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Excellent Ensemble, Clever Storytelling Give Showtime’s Yellowjackets Its Sting

Showtime's “Yellowjackets” is a unique hybrid series—part family drama, part survival story, part horror movie, part coming-of-age flick. This kind of Prestige TV Stew often leads to inconsistent storytelling and characters, but the opposite happens with Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson’s show, which gets richer and richer with each episode. I’m a big proponent for weekly episodes—shows like “Mare of Easttown” and “The White Lotus” wouldn’t have been cultural phenomena if they had dropped on a streaming service and been forgotten a week later. However, there is something incredibly bingeable about Showtime’s excellent new show in that the writing here keeps building on itself, growing in potency as we get to know these characters better and better, courtesy of one of the best ensembles of the season. The metronome on this show ticks between character development on one side and plot twists/revelations on the other with such a fantastic rhythm that it becomes mesmerizing. Even at its most extreme (and it gets pretty extreme), it holds together. I only hope it gets the “buzz” it deserves.

The title of the series refers to the name of one of the best high school girls soccer teams in the country back in 1996. The premiere, expertly directed by Karyn Kusama (“The Invitation”), introduces viewers to the major players on the Yellowjackets while also cutting back and forth in time between their teen years and today. In truly disturbing scenes in the premiere, a girl runs across a snowy landscape before falling into a pit of spikes. She is then, well, it’s not pretty. It becomes clear that the girl in the snow is one of the soccer players and the shrouded figures who killed her? Her teammates.

On their way to a national competition, the Yellowjackets got in a horrible plane crash. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, they struggled to survive, and leaders/followers were formed “Lord of the Flies” style. After that flashback to just how bad things would get in the wilderness, “Yellowjackets” primarily alternates between the weeks after the crash and a series of events that unfold 25 years later, threatening to expose the truth. Some of the girls made it home, but they have been receiving postcards about the secrets they’ve kept about how exactly they survived their ordeal. Is someone blackmailing them? Why? And what exactly do they know?

One of the strengths of the writing here is how distinctly the writers and performers sketch the characters, both as teenagers and adults. If there’s a lead, it’s probably Melanie Lynskey/Sophie Nélisse as Shauna Sheridan, who seems like the quiet girl on the team but takes a big secret into the crash (it's debatable that a few too many secrets are taken into the crash in a way that seems manufactured but the character work is strong enough to forgive the manipulation). As the adult Shauna, the always reliable Lynskey perfectly captures a kind of reckless trauma, the way that survivors of the unimaginable often take greater risks and look at the world a little differently—and Nélisse deftly echoes the adult Shauna without ever feeling like she’s impersonating Lynskey. Her best friend Jackie (Ella Purnell) never came home and, well, Shauna knows some things about why that she will never be able to confess.

If Shauna’s trauma has turned into recklessness, Natalie’s has become white-hot rage. Passionately played by Juliette Lewis as an adult (and Sophie Thatcher, also great, as a teen), Natalie is ready to close some of the loops on what happened a quarter-century ago. She reconnects with Misty (Christina Ricci/Sammi Hanratty), the girl who seemed the most harmless on the plane but one who may actually be a sociopath, then and especially now. Ricci nails the kind of unsettling smile that hides deep pathology. Finally, there’s the truly troubled Taissa (Tawny Cypress/Jasmin Savoy Brown), who seems to have it all—a wife, son, and even a campaign for State Senate—but is deeply haunted by what happened to her, even if she's spent much of her life trying to bury it.

There’s a fascinating tonal balance in “Yellowjackets” in that the wilderness stuff plays out like a slow-motion car crash. Because of what is revealed in the premiere, we know things are going to get very bad. So seeing the girls talk about rescue, hunt for food, and even have moments of happiness have the air of a slow-burn horror movie. At the same time, the writing develops the characters in present day with depth, even playing out like a traditional drama at times such as when Shauna meets a man who tempts her with potential infidelity or Taissa struggles with raising her son. The writing very smartly doesn’t draw direct lines from the teen years to the adult ones—there’s a much worse version of this show that does that very bluntly—and yet we come to see the characters as one. 

The cohesive nature of “Yellowjackets” wouldn’t exist without a truly great ensemble, and what I admire most about the show is how much there’s not a single weak link here and plenty of standouts—every time I thought one performer like Lynskey, Lewis, or Thatcher would start the steal it, I was impressed by another actress. It’s also a wickedly funny show, both literally (such as when a girl laments that a dead teammate won't get to hear "Wonderwall" again) and in production choices (I laughed out loud when they played Jane’s Addiction’s “Mountain Song” over a flashback of the plane crashing into, well, a mountain).

Teen dramas are typically about those years in which we figure out who we are. “Yellowjackets” is a show where that phase of life takes place in the most extreme conditions imaginable. What kind of adults emerge from that cauldron? Critics will lament obvious influences from “Lord of the Flies” to “LOST,” and the show never feels like it's avoiding that, but I found the way it shapes its many genres into something resonant refreshing. Kusama expertly sets the stage with the vicious premiere and then every episode after that builds on it with none of the bloat or wheel-spinning so common to Prestige TV. It’s just enjoyable to watch "Yellowjackets" take flight. And I can't wait to see where it lands.

Six episodes screened for review. The show premieres on Showtime on Sunday, November 14th.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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