ABC’s Queens and Peacock’s Girls5Eva, which both follow turn-of-the-millennium pop stars adjusting to their 40s. All these shows look at a generation of young women who were told they could conquer the world, now coming to grips with the ways the world conquered them. he beauty of Yellowjackets is how its portrayals of its characters as teens and grown women add up to a greater whole. Casting goes a long way here: The younger actors — Jasmin Savoy Brown as Taissa, Samantha Hanratty as Misty, Sophie Thatcher as Natalie and especially Sophie Nélisse as Shauna — seem to share their older counterparts’ DNA. And it’s a clever meta-stroke that Lewis, Lynskey and Ricci themselves played dark, turbulent youths in ’90s movies."
    • Yellowjackets understands that, even in a non-crisis situation, the teenage world can very quickly turn into an animal one, and the scars from those primal experiences do not fade: "The new Showtime series, premiering Sunday, feels like a hybrid of other shows that nonetheless forms its own compelling teen/adult psychological study, with some dashes of horror and cannibalism added to the mix," says Jen Chaney. "Upon first viewing, the storytelling template Yellowjackets mirrors most closely is Lost. Like that mystery-box saga, this series toggles between flashbacks and the present day, and involves a plane crash that leaves a group of people in an isolated location, forced to figure out how to fend for themselves. The difference is that this crash happened in the past, specifically 1996, when a private airplane taking a New Jersey girls’ high-school soccer team (mascot name: the Yellowjackets) to the national championships suddenly goes down in the remote wilderness. There are a few male survivors — at least one coach and the teen and preteen sons of the head coach — but practically everyone who makes it out of the wreckage is a young woman. To make another apt comparison, for what surely won’t be the first or last time, you could also view this as gender-flipped Lord of the Flies. Certainly television has shown us resilient women in survival stories before — see, yes, Lost, The Walking Dead, every season of Survivor, the recently cancelled Y: The Last Man, etc. Amazon’s The Wilds even depicted teenage girls attempting to be rescued following a plane crash. But there is something refreshingly rich in watching these young women immediately become resourceful leaders in a life-or-death situation, while simultaneously seeing how that experience has affected them in later years. The fact that their life-defining moment happens in 1996 — which a New York Times piece published at the time referred to as 'the year of the teenage girl' — reflects the post-feminist promise of that era and, given what comes of these women later in life, strikes a note of tragedy."
    • Yellowjackets is a piece of slow-burn splatter art that hits the canvas in intense, albeit imperfect form: "It’s a glorious mess that includes the somehow-never-before-attempted chemistry combination of Juliette Lewis and Christina Ricci," says Kimberly Ricci. "Filling out the lead (adult) quartet would be Tawny Cypress and Melanie Lynskey, the latter of whom managed to score the juiciest role out of a show filled with juicy parts. These four ladies portray the f*cked up adult versions of 1990s teen female athletes whose plane crashed in the Canadian wilderness. Mind you, there were many more survivors of the initial crash in this group, and some of them didn’t stay alive long enough to be rescued, 19 months later. Those who did survive were (surprise, surprise) more than a little bit traumatized by their experiences. Whatever happened in those woods did not stay behind in those woods, and the show spends a great deal of time bouncing back and forth between 1996 and the present day, a quarter-century later. Mind you, this is a show (and I’ve viewed six out of the ten episodes that shall fill this season) that is chock full of characters and developments, and it’s worth pointing out that the two casts (the young and older versions of the main characters, plus all the outliers) flow almost too well together. The show also manages to feel entirely fresh and original despite bearing very obvious resemblance to some infamous influences (Lord of the Flies, Lost) and a subtler resemblance to recent entries in the teen-drama realm (The Wilds, Cruel Summer, even a little bit of Outer Banks)."
    • Yellowjackets would be so much better with a smaller cast: "The pilot episode, unfortunately, tries to cram way too much into its hour run time," says Marya E. Gates. "Not only does it set up the central mystery, but it also introduces us to a dozen characters—both as teenagers in 1996 and adults in 2021. Trying to keep up with this many characters only works when they are all incredibly distinct a la Twin Peaks. Thankfully, as the show progresses, it slows down and focuses more on its five main characters: Yellowjacket teammate turned stay-at-home mom Shauna (Sophie Nélisse and Lynskey), her best friend and team captain Jackie (Ella Purnell), wild girl Natalie (Sophie Thatcher and Lewis), type-A forward turned state senate candidate Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown and Cypress), and the hanger-on Misty (Sammi Hanratty and Ricci)." Gates adds: "While Yellowjackets features strong performances from its leads and poses intriguing questions about human nature pushed to extremes, ultimately it feels crowded with too many plot points and characters. I’m hooked enough to want to find out what happens to them all in the latter half of the season, but I can’t help but think it would be stronger if the cast were pruned by half."
    • Yellowjackets starts off strong, but eventually starts going in circles: "With such vivid characters to go with the puzzle-box mystery, tense survival drama, and supernatural-tinged horror, Yellowjackets scratches the Lost itch more satisfyingly than most of the obvious copycats that followed," says Angie Han. "Its intense subject matter is tempered by a sardonic sense of humor: It’s not necessarily funny ha-ha that a sadistic character’s driving soundtrack of choice is Cats, but it’s exactly the kind of detail that conjures a smirk of recognition. Strong performances across the board — especially from Lynskey as a suburban mom who hides her broken-glass rage under a meek housewife exterior — keep us leaning toward the screen in hopes of getting to know these people better. And with about a dozen major characters to keep track of over two timelines, Yellowjackets always seems to be on the move. But the shimmering allure of that first episode dulls over the next several. Around the third or fourth episode, it becomes obvious the mystery isn’t actually moving forward all that quickly — it just feels that way because its attention is so fractured. More worryingly, it becomes less and less clear what the show’s even trying to be about. Though Yellowjackets seems at first to be headed toward a Lord of the Flies-style journey into the savagery of the human soul (or whatever), it makes a string of plot choices that seem to muddy the concept and rob the characters of their agency. Any attempts to connect the past and present versions of the characters are stymied by the gaping hole in the middle, which after six episodes is still filled only with promises that some future twist will explain everything. The series feels so stuck on the question of what happened that it can’t even begin to think about what it might mean."
    • Yellowjackets maintains an intriguing tonal balance in early episodes: "The survival timeline is pure horror, all steadily increasing dread and glimpses of grotesque violence," says Kristen Baldwin. "The writers seed the story with hints of the supernatural, but wisely keep it vague, at least in the 6 episodes made available for review. Whether these girls were driven by evil forces or starvation-induced madness, the result is equally riveting. It helps that the flashback cast is strong enough to carry an entire drama on their own; standouts Brown, Thatcher, and Nélisse are particularly adept at delivering performances that feel distinct and yet authentically echo the personas of their adult counterparts. The modern-day timeline, meanwhile, takes full advantage of the show's beautifully off-kilter leading ladies: Ricci is grimly funny as adult Misty, a bespectacled nurse with an aggressively perky demeanor and an even more aggressive masochistic streak. She and Lewis, whose intense glower and acerbic delivery only get sexier with age, have such oddball chemistry, I'm already looking forward to their next project together. Cypress brings a steely professionalism to aspiring politician Taissa, while Lynskey is typically excellent as Shauna, an unhappy housewife masking a fierce self-sufficiency under a self-effacing demeanor."
    • Yellowjackets is trying to do too much: "One timeline would already provide plenty of fodder for a 10-hour series, but Yellowjackets attempts to do three – a chronological telling of the team’s endurance for months in the woods, a modern mystery of who and what is haunting the middle-aged women, and occasional flashbacks which suggest the Yellowjackets’ survival was a much gnarlier ordeal than their generic line, to inquiring reporters and family members, of 'starved and scavenged and prayed' until rescue," says Adrian Horton. "Add to that an ambitious yet potshot array of styles including horror, survivalist thriller, buddy caper, trauma study, mid-life crisis drama, suburban malaise portrait, teen romcom and (maybe) ghost story, and the result is an admirably brash, bloody show hampered by tonal turbulence. It’s an ouroboros of provocative elements that, at least in the six episodes made available to critics, appears much better at sketching the outlines of the sinister, occult, psychotic or carnal than digging in. The dual timeline is particularly frustrating in that it halves the time provided to the show’s greatest strength, by far: its roster of veteran 90s stars of canonically dark teen roles as fortysomethings grappling with a metastatic, horrific past."
    • Yellowjackets distinguishes itself by portraying the humanity of its female characters: "While the pulpy show is an addicting psychological thriller, the ultimate lifeline that makes it standout from other survival series is that it's really about the humanity of these women, and to the degrees in which it's tainted," says Sadie Bell. "The young cast (led by Hanratty, Ella Purnell, Sophie Nélisse, Jasmin Savoy Brown, and Sophie Thatcher) hold their own as girls who try to be strong but harbor fears of what's going on at home or what their peers think, and they try to be good to their friends, but still knowingly hurt each other. Their counterparts give crushing performances about the doldrums of middle age when society casts women aside. Surviving adolescence and midlife crises as a woman are just as hard as surviving a plane crash on Yellowjackets, but the show is full of fighters. But gore aside, as watchable as it is, it never has to fight to keep your attention."
    • Melanie Lynskey and Christina Ricci are especially great in Yellowjackets: "The show knows they are its stars," says Matthew Jacobs. "Lynskey provides the emotional weight, tortured by a suburban monotony that drives her to have an affair with a hunky stranger (Peter Gadiot) she rear-ends while fussing at her daughter (Sarah Desjardins) on the phone. Meanwhile, Ricci, who has recently been drafted to play gleefully over-the-top historical figures like Zelda Fitzgerald and alleged axe murderer Lizzie Borden, gets her meatiest original part in years. Misty is lonely but manipulative, eager but resentful — a delicious blend that highlights Ricci's wide-eyed drollery."
    • Yellowjackets finds compelling ways to explore trauma: "Yellowjackets can feel tiresome with the sheer frequency of all those flashbacks, and the fact that it dabbles in too many genres when it could settle on its solid mystery thriller elements," says Candice Frederick. "But when it commits to its chilling suspense, the show is utterly fascinating to watch. Even more, it finds compelling ways to explore issues like trauma and the façades we build for ourselves that carry from youth through adulthood — elevating what would otherwise be a much flatter genre piece. Let’s just hope the payoff, and the inevitable reveals to come, are worth the slow-burning effort."
    • Yellowjackets co-creator Ashley Lyle came up with the show's idea after reading skepticism over a female version of Lord of the Flies: “I just wanted to tell what felt like a very real story about teenage girls,” says Lyle, who created the show with husband/producing partner Bart Nickerson. She added: “There was a girl in my high school who poisoned another girl’s food for fun. Only showing girls getting along is not painting a full picture.” As Yellowjackets star Tawny Cypress put it: "There’s a very specific feminine way of brutalizing each other. We can cut without weapons.”
    • Why did Yellowjackets go with two timelines?: "The move into two timelines allowed us to almost set up a narrative laboratory where we could really study and deconstruct a lot of the governing principles that shape interpersonal dynamics, and then also explore trauma as a lens for continued negotiation of the world," says co-creator Bart Nickerson. "We were very captivated by: How does trauma not only shape your view of the past, but how does it also shape the way that you continue to move forward in the world?" Lyle adds: "The idea of survival out in the wilderness and experiencing this terribly traumatic event of a plane crash is so specific, but we felt like by doing the two timelines it allowed us to also do something really universal, in that everybody has experienced some form of trauma. You don't have to be in a plane crash to have experienced trauma. We are both in our 40s now, and what we realized is that getting to that age is a little bit of a reckoning. Everything that you thought your life was going to be, you start to question. And so to our minds, you don't need to have been through a plane crash to be experiencing that. So this was a really extreme version of telling something that we think almost everybody that age goes through, which is: What is my life now? How have the experiences I went through when I was younger shaped who I am now? And do I like who I am now? That's at the heart of the story that we wanted to tell, and it just so happened that this was a premise that allowed us to do it in a really heightened way."

    TOPICS: Yellowjackets, Showtime, Ashley Lyle, Bart Nickerson, Christina Ricci, Juliette Lewis, Melanie Lynskey, Tawny Cypress