Zendaya made history in 2020 when, at age 24, the “Euphoria” star became the youngest actor to win the Emmy for lead actress in a drama for her role on the first season of the HBO show. The victory was a highly celebrated upset that proved acclaim for a show centered on teens is possible when on the rare occasion it breaks through with older audiences.
“‘Yellowjackets’ is so unique in showing just how complicated and messy humans are, never mind teenagers,” says Samantha Hanratty, who plays teen Misty vs. Christina Ricci’s present-day version of the character in the survivalist thriller. “We have so much going on already, and then you add a plane crash element to it and survival and then it becomes, who can people trust? And when you don’t have anybody to trust, having to just find your own voice. Basically, these girls are having to figure out who the heck they are in the midst of chaos and puberty.”
Along with Hanratty’s Misty and Ella Purnell’s Jackie, the ’90s-set cast of “Yellowjackets” is led by Sophie Nélisse (teen Shauna), Jasmin Savoy Brown (teen Taissa) and Sophie Thatcher (teen Natalie), who play the younger, lost-in-the-wild counterparts to Melanie Lynskey, Tawny Cypress and Juliette Lewis, respectively, the survivor characters trying to work through their past trauma in the present.
“We are definitely more of a network for adults, but we have young women watching many of our shows,” says Showtime president Gary Levine. “In a sense, if we build it, they do come. And as a premium cable network and now on streaming, as well, we do have the ability to really plumb the depths of the human experience and do it honestly, never gratuitously. And I think an honest exploration of the bonds between these young women, the competition among these young women and the reality of a fight for survival in the wilderness, just explores really interesting human dynamics. And I am not afraid of young people watching that at all.”
But some people in the TV industry are, and further assume that if a show has a focus on teen storylines, it will be incapable of striking the same artistic chord as more “grownup” content.
“Ashley and I did start off writ- ing in a teen space,” says Bart Nickerson, who along with Ashley Lyle co-created “Yellowjackets” and showruns the series with Lyle and Jonathan Lisco. “Our first couple of jobs writing were on things that would be considered a ‘young adult’ series. And there was always this question that we would get posed to us in general meetings and stuff, ‘Have you ever considered writing for adults?’ I don’t think it was meant to be condescending, but it was almost like, ‘You guys ever consider doing something that matters?’ We’ve never really seen writing about young people as this thing that is instantly less meaningful.”
Lyle has found that shows that are “quote unquote young adult” will usually have a more female-skewing audience.
“They tend to be focused on romance often — young love and things of that nature. And they get immediately categorized as something that is narratively or thematically lesser than. At the same time, I think there’s a distinction between shows that are aimed at teenagers and shows that are about teenagers,” she says. “There are points of inspiration for us, things like ‘The Virgin Suicides,’ a movie and book very much about teenage women and definitely not for a younger audience. We always aspired for this show to be more like that. It’s a show about teenagers and that’s just because it’s about these women who are our main characters and it’s about these different points of their life.”
Nickerson adds: “I wonder if part of it is in things like ‘The Virgin Suicides,’ ‘The Bell Jar’ and ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ the lens they are viewing those younger stories through. You always get the sense the narrator, very overtly in ‘The Virgin Suicides,’ is at mid-life looking back. Sylvia Plath’s in her 30s when she writes ‘The Bell Jar.’ There’s a looking-back weariness to the narration. So, I do wonder if that is also part of it, that there’s a way to write teen characters where it’s almost as though the narrator is also of that same time period, which can be very cool. But in terms of critics respecting it, or even audiences respecting it, they do seem to be more comfortable processing something as weighty when there is a middle or a later in life looking-back quality.”
Thatcher has seen the importance of that flashback nature of “Yellowjackets” come through in her interactions with older fans.
“You think that younger stories only attract younger audiences, but it is so totally false,” she says. “And because it takes place in two different times, I think it has such a wide audience. And I have a lot of people come up to me and saying, ‘I was you in high school. You don’t know how much that means to me, because you don’t see it on TV a lot.’ To have people see themselves in [my character of] Natalie is such a strong feeling and that’s what I want to keep doing. My sole purpose in this job is for people to find solace and feel less alone and see themselves in the character and make connections like that.”
One particularly emotional but grounded scene for the survival drama with a cannibalistic twist and suggested supernatural elements is when teen Taissa helps teen Shauna attempt an abortion in the wild. For Brown and Nélisse, it’s these uncomfortable and stirring moments — ones that treat the teen storyline with as much gravity and weight as the adult plot — that make “Yellowjackets” a groundbreaking show not just for the youth space, but all series.
“There may be certain tropes, for lack of a better word, that these characters fall into,” Brown says. “Laura Lee [Jane Widdop] is the Christian one, and Taissa is the focused one. But within those tropes, they are blown apart and explored with such intelligent dialogue and masterful character development. That doesn’t necessarily happen on teen dramas because stereotypical, quote teen dramas, want to just move, move, move and keep the story going. ‘Yellowjackets’ isn’t afraid to sit in the silences and the uncomfortable moments — to sit and watch someone have an abortion as opposed to just talking about it.”
Nélisse says she sees it as the show taking important risks. “But I think that’s what people need. They need to see reality and they need to not see everything sugar-coated or embellished or pretty, because that’s just not how life is. And that’s the beauty of life, is that sometimes it is ugly. And so, we need to show these uglier sides of reality in order for people to feel connected to the stories. I do think that is the strength of Showtime and HBO, is that they’re not scared to show the ugliness of it all. And that’s why it works so well right now.”