The best new show of 2021 arrived so late in the game; you may have missed it over the Christmas break. But Yellowjackets has quickly become a tour-de-force of television, an average Roy of the Rovers issue given new life as a Showtime television series, introducing us to a talented all-girls football team who find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere in the 90s after their private plane crashes on the way to Nationals. It sounds familiar – Amazon’s The Wilds told a similar story early this year, and the mother of all plane-crash shows, Lost, is a clear influence. But from the get go there’s something clearly different about Yellowjackets, a Stephen King-inspired horror flick that feels more Lord of the Flies than anything else, mixed in with a split timeline narrative that brings things forward to the present day where you are introduced one-by-one to the characters who survived the 19 months spent in the wilderness, and how it affected their lives as adults and the secrets that they are keeping. It’s a show that makes things clear from the get -go: there are no happy endings.
The characters are all well-realised and match up with the mistakes, strengths and flaws of their modern-day counterparts. You get a rough idea pretty early on of what character makes it out of the horrors that they are about to endure and which character is not; but it doesn’t stop it from being suitably compelling. Juliette Lewis and Sophie Thatcher both share the role of Natalie, who’s as much the protagonist as a show like Yellowjackets allows for, with the teenagers fitting into the loosely defined character stereotypes initially, but like the best shows – they quickly peel apart those stereotypes. We learn of Natalie’s abusive family household and her past, whilst Christina Ricci and Samantha Hanratty play Misty, another core character who we spend much of our time with in the present. There’s also Taissa, played by Jasmin Savoy Brown and Tawny Cypress, as ruthless as she is in the past as a politician – there’s nothing more important to her than winning to the point where she plans to injure a team-mate who she believes is the weak link of the team and provides early conflict when her friends are split on the action to take. Brown herself is only going from strength to strength, also great in The Leftovers.
These are characters that are shadows of their former selves; having moved on with their lives – it’s one of the rare shows that explores what happens next in a young adult drama series – meaning that it’s essentially two shows for the price of one. In one, it’s Lord of the Flies, in the other, it’s True Detective – with the narrative blending together seamlessly. Most shows struggle to get the timeline balance just right, for example, in Arrow I always cared more about one storyline over the other. But that’s not the case in Yellowjackets, both halves of the narrative form a collective whole and the show finds the right balance for them both – without one you wouldn’t have the other.
The tone is immediately atmospheric; it nails both the setting of the 90s and the present day, with the music matching both eras to precision – the theme song is a source of wonder in its own right, a Buffy the Vampire Slayer throwback that makes the show almost feel like a true-crime story unfolding with archive footage of the younger characters depicted on screen. It’s instrumental in setting the mood when it appears, and rare still has the soundtrack been used badly. The music helps get you in the character’s headspace, and not just that, but it’s the little things, too, for example, a character smashes in a vending machine only to grab the item that they paid for rather than take everything in the vending machine. These characters are clearly well-defined, well-planned, and you can see the heavy hand of the traumatic experiences that they went through in the woods shaping the course of their lives for better or – in most cases, for worst.
Whilst Yellowjackets is yet to stick the landing yet, the creative team behind it eschew confidence and well-planned bravado. No leap so far has felt forced or out of character; everything believable and in some cases, horrifyingly twisted – building hope and then robbing you of it. It feels like it’s learned from the lessons of Lost, although it in turn, may be too early to tell – the show has a mystery-box that isn’t overwhelmingly bogged down in the mystery-box, and the characters remain first and foremost the main attraction.
The themes are complex and nuanced; the little touches that explore the characters in the past and the present perfectly communicate with each other. It’s the rare show where your favourite character changes every episode – there’s of course a Buzzfeed poll about what character you are (are you surprised at this point) – I got Val – and there’s nobody who you don’t want to root for in some capacity. There would normally be a weak link among the young cast, but they hold their own with the more experienced set of actors, leading to one of the most inventive ensembles of the year.
It mixes the horror of the Stephen King with the hormone-fueled teenage self-discovery of Euphoria with a narrative that finds a way for teenagers as well as adults to get on board, a reflective lens for as many audiences as possible of a certain age (it’s very much not family viewing). It has all the right questions from the start: what could happen to drive the schoolgirls to become beast-hide-clad hunters, chasing after an anonymous girl who is running for her life – when they are presented as a unified team at the start of episode one? There’s also the corpse being a pressing issue, but the narrative is so rich and compelling in a show where it would normally be the focal point, it’s the least of your speculation. There’s a constant mystery box to unpack but the series always finds a way to keep you satisfied.
Shadows linger over these girls in the present day too – Melanie Lynskey’s Shauna kills a rabbit with ease. We know these people have gone through hell. What did Shauna do in the wilderness? A montage depicts the characters in a way not unlike that of a true-crime documentary – “these girls are special”, we’re told. The all-boys sports team at the end of year celebration is mocked even by the staff for their low achievement, but the girls’ football team is the one that is celebrated – arriving for a cheering, adoring crowd. This is as good as it’s going to get for them as they’re guided onto a private plane following the wake of a Dazed and Confused-style all-nighter party.
The 2021 storyline feels more at home with The Leftovers; the need to move beyond and coming to terms with what was lost, haunted, grieving protagonists who are damaged in every sense. If you liked 2021’s The Wilds you’ll probably get a kick out of this one – the multi-narrative feels richer, but both shows have their strengths – the parallel flashback narrative was employed in that show too, but where The Wilds looks back, Yellowjackets looks forward, never feeling like a gimmick and managing to get it right from the start whereas The Wilds took a few moments to start. By the same point in their seasons, both are fully formed with enough of their own identities to matter.
It’s interesting watching the girls learn to adapt to the new environment in the past, the only one that feels right at home is the Nurse Ratched-esque Misty, who is one of the more tortured characters in the present. The 2021 Misty has television set-up as spy cameras, tormenting those she is meant to protect – creating a sense of intrigue and unpredictability to her character that’s more than she appears. The struggles of Natalie and Travis play host to much of the ultimately doomed romance at the core of the characters, Sophie Thatcher and Kevin Alves’s turbulent times was always going to end in tragedy. We experience flashbacks to Natalie’s past in a triptych of a narrative structure, and it’s a testament to the show’s narrative arc that no character is boring – all have their own stories to tell. Jackie and Shauna have their own conflict, best friends on the surface, but Shauna has been sleeping with Jackie’s boyfriend – and it’s revealed that she is pregnant from an affair with him too, confiding in Taissa. The bond between Taissa and Shauna continues into adulthood, and it’s these fascinating dynamics between the various cast members that makes its multi-layered narrative so compelling as it is. Yellowjackets may get bloody, gory and queasy to watch – with director Karyn Kusama helming the pilot – it refuses to move away from the carnage of the action at its most ruthless scenes – but it’s all about pushing these characters to the edge and seeing who breaks. Some do, some don’t – but either way, they’re all irreversibly changed by the encounter.
US critics have been raving about the show. It feels like a breath of fresh air. It might be inspired by other things, but it’s an original idea and it’s the best example of weekly viewing. In an era where we’re all watching things at different paces, Yellowjackets is the perfect example of a show that delivers on the ‘communal viewing experience’ we’re always championing here. The gap between episodes is often agonising but this is a show designed to be digested and theorised about. It means the excitement around the show has only grown as the episodes have gone by. This is a show that celebrates the best of what television can offer us. It would be an equally huge hit if it were on Netflix, but the experience of watching it would be entirely different. People would gorge on the episodes, not really thinking about what they’d seen, and you’d likely see spoilers if you weren’t up to speed!
Another thing I didn't get to: Thanking the TV gods for giving us a drama that drops 1x a week & is not based on existing IP. It's almost like Ye Olde TV Model was on to something??? Worked out OK for Yellowjackets and The White Lotus! (Obvi I love some IP stuff. Just sayin'!)
— Mo Ryan (@moryan) January 14, 2022
Originally pitched as a female Lord of the Flies take to progress into something more of an original piece of work, the classic novel’s influence leaves a heavy shadow on the structure of Yellowjackets. Its combination of chaotic character drama steeped in tragedy makes it one of the richly compelling dramas of the year – impossible to tear your eyes away from it.
Yellowjackets is available now on Showtime, Sky Atlantic and NOW.