“Y: The Last Man” has been in some stage of production for years, set as a feature film more than once and then stuck in development hell as a TV series. After the massive success of projects based on highbrow graphic novels like “Watchmen” and “The Walking Dead,” it made sense that Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s masterpiece would be high atop any producer’s list of dream projects. At one point, Shia LaBeouf was to play the lead role in a film by director D.J. Caruso. That was over a decade ago. The world of television (and just the world, really) has changed a lot since then and “Y: The Last Man” feels different than it would have in 2008. The source is still a robust piece of storytelling—it’s one of the best graphic novels of all time—but much of the adaptation will feel familiar, sometimes in a positive sense but sometimes as if this is an echo of better material. It’s impossible not to think of another post-apocalyptic basic cable comic success when watching the show (or even HBO’s critical darling “The Leftovers”) but being reminded of beloved fiction isn’t always a bad thing. I walked into these six episodes hoping that the creators found away to adapt this as richly as “Watchmen” but entertained enough that they found something close enough to the first couple seasons of “The Walking Dead” to keep me watching.
Eliza Clark serves as showrunner on this particular version of the end of the world, one that, and we know this will be a broken record, plays differently in 2021 than Guerra and Vaughan explicitly intended. Ultimately, it’s a good time for a show about disease and divide, but while the real world feels like it’s added some weight to “Y: The Last Man,” it also has drained some of the humor and whimsy that helped distinguish the source.
Clark and her writers set out to make drastic changes to the original from the beginning, including somewhat back-seating its title character for the first few episodes. Still, Yorick (Ben Schnetzer) is there in the premiere, awkwardly proposing to his girlfriend Beth (Juliana Canfield) and teaching magic with his pet monkey Ampersand. Meanwhile, his sister Hero (Olivia Thirlby) is sleeping with a married man and dealing with her own recovery issues. Their mother just so happens to be Congresswoman Jennifer Brown (Diane Lane), who finds herself unexpectedly ascended to the office of President of the United States when everyone on Earth with a Y chromosome drops dead and she’s next in the line of succession. Well, everyone but Yorick.
While the premiere largely takes place in an ordinary world, most of “Y: The Last Man” is a grim, post-apocalyptic tale. Without spoilers, Yorick ends up accompanied by a bodyguard named Agent 355 (a series-stealing Ashley Romans, who is often charismatic enough to justify watching the show on her own) on a journey to find a doctor (Diana Bang) who might understand why he survived and how he could be the key to the future. Meanwhile, power struggles dominate the narrative in the White House as Brown’s political opposite and the dead President’s daughter Kimberly Cunningham (Amber Tamblyn) works to undermine the first female President and confusion reigns. Some of the early episodes deftly capture leadership through panic and Lane is particularly good at that. At one point, Cunningham tells her, “Without men, there is no future.” She responds, “We’re just trying to survive the present.” How very 2020s.
How do you lead through the end of the world? How are political and societal structures built by men different when only women are around to operate them? Clearly, there are rich ideas to explore in “Y: The Last Man,” but the source found a way to be playful and quick while the series often tends to feel grim, at least for the first four episodes. When Yorick and 355 get to Boston, the tone shifts a bit—Bang offers a notable variation on the bleakness that preceded her—in a very welcome way, and there’s reason to believe that this could still become a truly great show.
There are some character and narrative alterations that still aren’t really clear to me—Hero feels like a wildly different and inconsistent character, for example—but I started to recognize this version of “Y” as its own thing, which is always good for an adaptation. It also helps that the show has taken on transgender issues that weren’t really present in the source, including the introduction of a trans character named Sam (Elliot Fletcher) to accompany Hero’s journey. The constant exposition and character introductions (I didn’t even mention Marin Ireland’s subplot as an advisor to the former president struggling to survive) start to fade into the background after about four episodes, and the final two sent for press have a different, looser, more confident energy. Be patient.
The long-delayed “Y: The Last Man” may have initially wanted to send me back to the source or wonder about the film versions that were never meant to be, but it won me over by the end of the chapters sent for press. And no matter what might have been, all that really matters is the last man standing.
Six episodes screened for review. The first three episodes premiere on FX on Hulu on September 13th, followed by one a week.