Between the start of the “Sex and the City” reunion, “And Just Like That…,” and the final twists and turns of season three of “Succession," it’s been a good month for cable TV. But one of the biggest surprises this fall has been a series that, until very recently, few seemed to be paying attention to. The Showtime drama “Yellowjackets,” which launched its 10-episode first season on Nov. 14, is a thrilling, suspenseful look at the aftermath of a ’90s plane crash that strands a high school girls’ soccer team in the wilderness. It’s a smart, wildly addictive series — and unlike so many other shows starring teenage girls, it portrays its protagonists as realistically complicated, three-dimensional human beings. The must-see drama just might be one of the most underrated series of 2021.
Unlike so many other shows starring teen girls, it portrays its protagonists as realistically complicated, three-dimensional human beings.
Historically, the depiction of young women on TV has been less than stellar, to say the least. For every Buffy Summers or Lindsay Weir, there’ve been 10 more stereotypically vapid, irksome or scandal-prone teens whose storylines revolve around gossip, crushes and revenge. Think “Gossip Girl,” “Pretty Little Liars” or “Riverdale” — or even “Modern Family,” with the ditzy Haley, or “Nashville,” with the overly mean Maddie. And this is especially true when it comes to the relationships among young women. From the catfights of “Glee” to the love triangles of “One Tree Hill,” TV has long assumed that teenage girls are always out for blood, incapable of enjoying one another’s company or simply coexisting in peace.
In reality, and despite being constantly undervalued by both the media and adults, adolescent girls are far more mature and thoughtful than pop culture gives them credit for. “Yellowjackets” — a show co-created by a woman, Ashley Lyle, and written and directed by a largely female crew — seems to understand this. From its very first episode, its core protagonists defy and complicate TV’s most classic cliches.
(Small spoilers ahead.)
Shauna (Sophie Nélisse), initially assumed to be the quiet, deferential lackey of her vivacious best friend, Jackie (Ella Purnell), turns out to possess a power Jackie drastically underestimates. Natalie (Sophie Thatcher) is a brooding burnout with dyed hair and an angry attitude, but her deep capacity for empathy reaches even the group’s most closed-off members. Misty (Sammi Hanratty), an exceptionally weird try-hard, has a manipulative streak that slowly manifests in disturbing, game-changing ways.
Alone, these characters would be notable for their complexity, but they’re even more interesting together. In scenes both pre- and post-crash, Shauna and Jackie’s friendship is shown to be an authentically messy give-and-take, with both girls needing different things — approval, support, forgiveness — at different times. Then there’s the secretive romance between Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and a female teammate, whose desire transcends their difficult circumstances. And Natalie, a character whose angst-filled look and persona scream “outcast” in the pop culture vernacular, is calmly accepted and respected by her teammates despite their differences.
The showrunners also pay welcome attention to the small details. In the fifth episode, the girls deal with their periods, talking about pads and bleeding as casually as, well, teenage girls often do. And despite the constant presence of Travis (Kevin Alves), the son of their deceased coach, none of the female characters lose their heads or prioritize gaining his attention over the group’s needs. Time and time again, the show reminds its viewers that young women deserve to be listened to, loved and taken seriously.
“Yellowjackets” was initially pitched as a female “Lord of the Flies,” and the classic novel’s influence is clear; as the girls struggle to survive in the wake of the crash, there are chaos and conflict, tragedy and trauma — and the same goes for their adult counterparts, shown in equally compelling scenes mixed in with the flashbacks. But underneath all the drama is a profound layer of humanity, through which the show’s ensemble female characters are seen, both by the viewer and by one another. And it’s that lens that makes “Yellowjackets” not just one of the most entertaining new shows this year, but one of the most necessary, too.