Y: The Last Man opens on a familiar-looking scene of post-apocalyptic wreckage. Following a title reading simply "3 Weeks After," the opening moments reveal a New York City now seemingly deserted apart from wrecked cars and dead bodies, signs that the unspeakable has happened and that anyone lucky enough to be left alive will face long odds of surviving much longer. That includes the two lone figures moving through what's left of Manhattan, Yorick Brown (Ben Schnetzler) — an escape artist who, until recently, made a living (of sorts) teaching magic tricks to kids — and Ampersand, the capuchin monkey who serves as his sidekick. After spray painting a desperate message for someone named Beth and nearly getting smashed by a falling helicopter, Yorick looks around him and sees only nothingness.
Though new to him, it might feel at first like what he's seeing is something we've seen before in numerous post-apocalyptic stories. But the new FX on Hulu series is a post-apocalyptic story with a twist. What sets Yorick and Ampersand apart is not that they survived. Plenty have survived the catastrophe that sets the series in motion. It's that they're seemingly the only survivors — human or animal — with a Y chromosome. But really there are two twists. What appears to be an apocalypse is really more of a cataclysm and, in the first six episodes provided to critics, Y: The Last Man plays less like a story about what happens after the end of the world than one about what it takes to keep the end of the world at bay under extraordinary pressure.
Adapting a comic book series created by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Pia Guerra, Y: The Last Man treats Yorick's survival as one of several storylines set in a world now inhabited entirely by those with a pair of X chromosomes. That's mostly women, but also trans men, as evidenced by the presence of Sam (Elliot Fletcher), a survivor navigating the dangerous new world by the side of Hero (Olivia Thirlby), Yorick's sister, who carries with her the weight of a horrible act committed moments before, and subsequently covered up by, the mass extinction.
Hero's not the only person adjusting to the changes while sorting through traumatic events. The loss has touched everyone, robbing them of husbands, sons, and other loved ones. That includes Yorick's mother Jennifer Brown (Diane Lane), a senator who, after a devastating blow to the line of succession, finds herself taking over as President of the United States. Her ascent is not warmly greeted by some, including Kimberly Cunningham (Amber Tamblyn), the daughter of the conservative former President who sees herself as the keeper of his flame and the best guard against the liberal Jennifer's agenda. Even amidst upheaval and chaos, politics never die.
Showrunner and executive producer Eliza Clark, a playwright and veteran of series like The Killing and Animal Kingdom, has kept the basic elements of Vaughan and Guerra's comic while expanding the scope. Where the comic would occasionally look beyond Yorick, the series focuses just as often on the events within the Brown administration and its handling of the ongoing crisis — which play a bit like a combination of The West Wing and Battlestar Galactica — and the journeys of Hero, Sam, and Nora Brady (Marin Ireland), a White House staffer who finds herself unable to return to the relative safety of her government job and desperate to protect her daughter.
This set-up can sometimes make Y: The Last Man feel like several shows squeezed into one. But it also suggests a plan to explore the world of the series and the many and ongoing shocks created by the cataclysm. Often it's the small touches that suggest the scope of the tragedy, like a brief visit to a Boston vigil in which a group of mourners gather to sing the songs of dead musicians, including Radiohead. Other times it offers more striking signs that society will never be the same again. Eventually, for instance, a few of the characters' paths converge on a superstore that's become headquarters of a cult-like group who see the disappearance of men as the new beginning they've hoped for all their lives. (They're led by Missi Pyle, a dynamic performer usually seen in comedic roles, who here embraces the role of an unbending militant with scary, charismatic abandon.)
Not that Y: The Last Man ignores its last man, though these episodes suggest he'll be pinballing his way through the story at the mercy of more powerful forces. As played by Schnetzer, he shares the comic book character's innate passivity. Where the situation might seem to call for a decisive, take-charge alpha male, Yorick is anything but that. He's scared and wants nothing more than to be reunited with the girlfriend with whom he had a potentially relationship-ending argument prior to the catastrophe.
Eventually he acquires a handler, of sorts, in the form of Agent 355 (Ashley Romans), a member of an ultra-secretive covert ops group that answers to the President of the United States. Maybe. Though seemingly committed to protecting Yorick, she may have an agenda of her own. While the cast is universally strong, with Lane and Tamblyn doing particularly standout work, it's Romans who's the revelation here, playing Agent 355 as a woman of unerring decisiveness whose confidence in her choices is sometimes undermined by her tremulous voice and inability to hide her fear. She may be the person best equipped to survive what's happening but she still realizes just how much trouble everyone is in.
Clark has spoken of having a five-season plan for Y: The Last Man and this first batch of episodes rolls along like a series intent on playing the long game. The story advances slowly. Geneticist Allison Mann (Diana Bang) — a major character in the comics — doesn't appear until several episodes have passed. The palace intrigue surrounding President Brown unfolds a little bit at a time. Though depicting a much different sort of post-cataclysmic world than The Walking Dead, it's often paced like that series, counting on simmering intrigue and the occasional burst of action to keep viewers engaged.
Fortunately, these early episodes show enough promise to make it worth sticking around to see what happens next. That the series adds a bunch of compelling ideas into the dramatic developments, with the potential for adding many more down the line, helps as well. More interesting than the mystery of what caused the elimination of those with a Y chromosome, which the series would break with its source material if it ever revealed, there's the matter of how the survivors come to redefine themselves in a world previously dominated by men. What, for Kimberly, do family values look like now that the potential for a patriarchal nuclear family has been eliminated? How much will the potential for reinvention be undermined by the continuing divide between the haves and have-nots? In Boston, Fenway Park has been tagged with graffiti reading "Racism, As American As Baseball." President Brown and those around her live in relative comfort while, outside in Washington D.C., the mob at the gates continues to grow.
Intentional or not, that direct echo of January 6th is just one nod to the present moment. Beyond the eeriness of a show about a pandemic-like event remaking society, a particularly dangerous opponent emerges in the form of Regina Oliver (Jennifer Wigmore), a low-ranking cabinet member who, shades of a recently elected representative from Georgia, has embraced conspiracy theories, opposed vaccines, and seems open to using violence to advance her agenda. The threats to peace and progress look much the same even in this transformed existence. Y: The Last Man Offers a vision of a world turned upside down, but one in which, often troublingly, many of the pieces have landed in the same spots as before.
TV Guide rating: 3/5
Y: The Last Man premieres Monday, Sept. 13 on Hulu.