I’m going to start this Yellowjackets review off with a complaint. As is my Gen-X want. There is a scene in the first season of the show in which teenaged Natalie (Sophie Thatcher) is in her room listening to the Dinosaur Jr. song “Feel the Pain” and talking to her friend, Kevin, about Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain in the present tense. The album on which “Feel the Pain” appears, Without a Sound, didn’t come out until after Cobain was dead in 1994. Therefore she could not both be listening to this song and talking about Cobain as if he were alive. The two never overlapped. This ruined the entire show for me because I’m a freak. Ok, maybe not, but still… Do your research, people.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s dig in. First, Showtime is a floundering brand. A floundering service. What, really, is it? Besides eleventy-hundred seasons of Shameless and maybe, possibly a couple bored folks rediscovering Californication? And then, very occasionally, hitting on something that they will ruin by keeping it going way past when it should be going, like they will inevitably do with Yellowjackets. Something that is remotely original, but really is just a mashup of past things that happens to hit on the right balance between them all to capture a word-of-mouth audience. That kind of indescribable thing where you can’t quite put your finger on why you enjoyed it. It’s not quite nostalgia, but it’s also not quite excitement. It’s some pleasure center that it triggers that you can’t describe, but you just know it when it hits.
And Yellowjackets does this in its first season. Set initially in 1996, it finds that perfect sweet spot between the Gen Xers in their early adulthood, and the Millennials in their middle school or high school glory. The aforementioned musical cues and needle drops are all (relatively) historically accurate and deftly procured. It’s a trick, of course. But an effective one. If you don’t know how to wrap up a scene, or you kind of write yourself into a lull, throw some mid-nineties pop bangers or rock ‘n’ roll at the people and that dopamine blast will obliterate any need for cohesion or questions about continuity, propulsion or bad wigs. Add to the admittedly well-placed soundtrack the more recent nostalgia of Lost, the damaging, but lasting memory of the 1993 film, Alive (which, by the way, starred not-even-close-to-Latino actors Ethan Hawke, Josh Hamilton, Vincent Spano and John Malkovich as a marooned, cannibalistic Uruguayan rugby team) and various other mystical, magical films of the 2000s. Just the fact the series was set to star both Juliette Lewis and Christina Ricci gave the entire thing that very nostalgic, meta feel, seeing as both woman were young stars at the peak of their careers in the early and mid-nineties.
On the surface — and despite the obvious play for my generation — this doesn’t read as a series a man of my age would or should be watching. It’s about a group of NJ high school girls whose private plane crash lands in the Canadian wilderness on their way to soccer nationals in Seattle. Despite the fact high school soccer is a fall sport and not a spring sport, we get to watch them survive the remainder of the spring, the summer and eventually the bitter cold of a northern winter. I suppose rearranging soccer to the incorrect season provides more drama narratively, but for those of us who actually played the sport, it’s a little weird. Again, I’ll just push past that, because this isn’t Ted Lasso, it’s a psychological horror/thriller that is way more Lord of the Flies than it is an affirmative story about a bunch of actors who clearly have no clue how to play the beautiful game. Seriously, could the Ted Lasso soccer gameplay scenes be any worse? Anyway, from the moment the show decides to show a graphic compound fracture of a girl’s leg in one of their first practices, I was put on notice that they weren’t fucking around: gross is just fine in this world.
Because this is a hybrid review — looking at both season one and season two — I won’t make any sweeping comments about the series’ greatness or suckiness. But suffice it to say that season one is way more compelling and engaging than season two. Where, like a lot of series — especially those on Showtime, which are settling in for a ten-season slog — season one blows its wad budget-wise and narrative-wise to gain an audience, and season two downshifts on both fronts, as it spins its wheels trying to set up for the long haul. I don’t drive a manual car, so I’m not certain if one downshifts before spinning ones wheels, but you get the idea. Season one has the whole expensive plane crash and multiple scene setups and a dynamic narrative structure where they show you snippets of the future, while focusing on the past and the present in equal measure. It’s good TV. But once the girls find the cabin in the woods and hunker down for winter in the second season — and hunker down in the healing retreat in the present — the show falls a bit into that The Walking Dead trap where we’re apparently spending a season or two on that dumb farm. And it makes me want to die right along side them. And, look, I understand that shows don’t have unlimited budgets. That’s obvious based on a couple of the CGI fails on this particular series — not that anyone has apparently perfected making computer-generated forest animals look in any way real — but I imagine there are creative ways to get us out of that damned cabin every once in a while. And to maybe create some fake snow that doesn’t look like the result of a sleepover pillow fight.
So, I’d say that season one was worth the free month subscription of Showtime. Having to pay to keep it going in order to watch season two’s week-to-week rollout was less worth it. Not only because spending zero dollars is always preferable to paying multiple dollars, but because the first season was a much more successful undertaking than the second. The show managed to create just the right amount of mystery and drama in the upfront and balance the motivations and backstories of the characters. The Lost-like plunges into the past gave us just enough backstory to kind of get where these characters are coming from, but held back enough to assume we’d get more in season two and subsequent seasons. Though they all but evaporated. I suppose it could be because they’re teens, and backstories aren’t that interesting, having lived barely at all, but those pasts kind of helped balance out the future, adult versions of these people who are sometimes less interesting. Or, not less interesting, but different. And, in a couple cases, not as compelling acting-wise. This is all to say that I’m concerned where the show goes from here. They could theoretically tinker with the formula for season three, but my fear is that they’ll lean into the “magic” side of things and just do a clunky job of it. Or focus on people like Taissa (Tawny Cypress), whose character honestly confuses and bores me. Or, even worse, do these one-season plots like the goofy, nonsensical murder and subsequent investigation in season two that takes up oodles of time, but ends up completely inconsequential by the finale. Granted, I shouldn’t take my time concern trolling major streamers and focus on how I’m going to sign up for another free month once season three comes out and has run its course.