The flashback anchoring “Yellowjackets” is a short horror film unto itself. The first episode opens with a girl running barefoot through a frozen forest, whipping through the trees, stumbling through the snow as piercing shrieks and battle cries echo through the mountains. Just when it seems like her panic might swallow her whole, the ground beneath her feet does so instead. She lands on the sharpened sticks below with a sickening thud, hand twitching as a cloaked figure in pink Converse sneakers shuffles up to view her kill.
This pilot episode, which only gets more disturbing from these opening minutes, was directed with chilling precision by Karyn Kusama, whose resumé — including films such as “Jennifer’s Body” and “The Invitation” — makes her uniquely qualified to helm a show like “Yellowjackets.” The new Showtime series from Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson follows a high school soccer team that gets stranded in the wilderness after a plane crash and then, 25 years later, the remaining survivors having to cope with it as thoroughly traumatized adults. It blends teen tropes, horror, and psychological drama with a confidence that makes it hard to stop watching, even at its most gruesome. As far as in medias res openings go, Kusama’s deft portrayal of a world gone cold is an undeniably evocative jolt to the senses that sets the tone for what’s yet to come. This flashback also contains no dialogue at all, and is more powerful for it — an indication of where the show’s overall strengths and weaknesses lie.
In both its flashbacks to the team’s desolate hell on earth and the almost bleaker present, “Yellowjackets” presents realities so taut with tension they seem likely to snap at any given moment. It also balances two timelines, each surreal and terrible in their own ways. In 1996, we see a once joyous team of star athletes — including pragmatic Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown), “burnout” Natalie (Sophie Thatcher), overeager fangirl Misty (Samantha Hanratty), popular Jackie (Ella Purnell) and her best friend Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) — go through high school dramas and the worst tragedy of their lives alike. In 2021, each of them grapple with the visceral trauma of their past, and its sudden reemergence in their adult lives, with a shared terror that’s almost thrilling.
There are so many ways this premise could fall apart. Sometimes, when the script falls flat and stilted in its attempts to flesh out its many characters as quickly as possible, it almost does. But unlike something like Amazon Prime Video’s “The Wilds” — which strands teen girls on a desert island as a result of some convoluted larger conspiracy — “Yellowjackets” works best when it stays as grounded as possible in the basic physical and mental horrors of survival. The show’s visceral gore won’t be for everyone; the second episode’s commitment to showing the plane crash’s devastation in gruesome detail is especially disturbing. But keeping the series’ survivalist components as rooted in reality as possible makes the moments when it does flirt with something less tangible, and even more otherworldly, ring terrifyingly true.
The dual casting of the younger cast and their grown-up counterparts also proves crucial. The cast of teens holds their own, and then gets eerie echoes in the actors playing them as world-weary women. Tawny Cypress is perfectly steely as adult Taissa, now a state senator candidate trying to suppress questions about her past while keeping her picture-perfect family, including her concerned wife and outcast son, together. As an ever-lonely and calculating Misty, Christina Ricci toes the line of maniacal without crossing over into full camp as could easily be the case. And in the roles of quietly vicious housewife Shauna and deadpan alcoholic Natalie, you just can’t do much better than Melanie Lynskey and Juliette Lewis, respectively. All are excellent, but Lynskey and Cypress have the hardest jobs of portraying women denying that anything inside them ever broke — or that the idea of giving back into their basest instincts is more than a little alluring.
So how do the peppy jocks whose biggest concern used to be winning nationals turn into the feral creatures luring one of their own to a horrific death that we see in the cold open? Well, having seen six of the first season’s 10 episodes … it’s still not entirely clear. What is, however, is how deeply wounded they remain decades later as someone (something?) from that forest comes back to haunt them. Don’t be fooled by its teen show trappings: “Yellowjackets” is a pitch black parable of human desperation that will creep its way under your skin given the chance.
The first episode of “Yellowjackets” is currently available to stream on Showtime. The season premieres Sunday, Nov. 14, on Showtime.