The cult success of horror thriller Yellowjackets is as much about the series’ distribution as its split timeline and genre-busting narrative.
The finale of season four’s ten-episode run doesn’t air until January 16, and most viewers just can’t wait.
That’s the kind of to-die-for buzz that marketers love, and it’s at least in part due to Showtime’s decision to drop weekly episodes to build up tension — and lets audiences fill in the gaps with their own ideas about what comes next.
This is in contrast to critically acclaimed and hugely tense drama masterpieces, like Underground Railroad, which arrived on Amazon earlier this year. The media buzz around this peaked shortly after it premiered and presumably the audience then trailed off shortly after (Amazon releases no viewing figures) as fans binged on the box set.
That also probably means audiences skip-watched episodes of the slavery drama. With a show like Yellowjackets, the audience is more likely giving it closer attention since it has become an appointment to view. That’s an anecdotal observation drawn from the way the BBC has chosen to schedule shows in the UK, despite having BBC iPlayer available to dump all episodes at once.
One example is the police thriller Line of Duty, which reached national fever pitch in the last three seasons. A BBC and HBO adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials gave some younger families a rare chance to gather on the sofa each Sunday with everyone glued to the same screen.
Disney has tended to tease audiences for its MCU episodic spin-offs in an attempt to keep subscribers on board for more than a month, but Yellowjackets’ availability on Showtime in most cable homes is keeping people tuned in on primetime Sundays.
“Dwelling in that unknowing for a full week after each episode can be frustrating, but I can’t say it isn’t making me happier to live without the auto-play,” says Slate’s Phillip Maciak. “If the whole season had dropped on Netflix it’d be all anyone was talking about, but there’s a special pleasure in not knowing what’s next.”
READ MORE: Yellowjackets Reminds Us How Much Fun It Is to Wait (Slate)
Created by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, the grisly story about a girls’ soccer team stranded in a frozen wilderness in the 1990s juggles timelines with the survivors of that catastrophe 25 years later. It’s had comparisons with “bloody puzzle-box ancestors,” like Lost and The OA, but with added “teen-mixtape soundtrack, Gen-X icon casting and hellacious moments of semi-comic ultraviolence.”
Attempts to define what the show is part of the reason people keep watching and talking about it.
“Each episode has seen the series transform its own genre in ways that produce plenty of uneasiness and narrative tension on their own,” says Maciak. “Sometimes it’s a haunted-house, political thriller; sometimes it’s a cabin-in-the-woods slasher; sometimes it’s a semi-satirical feminist suburban revenge comedy; sometimes it’s an odd couple, buddy cop, road trip adventure. Whether the show’s baseline understanding of itself is in constant, generative flux or in tailspin, Yellowjackets’ instability is precisely what makes it so fun to watch week in and week out.”
READ MORE: Yellowjackets Reminds Us How Much Fun It Is to Wait (Slate)
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when, but at some point in the last few weeks, Showtime’s Yellowjackets went from being a low-key phenomenon to a cultural force. A lot of the show’s popularity can be attributed to excellent reviews and word of mouth and the holiday season, but it could it also be nostalgia for the days when teens didn’t spend every waking hour face down on their phones?
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“Like Lost, it time-jumps — cutting between the girls’ childhoods and the present day, sprinkling Reddit-thread-worthy unsolved mysteries everywhere,” Angela Watercutter writes at Wired. “But unlike Lost, its appeal feels rooted in a desire to return to those halcyon days before the internet.”
For those still oblivious, Yellowjackets is an episodic drama, set in 1996, about a New Jersey high school girls soccer team that gets stranded in the Canadian wilderness following a plane crash. The show is purposefully vague about how many of them make it back to civilization and which of them survived a Lord of the Flies-style narrative.
But critics also point to something more basic about its appeal: It’s a mystery full of the kinds of symbolism, clues, and Easter eggs that the internet loves to devour and hypothesize about.
“There are Reddit threads (lots), news articles, and more Twitter chatter than you can shake an Antler Queen at, and in this deep-winter COVID-19 surge moment, it’s hard not to go down an online rabbit hole trying to decode it all. The Season 1 finale only gave fans more cannibal catastrophe content to chew on,” says Wattercutter.
This is all somewhat ironic because one of the things that’s appealing about Yellowjackets is that it’s so lo-fi. American teens in 1996 barely had AOL, and none of them had smartphones. They listened to the radio and watched VHS because there was no Netflix.
READ MORE: Yellowjackets: Our Top 5 Predictions for the Antler Queen, Ranked (Collider)
Watercutter says, “This isn’t to say that everyone who watches Yellowjackets wants to go back to a more primitive, pre-internet time, but there is something appealing about living in that world — for Gen Xers and millennials who grew up in it and for younger generations curious about its contours. It’s also a story that almost has to take place in a previous decade. If the Yellowjackets were a big-deal high school girls’ soccer team now, they’d all probably be quasi-famous TikTokers or microinfluencers.”
READ MORE: Our Spooky, Sexy Yellowjackets Theories (Vulture)
She reasons that the survivors of the crash (that we knows of so far) were able to keep a somewhat low profile after their return to civilization is likely due to the fact that it happened before the era of that social media and true crime podcasts turned everyone into a wannabe detective.
READ MORE: Here Are Some Killer “Yellowjackets” Theories (Buzzfeed)
The show knows this of course — and explains the casting of Melanie Lynskey, Christina Ricci and Juliette Lewis, “three ‘90s indie-movie staples who built their careers just before the era of celebrity blog culture and managed to survive its wrath. That they play its adult leads remains the show’s best in-joke.”
READ MORE: Yellowjackets Is the Internet’s Favorite Anti-Internet Show (Wired)
Yellowjackets creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson told NPR they started with a very simple premise: a sports team and a plane crash. The duo also discussed the influence of plane crash survival books such as Lord of the Flies and Alive, as well as how they wanted violence depicted on-screen, and what they’re hoping audiences will take away from the series. Listen to the full interview in the audio player below:
Showtime has released the first episode of Yellowjackets on YouTube, where the age-restricted video is available to signed-in users ages 18 and above. Watch it here: Yellowjackets | Series Premiere | Free Full Episode (TVMA)
Want more? Watch Yellowjackets actors Sammi Hanratty, Liv Hewson, Christina Ricci, Melanie Lynskey and Tawny Cypress discuss the making of the seriesat the 10th SCAD TV Fest: