Showtime's Yellowjackets is a bit like Lost, if Lost had taken inspiration from the 1995 coming-of-age dramedy Now and Then. Or maybe it's Lord of the Flies garnished with Big Little Lies-lite intrigue. Your preferred description may vary, but the point stands: This saga about a teenage girls soccer team stranded in the Canadian wilderness adopts a hodgepodge of tones and influences, some of them compelling and some of them confused.
Created and written by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, whose previous credits include Narcos and Dispatches from Elsewhere, the new Showtime series borrows a well-trod survival concept that almost never gets old. Riding their success, the New Jersey-based Yellowjackets are en route to a championship when their plane crashes somewhere in remote Ontario. Surrounded by nature and adolescent hormones, they're left to fend off the land.
Not-so-spoiler alert: Some of them make it home. Yellowjackets hopscotches between past (the early to mid-'90s, when Nirvana posters adorned bedroom walls) and present, crystallizing around four women who aren't exactly on speaking terms. There's Shauna (Melanie Lynskey), unhappy in her marriage; Taissa (Tawny Cypress), thwarting the survivors' cryptic cone of silence by running for Senate; Natalie (Juliette Lewis), a frosty firebrand trying to stay sober; and Misty (MVP Christina Ricci), a clingy tryhard whom no one particularly likes. When the adults receive the same cryptic postcards and reporters start approaching them to ask questions about what really happened after the plane crash, it becomes clear that something ominous went down in the jungle all those years ago. "So long as nobody does anything crazy, we have nothing to worry about," Shauna says.
Inevitably, someone will do something crazy. After four hour-long episodes (there are 10 in total), I couldn't tell you what that might be. Yellowjackets' busy plot includes a handful of side characters marooned alongside the central quartet, who are portrayed in flashbacks by Sophie Nëlisse, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Sammi Hanratty, and Sophie Thatcher. The alfresco menace seems to be building toward some sort of ritualistic sacrifice — Showtime's official synopsis mentions "savage clans" — that the present-day adults want to keep buried.
The crisscrossing threads mean the show is in no hurry to answer the many questions it teases. Prestige television is overpopulated with mysteries about "normal" people doing "dark" things in "extraordinary" circumstances, and the success of any given attempt hinges on the payoff. Yellowjackets offers enough juicy machinations to remain stimulating, but its erratic tones — leaping from teen comedy to domestic drama to psychological horror and back again — make the journey feel unnecessarily bloated. There's quality stuff in both halves, but the constant time jumps grows tiresome. At first, it's hard to keep up with which teenager corresponds with which adult.
Luckily, there's a sharp cast to fall back on. Lynskey and Ricci are especially great. The show knows they are its stars. Lynskey provides the emotional weight, tortured by a suburban monotony that drives her to have an affair with a hunky stranger (Peter Gadiot) she rear-ends while fussing at her daughter (Sarah Desjardins) on the phone. Meanwhile, Ricci, who has recently been drafted to play gleefully over-the-top historical figures like Zelda Fitzgerald and alleged axe murderer Lizzie Borden, gets her meatiest original part in years. Misty is lonely but manipulative, eager but resentful — a delicious blend that highlights Ricci's wide-eyed drollery.
With a pilot directed by the gifted Karyn Kusama (Jennifer's Body, The Invitation), Yellowjackets is promising if inessential. Its characters are archetypes, which would be more forgivable in a show that isn't quite so derivative. Regardless, reliable performers like Lynskey and Ricci can't lead us too far astray, and there are enough tantalizing building blocks to ensure the series doesn't crash-land.
TV Guide rating: 3/5
Yellowjackets premieres Sunday, Nov. 14, on Showtime.