TV: Yellowjackets (Season 1 & 2)

Showtime’s recent content merge with Paramount+ finally afforded me the opportunity to catch up with its hit series Yellowjackets, a show that has proven as buzzworthy as its title. The enthusiasm is understandable; it’s an urgent, addictive series, full of great performers caught up in desperate situations, frantic schemes, and ethical dilemmas.

Yellowjackets opens with an ominous sequence: in a frozen wilderness, a group of teenaged girls hunts down, kills, and eats one of their own. It’s a grim, shocking opening gambit that sets the tone for the time-jumping dark thriller to follow. In 1996, a plane crashes in the Canadian mountains while carrying an entire girls’ soccer team—the Yellowjackets—to a national tournament. Among the survivors of the crash are Shauna Shipman (Sophie Nélisse), Taissa Turner (Jasmin Savoy Brown), Nat Scatorccio (Sophie Thatcher), and Misty Quigley (Samantha Hanratty), along with a number of other players, the coach’s two sons, and an assistant coach. The team’s harrowing experiences in the past alternate with a present-day track back in New Jersey, where these four teammates (played here by Melanie Lynskey, Tawny Cypress, Juliette Lewis, and Christina Ricci) have returned to civilization and attempted to put their dark pasts behind them. This proves extremely difficult, given the lingering effects of the traumas they experienced, not to mention mysterious crimes they may have committed during their disappearance. Indeed, the surviving Yellowjackets are objects of fascination to certain “true-crime” fanatics obsessed with learning the truth about what happened when they were missing. All of them are haunted by closet skeletons, which start to come back to life, drawing the team back together to confront their brutal shared experience.

There’s no denying Yellowjackets’ compulsive watchability, partially attributable to its mastery of a wild, singular tone. Given how whole-heartedly the show commits to blending genres, this is quite a feat; indeed, at times the restlessness of approach feels almost random. Does the show want to be a survival thriller, a female-centric coming-of-age story, a frantic dark comedy, a surreal mystery box, or a throwback horror serial? At its clumsiest—and there are clumsy moments—Yellowjackets doesn’t seem to know. But at its best, which is often, the question doesn’t even arise. It’s simply all those things at once, each spaghetti strand improbably sticking to the wall. Interestingly, the theme music (“No Return” by Craig Wedren and Anna Waronker) contributes to the tone, a rhythmically disjointed earworm as chaotic as the story, that resonates with the grunge-era period trappings.

The players are generally terrific, even if the multi-timeline casting doesn’t always work. Compared to something like Dark, where the resemblance between actors playing the same character at different ages is positively uncanny, Yellowjackets’ physical and vocal cross-casting is inconsistent. Transitioning from the teen stars to the adults is occasionally jarring, because it’s impossible not to notice the dissimilarities. Perhaps most in sync are Christina Ricci and Samantha Hanratty, whose sunny sociopathy as Misty translates nicely across the decades. Despite this, the cast impresses, going all-in on each outrageous new turn. Kevin Alves, Warren Cole, Courtney Eaton, Peter Gadiot, Liv Hewson, and Ella Purnell all make fine impressions starting in the first season, while the second brings on an impressive roster that includes Lauren Ambrose, Simone Kessell, John Reynolds, and Elijah Wood.

Enjoyable as its unpredictable story contortions may be, Yellowjackets has enough seams showing to break the spell periodically. Its relentless genre-bending can feel like an elevator pitch run amok: Lord of the Flies meets Alive meets Lost meets…Orange is the New Black, maybe? In the end, despite its serious themes and grim situations, it has a tendency to feel oddly silly. But it most definitely keeps the viewer guessing, asking the next question in such gripping, unexpected ways that it’s difficult to look away.

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