Fans of Yellowjackets – telly’s much talked about new drama, the finale of which aired last night in the UK (January 20) – all try and tell you how good it is in the same way. It’s Lord of the Flies meets Lost meets Pretty Little Liars. Or how about The Craft meets Mean Girls meets Bear Grylls. Seen The Wilds? It’s that meets Riverdale meets Teenage Bounty Hunters. All of these references points work to a degree, but really, there’s nothing on TV like it.
If you’re unaware, Yellowjackets is a show principally set in 1996, about a high school girls soccer team whose plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness en route to the national championships. Some of the team die in the crash. Most of them survive. Their adult coach loses a leg. Then they get hungry and start to go insane. Somewhere in-between all of this there are wolf attacks, ill-advised teenage fumblings, seances and a truly bonkers evening on magic mushrooms. The season starts with one of the girls having their throat slit and their flesh served up in a stew. After that, a split timeline follows four of the characters 25 years later, cutting back to the ’90s for shocking reveals of who’s dead and who did the killing.
There’s much that’s brilliant about Yellowjackets. The soundtrack, mostly plucked from ’90s pop and alt rock is thrilling (and a reminder that ‘Informer’ by reggae/rap hybrid Snow, is a stone cold classic). There are breakout performances in the 1996 timeline (Liv Hewson as goalkeeper Van, Sophie Thatcher as the grungy Natalie). In the adult one, there are career revivals for some of the ’90s most iconic faces (Juliette Lewis as Natalie, Christina Ricci as unhinged and complicated yet often heroic Misty). And as a mystery, it’s hugely gripping. It’s never clear whether the strange events taking place in the wilderness are supernatural, or if mental illness, hunger, superstition, and immaturity are making events seem so.
If this is sending a chill down the spine of anyone who sat through six seasons of Lost, only to learn that the passengers of fight 815 were [redacted], worry not. Not only has Yellowjackets already been green-lit for a second season, creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson have said that they’ve plotted the entirety of the girls’ story to conclude three seasons after that. This is a show that knows where it’s going, and how it’s going to get there. You might have some reservations about whether the ‘visions’ of ‘off-her-meds’ Lottie (Courtney Eaton) is ultimately going to romanticise and misrepresent mental illness, but narratively, there’s no making it up as they go along here.
But where Yellowjackets also excels is as a passport to the decade that’s been most mythologised and most misunderstood. Tonally, it hits the right beats throughout. The otherwise touching scene between teenage Natalie and her best friend Kevyn makes a brief pitstop at Cringe Country when they debate whether Nirvana “sold out after ‘Bleach'” or not, but otherwise the pop culture references are sound. Any viewer of an age will recall the moment at every house party when the living room would suddenly become a platform for a dance-off, soundtracked by Montell Jordan’s ‘This Is How We Do It’. Similarly, it was actual law that every school disco end with a slow dance to Seal’s ‘Kiss from A Rose’ – and Yellowjackets obliges in its ninth episode.
And yet, Yellowjackets exposes many of the myths that have been built up around the ’90s too. It is an era that’s often held up as a time of great freedoms. I should know. I was there. In the relationship of Natalie and Travis (one of three males to survive the crash, played by Kevin Alves) we see problematic boy-girl sexual politics that are still being thrashed out today. When Natalie screams that she has desires too, it’s an utterance that echo’s through the ages. Then, in Assistant Coach Ben Scott (Steven Krueger), Van and Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown), we have three characters who are only comfortable with revealing their sexuality when the plane has crashed and their community is small, with bigger dangers to face than someone knowing who they like to fuck.
It’s worth remembering that in the real world, two years after the earlier timeline of Yellowjackets was set, in an event which kickstarted the long fight for the hate crime legislation present in law today, gay university student Matthew Shepard was tied to a barbed wire fence in Wyoming, tortured and left to die. We liked to think we had things worked out in the ’90s. A democrat in The White House, Downing Street swathed in red. With hindsight, the gloss obscured the lack of substance, like a cake made out of icing and no sponge.
In fact, before the girls go and get a bit feral (no spoilers here), there’s an argument that their new home in the wilderness is everything you heard about the ’90s: tolerant, supportive, idealistic, a right laugh. Sadly, that wasn’t really the case.