It’s clear from the first scene of Yellowjackets, Showtime’s genre-bending survivalist series with a host of second-act 90s stars, that the girls of Wiskayok high school, fierce soccer stars on the field and headstrong teens off it, will go feral. There’s blood in the snow, screams of terror, a booby trap, an impaled body (not the first in a series that favors at least three gory shots an episode), a heart necklace hanging from a lifeless body, figures garbed in animal skins and overt suggestions of cannibalism.
Cut to weeks earlier, 1996: the Yellowjackets, an undefeated and under-heralded soccer team in suburban New Jersey, are headed to nationals, and their close-knit relationships are starting to fray. Then cut to 2021, when four of the girls, now fortysomethings concealing improbable trauma with cracking glue, are thrown back to the tabloid-heavy drama of their past. The 10-part series, created by the Narcos alums Bart Nickerson and Ashley Lyle, toggles between the (pandemic-less) present and the girls’ traumatic upheaval 25 years before, when the private plane to nationals crashes somewhere in the Canadian wilderness. Lord of the Flies, meet Liz Phair and Lost.
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. 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. Melanie Lynskey plays Shauna, former star athlete and student deadened by parenthood and a spark-less marriage in the suburbs. Former teammate and punk girl Natalie (Juliette Lewis) has just exited rehab and rolls home a mess of her former self – bottle in hand, deadpan delivery, all curdled insouciance. In a storyline that still barely intersects with the rest halfway through the series, Taissa Turner (Tawny Cypress) is running for state senate with her telegenic wife and young son, a “queer Kamala” despite the teammates’ stated agreement to avoid the spotlight.
A mysterious reporter serves to bring the women back in contact (then basically disappears for several episodes), along with a gleefully deranged nurse named Misty Quigley, played with cheery spikiness by Christina Ricci. Exactly what the women are so afraid of, or who sent them a mysterious postcard in the mail, or why a geometric symbol keeps appearing in the 1996 crash wilderness and 2021 suburban New Jersey is, six episodes in, still unclear.
As for that crash wilderness: Yellowjackets is significantly better when it strays away from a survival plot that barely tiptoes toward the occult and devastation; halfway through, and the savagery of the opening scene remains barely a speck in the distance. The girls are traumatized and also like teenagers at summer camp; though many of the actors – Jasmin Savoy Brown as Taissa, Sophie Nélisse as Shauna, Sophie Thatcher as Natalie, Samantha Hanratty as Misty, and Ella Purnell as perky captain Jackie, whose adult absence suggests a grisly end – look eerily like their middle-aged counterparts, and the soundtrack and fashion evoke mid-90s girl power, it’s hard not to wish the show had relied on extensive flashbacks rather than a full split between the two eras.
Still, it’s refreshing to see another recent series, including Peacock’s Girls5Eva and ABC’s Queens, depict women handling the accumulated confusions of the 40s. Yet after six hours, I wish for more coherence for these post-stardom actors, more space for their characters to breathe, more opportunities to push beyond mystery to something cathartic. Misty will be a divisive character, too jarringly deceitful for my taste but played with relish by Ricci. Lynskey does by far the most emotional heavy lifting of the series, straining for intimacy with her husband and bratty teenage daughter, masking enough rage to massacre a rabbit in her garden with placid smiles. Lewis, too, shines when her performance is allowed to reach beyond stumbling, bitter alcoholic pushing everyone away.
Any momentum, however, gets dissipated by persistent diversions – shaky close-up shots to ominous music that reveal nothing, memory ghosts warning of danger only for that danger to fade into 90s pop music, another plot escape hatch. There’s a thicket of alluring storylines here, but it’s hard to see how Yellowjackets will stick the landing.