Netflix has a lot of good shows on it, almost to the extent that it's overwhelming. And weirdly, despite all this choice, nothing added to it recently had grabbed me; season 2 of The Witcher was simply good, and only the scenery chewing of Sean Bean is keeping me watching season three of Snowpiercer. And even if you're excited about the Netflix Bioshock movie, who knows when that's coming.
I had no clue about Yellowjackets, as the start of my year had been taken up by the final series of The Expanse. But as I reeled from the idea that there's no follow up coming to the excellent sci-fi show, I started hearing murmurs about Yellowjackets, including from my colleagues at Tom's Guide.
Then, one evening as I was casually flitting through Now TV, I noticed Yellowjackets was available. I hit play, and was blown away.
What the Yellowjackets buzz is all about
The premise of Yellowjackets is simple: it's 1996 and a team of female U.S. high-school soccer (yes Brits, the correct term is football) players are stranded in North American (actual location British Columbia, Canada) wilderness after their plane to crash lands while on the way to the national competition. And of course, the story revolves around their efforts to survive as well as the after affects of such an experience.
Initially, I thought Yellowjackets would hammer home a bunch of 90s to early 2000s high school drama and survival film clichés; think Mean Girls meets Cast Away. There's the popular girl, the pious one and the edgy one. And there's the whole fight for survival thing with the quiet one of the team coming to the fore with her previously unknown medical skills; quite run-of-the-mill.
But there's a heck of a lot more going on. For a start this is a dual (at times triple), timeline show, which more than nods in Lost's direction. We not only see the Yellowjackets team before their crash, but also during it and in 2021 as adults where some of the survivors stick to the line that they did what they could to survive and nothing more.
Like the mysterious and supernatural force teased in the first episode of Lost, there's clearly something more to this story. Now a mild spoiler alert.
In the first episode alone, a sequence shows a group of animal fur-clad characters (are they the same kids we just saw on the plane?) trap, kill and eat a girl. And while that could have given us a predictable series of following episodes that mashed together Lord of the Flies and Lost, it didn't.
Where Yellowjackets beats lost
Instead, the time-jumping storytelling about their lives during and after the crash shines as we see the journey the teammates go on, as how it effects their present-day lives. The sporadic flashes back to their time before the crash, also sowing the seeds for previous transgression to manifest themselves in the high-tension survival situation.
Whereas Lost gave you the background of characters in the show, there wasn’t much of a thread between the past action influencing what they do on the island; rather it framed their personalities. But Yellowjackets is more cerebral, where you’re constantly wondering if something someone said or did will have a knock-on effect on their future (something Lost only added far after many had checked out). In comparison, Lost has me trying to almost peep behind the curtain to figure out what the island really was rather than what’s happening.
This premise is also rather affecting, especially for someone like me in their mid-30s where I’m roughly five years younger than the characters in 2021. I remember what high school was like and how at the age of 16 one starts to formulate a sense of self and the ideas of the person they want to be. Now throw in the trauma of a plane crash and high-stakes survival, and it really makes you think about the effect that can have on the developing teenage mind and character.
More directly harrowing is the sheer violence of Yellowjackets. Whereas Lost had some grim moments, it was never really a bloody show. Yellowjackets is positively soaked in crimson; from open wounds to gutted animals to no punches pulled when it comes to menstrual blood.
I’m not a huge gore and guts fan, but this brutality was refreshing, really hammering home the perils of the wilderness, as well as framing the tinderbox of violence that a group of adolescents with no real supervision could erupt in. At times, it was almost tricky to watch, with me almost wincing away from my TV, though one eye was always stuck firmly on the action.
That’s because the production of Yellowjackets is excellent. The cast is excellent, with a feeling of genuine chemistry between them. And there’s an uncanny consistency with how the Yellowjackets in 2021 do indeed look like older versions of their 1996 selves, despite different actors and no digital wizardry being employed; the casting team must have worked shift to get this so spot on.
What's also brilliant is that both the action and story from 1996 and in 2021 are equally compelling, with both feeling like they could stand alone by themselves.
The stranded part has the feel of The Walking Dead, you know, when it was good. While the 2021 pilot feels like an HBO drama exploring a quartet of women making their way through life while carrying the burden of past trauma. And Christina Ricci is also nothing short of astonishing in her portrayal of Misty; she absolutely dominates every scene she's in.
Furthermore, being stuck in the boreal forest and mountains of Canada's British Columbia neatly frames the show’s undercurrent that there may be some mystical and occult force (rather than something supernatural) at work. It's shifting away from Lost's smoke monster to something creepier, especially considering the shared folklore surrounding witches in the woods.
Yellowjackets is also a visual stunner. I may be seeing more Lost and Yellowjackets parallels than are actually present, but the cooler and desaturated tone of the show can at times feel like a direct nod to Lost’s look.
This all communicates that there’s more to this situation than meets the eye, especially with the camera work. At times, Yellowjackets leans towards the horror style of filming from a vantage point moving from behind a tree or out of sight, hinting that someone is stalking the team. But unlike some schlocky horrors, this isn’t made face-slapping clear, and I found myself wondering did the camera move ever so slightly or is that my imagination. Is the camera manifesting the trauma on the minds of the crash survivors, or is something else afoot?
Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and various lockdowns, over the past couple of years I’ve watched a lot of TV. A lot of it has been entertaining, thought-provoking, and just really good. But it’s been awhile since I’ve binged a TV series, at the expense of sleep and common sense, so readily; I got through Yellowjackets in three midweek watch sessions.
Nor have I hit upon a TV series that’s had me thinking about it more than a week after I’ve torn through it. For me, Yellowjackets is currently sitting up there with the likes of Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Fargo (not the obvious choice but I adored it). That’s really something when we live in a world full of constant distractions.
So in conclusion, if you've not done so yet, forget the next big Netflix show and go watch Yellowjackets (to get ready for Yellowjackets season 2). I’m almost certain you won’t regret it… providing you don’t plan to fly across North America anytime soon.
Oh, speaking of 90s retro, check out our list of the 41 best '90s movies and where to stream them.