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Yellowjackets brilliantly mixes teen angst, cannibalism, and midlife crises — with major Lost vibes

The new drama is the rare show “about trauma” that’s actually kind of about trauma.

A campfire provides warmth for the plane crash survivors in a wide shot.
The Yellowjackets gather around the fire in the Canadian wilderness.
Kailey Schwerman/Showtime
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

“The next Lost.” It’s a holy grail TV has been chasing, in some shape or form, for almost two decades.

Since the beloved series about a plane crash on a magic island debuted back in 2004, countless imitators have risen up to try to recapture some of that show’s appeal. Usually, those shows have overloaded on lore, forgetting that what made Lost so compelling to begin with was present in the very first moments of its pilot, perhaps the best in TV history. The storytelling was stripped down. The characters were memorable. Their goals were always easily understood.

And, look, TV networks still keep taking occasional swings at “the next Lost,” even now, 11 years after the show went off the air in 2010. NBC’s new fall series La Brea is so aware that it’s going to be compared to Lost that a character in the show’s pilot helpfully suggests that maybe they’re all just in an episode of Lost, after everyone in the cast gets sucked into a strange primeval world via a sinkhole. (Don’t ask.)

It has gotten to the point where calling a TV show the next Lost is a weird kind of curse, both because of positive associations the later show can never hope to live up to (Lost is one of the best TV shows ever made!) and because of all the negative associations tied to so many shows that tried to be Lost and failed horribly. I would never, ever, ever place the burden of “the next Lost” on a TV show that’s just trying to chart its own course and do its own thing, especially a show I really liked.

Nope. I’d never do that.

Actually, can you come over here for five seconds? I want to say this just to you, because I don’t want everybody to hear it and get the wrong idea. I hate setting expectations too high.

Okay, now imagine I’m whispering: Showtime’s new drama Yellowjackets is the next Lost.

On Yellowjackets, all teen girl friendships are a precursor to murder or making out

Three teenage girls in letterman’s jackets sit around a campfire.
For the first few days in the wilderness, the Yellowjackets assume rescue is on the way.
Kailey Schwerman/Showtime

Yellowjackets sits at the messy intersection of horror and teen drama, and it’s also a show about having a midlife crisis. In the first of its two main timelines, it follows the members of a champion girls soccer team whose plane crashes in the remote Canadian wilderness in 1996. They’re stranded for nearly two years before being rescued. During that period — as the pilot, which is available free on YouTube, graphically illustrates — they descend not just into cannibalism but into hunting each other. (Occasional flashes to this period in the girls’ lives amount to a third timeline for audiences to keep track of.)

The second of the main timelines centers on four of the girls in the present day. They are now women in their 40s, trying their damnedest to maintain the façade of their “normal” suburban existences, while also keeping secret what “really” happened in the wilderness. (Whatever story they told the world seems to have elided the “hunted each other” bit, at the very least.)

The cast in this timeline is stacked with heavy hitters, including Melanie Lynskey, Tawny Cypress, Christina Ricci, and Juliette Lewis, and I’m impressed with all four actors’ willingness to more or less take a back seat to their teenage counterparts for the show’s early going. While the 2021 timeline will undoubtedly be important to the show overall, it’s a bit less immediately compelling, at least so far. One of the women gets stranded in that boring old prestige drama chestnut: She cheats on her partner to recapture something something something something. Yellowjackets handles it well, but there’s only so much you can do with a plot that literally every prestige drama has tried at one time or another.

(Also: A past and present tale about four women remembering an important time in their adolescence starring Christina Ricci? Is Yellowjackets a reboot of the ’90s sleepover classic Now and Then but with cannibalism? It’s not not that!)

I’ve seen six episodes of the 10 that will make up Yellowjackets’ first season, and in almost every way, it’s my favorite kind of TV show: One that goes so hard that even when it stumbles, it plows ahead so relentlessly that you have to admire its gumption nonetheless. It’s the TV equivalent of a gymnastics routine with a score ceiling so high that even abject failure becomes a kind of success. (Eventually, the show introduces a fourth timeline — the girls before they were even on the soccer team — and you have to applaud the ambition, if nothing else.)

There are some obvious Lost comparisons to be made here: Yellowjackets is also about a group of people who survive a plane crash that strands them in a remote location where weird and scary things happen to them. The show evokes a vague sense of supernatural menace that never tilts over into anything outright fantastical, and it employs a kind of flashback storytelling structure. (They’re not really flashbacks — more on this in a second — but they’re close enough for comparison’s sake.)

Even the stuff that doesn’t work is stuff that doesn’t work in a very Lost season one way, where you can tell the show is trying so hard to make everything cool and mysterious that it just needs to lay off the gas every once in a while. Oh, and just like in Lost season one, there’s a scene in one episode where a bunch of characters try to interpret a cryptic and creepy message that is in French.

And yet Yellowjackets couldn’t feel more different from Lost when you’re watching it, despite all those similarities. This disparity stems from the two shows’ extremely different emotional cores. Deep down, Lost was an ensemble drama about a wide swath of people who had been through a shattering, terrible event that accidentally connected them in ways that made them a community. (It was a post-9/11 show, and it showed.)

In contrast, Yellowjackets is a teen show, one where the characters are already in a community that immediately begins fraying in the wilderness. It’s a show about how bonds that seem unshakable usually are quite shakable, and it’s a show about how teen girl friendship isn’t all that far removed from cannibalism if you think about it. In Yellowjackets’ best moments, the girls circle each other warily, and it’s never totally clear if they’re going to start making out or murdering each other. Both outcomes happen across the first six episodes, and the series manages to make both feel inevitable.

This somewhat unsettling ambiguity captures how emotionally attuned creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson (and showrunner Jonathan Lisco) are to the casual emotional violence of teenagers. One of the weightiest moments in the series to date involves a girl choosing to move over to sleep beside a girl who is not her best friend, and the series infuses the scene with as much dread and portent as, you know, the cannibalism thing.

Yellowjackets is a horror show, but it’s also [sigh] really about trauma. No wait, come back! I promise it’s true this time!

Shauna stands in her kitchen, talking on the phone.
Melanie Lynskey plays Shauna, after she’s escaped the wilderness and grown up.
Kailey Schwerman/Showtime

Another Lost comparison: The earlier series was ultimately about redemption. The characters on the show were all working through some unspecified guilt or shame about their pasts, and the Island provided them with a blank slate upon which they could work out their issues. It was a deeply religious show without ever incorporating overt religiosity (until the finale, some would argue, but they’re wrong, and we are not here to relitigate the Lost finale). That quality was one of the things I loved most about it.

Yellowjackets, meanwhile, is about trauma. I’m sure I’ve just set off alarm bells and warning sirens for a bunch of you, leaving you to retire to your fainting couches over the continued reduction of serious concepts like PTSD to marketing buzzwords. I am typically among you! But as someone who struggles with my own PTSD, Yellowjackets is one of the few shows I’ve seen that makes “this is really about trauma” work.

The show’s “flashback” structure is key to its success in this regard. On Lost, the flashbacks concerned discrete events in the lives of the characters before they came to the Island, events that informed who they were and why they made the choices they did. Yellowjackets operates a bit differently. For one thing, the events in the 1990s carry more dramatic weight in the early going than the events in the 2020s, and they take up slightly more screentime. By pure story math, that would make the 2020s scenes flash-forwards from the main storyline.

But I also don’t think Yellowjackets is doing anything so simple as to say “this character was A; now they are B.” The events in the wilderness and the events back in suburbia are traveling on parallel tracks, but they never directly parallel each other. Instead, they almost seem to be unfolding at the same time. Except for a couple of instances (a quick insert shot of a snarling wolf interrupting one character’s bedtime routine with her kid, for example), the characters in the present seem to be consciously trying not to think about what happened to them. (They clearly remember at least the highlights of their story, from having tried to suppress it in the media.) The show keeps forcing viewers to look directly at it.

The result comes as close as I’ve seen to the dramatic structure of a story actually capturing the feel of recovering repressed memories of a traumatic incident. What’s especially remarkable is that the characters recovering said repressed memories aren’t onscreen but in the audience. We want to know what happened, and we don’t want to know what happened.

In the pilot (directed by the great Karyn Kusama, of The Invitation, Girlfight, and Jennifer’s Body), we see flashes of how bad things got as the girls tried to survive, and the show proceeds almost as a dare. You wanna know how they arrived at such a dark place? Well, you’re going to have to uncover some shit. Quick bursts of memory, centered on emotionally fraught images, give way to a fuller storyline, give way to emotional context. The effect is, at its best, emotionally devastating, and it’s all happening to us as viewers.

I recently talked to Yellowjackets’ creative team about our current cultural obsession with trauma, and it struck me during our conversation that they had clearly done a ton of research on how trauma functions, but are not interested in making the show an overt discussion of same. Instead, they’re trusting in the inherent horrors of their premise to guide the audience along. Yellowjackets is “really about” trauma because it takes pains to resemble trauma, rather than providing footnotes to contemporary research on how it functions.

While Yellowjackets is far from perfect, and while it is absolutely the kind of series that will irreparably fall apart somewhere along the line (my money is on the season four premiere), I feel as jazzed by its first six episodes as I did by the first few Lost episodes back in the day. So if literally anything I’ve said about the show has made you think, “Hmmm, maybe I’ll check it out,” keep an eye on Yellowjackets. It has “show everybody gets obsessed with the second it hits streaming” written all over it. And it really might be the next Lost. Just don’t say that too loudly. You don’t want to jinx it.

Yellowjackets debuts Sunday at 10 pm ET on Showtime, and new episodes will air in that time slot through January. The pilot is available for free on YouTube. Showtime’s streaming service is Showtime Anytime.

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