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'Yellowjackets' is a razor-sharp commentary on female friendship

The adolescent cast of “Yellowjackets.” Picture: Kailey Schwerman/Showtime

The adolescent cast of “Yellowjackets.” Picture: Kailey Schwerman/Showtime

Published Jan 22, 2022

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By Inkoo Kang

Before the plane crash that stranded them in the middle of nowhere, many of the girls on board were exactly the kinds of teens the New Jersey suburbs were supposed to produce. Star athletes. Ivy League-bound. Tough and determined, yet open to love and sexual exploration. By the time the survivors were found and rescued 19 months later, they were rumoured to be something else: cannibals.

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The genre of the teen soap gets a pulpy makeover - and channels adult ennui - in M-Net’s new supernatural thriller "Yellowjackets."

It's the kind of show that borrows from so many others that it feels mostly original again, though its most direct influence is "Lost."

Half the action takes place in 1996, the year the plane goes down, and the girls - a soccer team en route to nationals - become bombarded by mysterious phenomena. The other half of the series is set in the present day, as the 40-something versions of the survivors (played by Juliette Lewis, Melanie Lynsky, Christina Ricci and Tawny Cypress) are forced to remember their time cut off from civilisation a quarter-century later.

Needless to say, hardly any of the girls fulfil their promise after such cataclysmic trauma. We meet the grown-up Nat (Lewis, played by Sophie Thatcher as an adolescent) on her last day of rehab in California.

The rest have stayed close to home. Housewife Shauna (Lynsky, played in her younger scenes by Sophie Nélisse) squabbles day and night with her boring husband and callous teenage daughter, who resents having grown up in the shadow of the media circus around the crash.

Living alone - yet no happier for it - is Misty (Ricci, with Sammi Hanratty as her juvenile counterpart), who likely works at a nursing home for the easy access to pills and ready power over the helpless.

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The only survivor who seems to have pulled her life together is Taissa (Cypress, played as a teen by Jasmin Savoy Brown), a state-senate candidate who can't give voters what they want most: her life story.

Taissa is more than willing to trot out her wife (Rukiya Bernard) and their young son Sammy (Aiden Stoxx) for public consumption, though the C-word - which the child thankfully mishears as "cannonball" - keeps popping up on the campaign trail. But Taissa can't juggle caring for her scared sons' well-being by pretending she's not regularly seeing apparitions portending imminent death.

Lewis, Lynsky and Ricci embody characters that hew close to their off-kilter '90s screen personae. (Lynsky's "Heavenly Creatures" feels like a touchstone for the series, as does Ricci's "Now and Then.")

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The production can be overly obvious with its Clinton-era props (beepers, a stack of Sassy magazine) and needle-drops ("Shoop" and Liz Phair), but this is also the rare show that's paying tribute to the decade, rather than simply summoning nostalgia like a misbegotten spell.

"Yellowjackets" is a show interested in female darkness, along with the relief and boredom that follow once the obligation (or opportunity) for exceptional strength or strategy passes.

Yes, it's a show calculated for crossover appeal, for those who used "Daria" and "The Craft" to get through high school, as well as the TikTok, set discovering chokers and bucket hats - back in vogue - for the first time.

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But it also follows the recent (if Wes Craven-inspired) trend of asking who the final girls (who outlive their respective horror tales) have grown up to be, while building on the fascination with the underside of the girly ID - the churning anger and fluctuating hormones and unblinking grasps for control - that last crested a couple of decades ago.

Visually shepherded by pilot director Karyn Kusama ("Jennifer's Body"), "Yellowjackets" isn't without its growing pains, especially in its pacing.

Menacing postcards sent to the middle-aged survivors take too long to bring together all the women, who seem to have avoided one another since their return. It's particularly disappointing to see the underutilisation of Lewis, an often mesmerising performer who helped pave the way for the more layered female roles we have today, but by and large, hasn't gotten to enjoy the fruits of her contributions.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the gorier coming-of-age storylines would engross more.

Notably, Shauna's best friend and the team leader, Jackie (Ella Purnell), has no older analogue, and she's not the only one.

At least in the first six episodes screened for review (out of 10), there's an auspicious panoply of threats teeming in the woods around the crash survivors: bouts of dirt-eating, animals rotting from the inside out, perhaps demon possession.

But the show is at its most compelling when the girls are forced to confront the unknowable inside them: the calm that settles in right before the inevitable has to be done, the shock of tenderness and the temptation of vulnerability amid destruction and, most frighteningly, a foetus.

It's no wonder the ageing survivors have no desire to return to such a place - and why they can't resist going back.

“Yellowjackets” airs on Fridays at 9.30pm on M-Net (DStv 101).

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