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Review: In ‘Yellowjackets,’ It’s Reunion Time for the Crash of ’96

Ever since Oceanic Flight 815 crashed in 2004, creating “another ‘Lost’” has been TV’s great doomed quest. Usually, the failures misunderstand what made “Lost” exceptional in the first place.

Too many of these imitators try to hook the audience with baroque mystery puzzles and hope the character development takes care of itself later. Thus we get, most recently, NBC’s ludicrous “La Brea” and Apple TV+’s mopey “Invasion,” which ask their audiences to invest themselves in the struggles of nonentities wrapped in enigmas.

The pilot of Showtime’s “Yellowjackets,” like that of “Lost,” involves the aftermath of a plane crash in the wilderness. But this series, created by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, is its own busy and bloody mix of survival saga, survivors’ journey, coming-of-age nostalgia, midlife-crisis exploration, dark-comic mystery and (maybe) ghost story — just for starters.

And in its promising early episodes, “Yellowjackets,” which begins Sunday, 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.

The Yellowjackets of the title are the feisty girls of a New Jersey state champion high school soccer team whose plane goes down in the remote Canadian wilderness in 1996, stranding them for months. They’re also middle-aged women in 2021, four survivors of the crash dealing with the weight of their history and worried that the world might learn what they did to survive.

The series divides its time between past and present, starting with a kinetic pilot directed by Karyn Kusama. The young Yellowjackets are brash, confident alpha teens, ready to crush first their rivals and then their adult lives. A pep-rally sign captures their spirit and foreshadows their fate: “We can smell your fear.”

These flashback scenes pulse with a riot-grrrl-era, pop-feminist ’90s sensibility. Issues of Sassy magazine pile up in the background; the alt-rock soundtrack blares Liz Phair, PJ Harvey and Hole. (If “Yellowjackets” weren’t the title, it could have been “Live Through This.”)

In 2021, the central characters still carry the marks of their experience. Shauna (Melanie Lynskey), once a killer competitor and star student, is sleepwalking through a dull life and marriage. The former punk Natalie (Juliette Lewis) is fresh out of rehab. Misty (Christina Ricci), the team’s awkward, try-hard equipment manager, is quietly terrorizing her charges as an eldercare nurse.

Meanwhile, in a story line that feels detached from the main plot early on, Taissa (Tawny Cypress), is running for State Senate. The campaign plays on her celebrity from the miracle rescue but also revives long-swirling rumors. Her ads promise to “lead New Jersey out of the wilderness”; her opponents’ attacks accuse her of “cannibalizing your tax dollars.”

So what did happen out there? For 25 years, the survivors have stuck to a story: They “starved and scavenged and prayed” until they were finally rescued. What really happened is hinted at in disturbing flashes: blood in the snow, creepy outfits made of hide and antlers, a girl meeting a violent end and — well, you know how soccer players can work up an appetite.

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.

The 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.

The wilderness story, which contains its own flashbacks to even earlier in the teens’ lives, mostly overshadows the 2021 thread. It is stark and sometimes gruesome; this show loves blood, both as object and protean symbol.

But it’s not the “Lord of the Flies” downer you might expect. The horror is cut with hormones and mordant humor. For Misty — a terrific creation, like a lost Stephen King character — the crash is even a kind of blessing, as her first-aid and outdoors skills give her, for the first time, something like popularity.

The present-day story, however, struggles for momentum. The extortion plot is too nebulous in the early going to create involving stakes, though it does send Lewis and Ricci on a delightful frenemy road trip.

The exception is Shauna’s arc, which lets Lynskey play the kind of layered ennui she evoked so well in HBO’s “Togetherness.” You think you know her character — a quiet housewife beaten down by life — and then she reveals a cutthroat toughness that she deploys psychologically against her surly teenage daughter and physically against a rabbit unlucky enough to rob her garden. She’s like an aged-up, live-action Daria, a character she dresses up as for Halloween, to her daughter’s embarrassment. Now middle age is standing on her neck, and she’s pushing back.

After the six episodes screened for critics, it’s not entirely clear what kind of series “Yellowjackets” is becoming. Every so often, it teases at supernatural forces behind the bloody events in the woods, but these flashes are like a Ouija-board séance — you’re not sure what’s real and what’s in your head.

I’m not sure “Yellowjackets” needs this dimension; life, and midlife, are spooky enough. But for now I’m willing to go along on the strength of its voice, its chaotic energy and its characters’ evolution from riot grrrls to riot women.

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