‘Yellowjackets’ Leans In to Savagery


Four years ago, Ashley Lyle read an article in the trades about a planned remake of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” the 1954 boys-gone-wild classic about prep school lads stranded on an island. This version would gender-swap girls for boys. Lyle, a writer and producer, read the comments, many of them skeptical that girls would descend into such barbarism.

On a video call from the Los Angeles home that she shares with her husband and producing partner, Bart Nickerson, Lyle recalled one man’s comment, which read, “What are they going to do? Collaborate to death?”

And she recalled what she immediately thought in response: “You were never a teenage girl, sir.”

Lyle was. She remembers that time vividly, describing the relationships she formed then as “probably the most important in my life.” (She paused here to apologize to her husband, who joined her on the call.) She also remembers how ferocious those relationships could be.

“There was a girl in my high school who poisoned another girl’s food for fun,” she said. “Only showing girls getting along is not painting a full picture.”

So on dog walks, during hikes and over dinner, Lyle and Nickerson conceived “Yellowjackets,” a show that would paint that picture in some very vibrant colors. (They are co-showrunners, alongside Jonathan Lisco.) Set in 1996 and in the present, “Yellowjackets,” which premieres Sunday on Showtime, follows a high school girls’ soccer team whose plane crashes en route to a tournament. The 2021 sequences follow the survivors as they negotiate middle age, still burdened by the past.

A show for anyone who has ever wondered what would have happened if the Donner Party was an all-girls situation, “Yellowjackets” is a shivery synthesis of folk horror, survival story and then-and-now mystery. It is also, in both time periods, a demented psychological thriller. Trafficking in cannibalism, ritual murder, improvised surgery, insanity in manifold forms and yes, poisoned food, it argues for the savagery of girlhood — with or without an aviation disaster — and how that savagery reverberates throughout women’s lives.

“I just wanted to tell what felt like a very real story about teenage girls,” Lyle said.

Television has an enduring interest in stories of survival and what happens to groups of people who isolate from larger society. A template of reality television shows like “Survivor” (and if you think about it, the “Bachelor” franchise), it also informs fictional series like “The Walking Dead,” “Under the Dome,” “The 100,” “Falling Skies,” “Survivors” and more. “Yellowjackets” participates in this trend — it’s like “Lost,” but for the ladies.

In the last few years, several shows (“Orange Is the New Black,” “Y: The Last Man”) have also explored all-female societies. “The Wilds,” a plane crash survivalist drama that debuted last year on Amazon, resembles “Yellowjackets” closely, though with less compelling characters and fewer bonkers plot twists. While offering an alternative to patriarchal power structures, the characters on these shows also descend into conflict and factionalism. Want to believe that women are gentler, kinder, more circumspect? How nice for you.

Loosely inspired by the 1972 Andes Flight Disaster, which also yielded the cute-boys-turn-to-cannibalism film “Alive,” from 1993, “Yellowjackets” sits at the crux of these concerns. It reckons with the ordeal of survival and social breakdown as filtered through a female lens.

“There’s a very specific feminine way of brutalizing each other,” said Tawny Cypress, who plays the older version of Taissa, the team’s enforcer. “We can cut without weapons.”

Girls hone that edge early. After a cold open — a young woman in a nightgown runs through the snow on bleeding feet, then meets a bloodier end — “Yellowjackets” flashes back to show the girls before the crash, yelping as they win the New Jersey state championship. But there is disaster here, too, even in this suburban idyll: One girl confronts violence at home, another betrays her best friend, another grievously injures a teammate.

Despite its heightened reality, “Yellowjackets” is the rare show that takes female adolescence seriously and depicts it without stereotype or exploitation. There’s little nudity or jiggle — unusual for a premium cable series full of women — and nothing that resembles a catfight. The girls do have an eating disorder: They eat each other. The actual plane crash functions as both a necessary plot point and a loose metaphor for the ways in which growing up as a woman can already feel like a catastrophe.

For girls in stable environments, adolescence is often the first trauma, said Karyn Kusama (“Girlfight,” “Jennifer’s Body”), who directed the pilot. “The plane never even had to crash for things to get quite dark, potentially, between everybody.”

But the plane does crash and things get extremely dark, then darker. That darkness doesn’t abate, not even when some of the women return to more or less normal lives and skid toward middle age. In terms of production design, the 2021 world doesn’t look much different from the 1996 one, a way to evoke the lingering effects of the past.

For the 2021 sequences, “Yellowjackets” cast several actresses — Juliette Lewis (“Natural Born Killers,”) Melanie Lynskey (“Heavenly Creatures”) and Christina Ricci (“The Addams Family”) — who shot to fame in the ’90s and are still picking out some of that shrapnel now. “I think they were really smart to tap into that ’90s zeitgeist with all of us,” said Lewis, who plays the older version of Natalie, the team’s rebel girl and a survivor of abuse.

Lynskey, who plays the adult version of Shauna, a top student and an avid journaler, drew a rough parallel between the girls who survived the plane crash and the experience of early fame.

“You don’t get the same sort of freedom to just be anonymous and messy,” she said. “That was a part of Shauna in the story that really resonated with me.”

That shared experience informed the characters and created close ties among the older actresses. “If you want to see fame as traumatic — I think it is — then perhaps you could say that we are all bonded by the trauma of having been very young and very famous,” Ricci said.

Those bonds grew tight. “We knew each other’s triggers; we knew each other’s histories; we knew the ways we were similar and the ways we were different,” Lynskey said. “I mean, the last time I felt like that was in group therapy.”

Having cast the actresses in their 40s, the producers then had to find their younger counterparts. A superficial resemblance was helpful but not crucial — the goal was ultimately what Kusama called “a kind of energetic similarity, or a kind of soul match.”

To create a sense of intergenerational consistency, the older and younger actors would have conversations about posture, gesture, personality, tone of voice. The linked performances of stars like Lewis and Sophie Thatcher, as Natalie, suggest a continuum between past and present, while also indicating how the crash and the calamities that followed changed these women profoundly.

“We are so alike in how we saw our Natalie, how we saw her pain,” Lewis said.

Thatcher agreed. “Emotionally, we were on the same page,” she said. “Natalie was kind of a heightened version of both of us.”

To help color in that page, Lewis made Thatcher playlists that leaned heavily on era-defining acts like Hole and PJ Harvey. Actually listening to vintage ’90s hits onscreen was trickier — for a scene involving a mixtape, Lyle had to teach Thatcher how to use a cassette player.

“So that made me feel real old,” Lyle said.

For Lyle and for others, it was mildly troubling to see their ’90s youth reconstructed as period drama. “I don’t mind getting older, per se, for any vanity reasons — I’m just terrified of death,” Ricci said. “So as a measure and mark of time, I found that horrifying.”

Still, “Yellowjackets” marked time in more hopeful ways, too. All of the older actresses mentioned the excitement and relief they felt in playing characters who would never reasonably be described as likable. “Even 10 years ago, there would have been so many more conversations about likability,” Ricci said. The show abounds with strong women, none of whom you would want to split a bottle of chardonnay with.

This, too, makes “Yellowjackets” an outlier. It is cleareyed about both the havoc of girlhood and the depredations of middle age, sympathizing with its characters without making any of them especially good or nice. It argues that if adolescence is a wild time, maybe midlife is too.

“The adult women are [expletive] terrible people,” Ricci said admiringly. “None of them are emotionally safe. You can’t rely on them to make the right choices. And that’s so great.”