TV

‘Yellowjackets’ Is Finally Giving ’90s Alt Icons The Credit They Deserve

Nostalgia is often viewed as a limitless ratings well when it comes to television.

Networks bank on it with remakes and reboots, creators capitalize on its ability to make characters, settings, and storylines wistfully relatable. But, as much as it’s relied on to help new shows break through the crowded streaming landscape, it’s notoriously difficult to wield effectively. After all, how many throwbacks, prequels, and adaptations have we seen fail to capture the essence and flair that made their originals so popular?

That track record is what makes Showtime’s Yellowjackets that much more impressive.

The time-hopping series about a group of teenage soccer stars stranded in the wilderness following a freak accident is a melting pot of some of TV’s most addictive tropes: survival stories born from mysterious plane crashes, nature-infused mysticism, nonlinear timelines, and ’90s nostalgia. It sees-saws between the past and the present, following its younger cast as they try to endure the unforgiving wilds and catching up with its older cast 25 years later, as these now-grown women struggle to keep the past buried. The show is filled with the kind of plot twists and central mysteries that double as conspiracy-theory catnip for Reddit subs and hashtag fandoms. But the wildest swings – the secret societies and ritualistic sacrifices and shroom parties – work because its creators, Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, aren’t trying to exploit nostalgia – they’re paying homage to it.

And, besides Yellowjackets’ killer (pun intended) soundtrack, nowhere is that more evident than in its casting choices.

The ’90s gave us plenty of gifts: Tamagotchi’s, grunge, the hit NBC comedy Friends, and the internet. The decade also marked a time when Hollywood became more heavily influenced by the indie boom, leading to more bold and interesting storytelling across the board. Suddenly, teen romcoms were borrowing from literary classics, slashers were self-aware, and few topics were off-limits, illuminating stories about coming of age awkwardness that explored experimentation and puritanical pushback. Hell, the times even gave us a cult-classic about conversion camps that would one day age surprisingly well. Big names came from the era too: Sandra Bullock, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kirsten Dunst, and George Clooney all sprouted to A-list level heights during the decade, playing heartthrobs and shirtless hunks, quick-witted action heroines and murderous baby vampires.

But even though the ’90s could be considered Hollywood’s alt-era, there were actresses that still felt on the fringe – even more “alt” than the mainstream “alt.” They crafted careers based, not on prospective box office success, but on boundary-pushing material that interested and challenged them. They were riot grrrls, punk feminists subtly embracing third-wave feminism on-screen, playing serial killers and deranged teenagers and morbidly-curious young women. They were weirdos and misfits and proud of it.

If you hadn’t guessed by now, they were Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci, and Melanie Lynskey.

The leading ladies of Yellowjackets’ adult ensemble (along with the inimitable Tawny Cypress) play mature versions of the kind of teen oddballs they regularly depicted on-screen in the ’90s. Their film catalogs offer more of an intentional mix of dark, complicated characters thrust into dangerous situations, less action-packed blockbuster or crowd-pleasing rom-coms, though there’s some of that too (because these women can play anything). In their early days, Ricci, Lynskey, and Lewis seemed more interesting in telling the stories no one else seemed to be telling, playing women who were wild, wounded, fiercely independent, and just a bit different from everyone else — not unlike the group of characters their new series has assembled. It’s that through-line that makes their casting, and the show’s use of their clout, so genius. While Yellowjackets relies on its younger cast to physically embody that all-important nostalgic hook with chic mullets, oversized letterman jackets, and plaid – so much plaid – the series’ older cast gets to flaunt their roots. Their performances as psychotic nurses and relapsed addicts and blood-thirsty housewives feel all the more believable (and familiar) because of the roles they popularized decades earlier.

There’s a bit of vindication in seeing their success on the show, too. Lewis was an undeniable talent when she first got her start. As The Guardian once wrote, her characters were often an enthralling mix of “volatile and vulnerable” whether they were the teenage love interest of a homicidal con-man in Cape Fear or one-half of a serial killing Bonnie & Clyde in Natural Born Killers. Lewis possessed a raw magnetism on-screen, an unbridled sense of freedom, and a rebellious streak that made her unpredictable yet endlessly watchable. She seemed to choose stories that gave her space to explore her instincts on-screen, consistently playing women society would rather cast off and ignore. She gave those characters a voice. But the roles that aligned with her best qualities as an actress never felt like the kind of roles that would catapult her to “movie star” status. At least, not the clean-cut, wholesome, America’s Sweetheart kind that some of her contemporaries enjoyed.

The same can be said for Ricci, who, like Lewis, got her start young. Before the rest of us hit puberty, she had already acted opposite Cher and Wynonna Ryder and crafted an iconic interpretation of Wednesday Addams in two successful adaptations. A prepubescent goth maniac who harbored an intense fascination with death and enjoyed burning blonde-haired future girl-bosses at the stake, Wednesday was an alt-girl role model – a kind of feminist mascot for young girls in heavy black eyeliner, ripped jeans, and combat boots. Ricci’s career is filled with similar anarchists and outsiders, ax-wielding murderers and social outcasts – so many in fact that she’s earned a reputation for bringing exciting, hard-to-translate characters on-screen, making even their worst traits entertaining to watch.

And those same kind of on-the-periphery characters also make up many of the highlights in Lynskey’s portfolio of work.

A sorely underrated character actress who got relegated to wacky neighbor sitcom roles for a time, Lynskey got her break in the Peter Jackson-directed Heavenly Creatures. Starring opposite a young Kate Winslet, Lynskey played one-half of a murderous friendship – a young girl from a working-class family who develops an unhealthy obsession with Winslet’s affluent, eccentric Juliet. Even in her earliest role, Lynskey displayed the same quiet intensity and inner turmoil that would make her Yellowjackets character, Shauna, so exciting to watch. But, like Lewis and Ricci, her career is filled with on-the-cusp performances, roles in reimagined fairy-tales, and LGBTQ dark comedies that are only just now getting the mainstream recognition and praise they deserve. She didn’t always gravitate towards the social outcast roles or the off-beat anti-heroines that Ricci and Lewis did, but she performed best when she was able to disappear into a character — to get to the meat of what made a role different, challenging, or even terrifying to act out on-screen.

These women have always made the more exciting choice when it comes to the stories they tell on TV and film, and audiences are now getting a fresh reminder of their talent or, in some cases, an introduction to it thanks to the success of Yellowjackets. Not just in terms of the mind-boggling number of people fawning over the show, but also the critical consensus that its pitch-perfect casting doesn’t just hook viewers, it elevates central storylines within the drama.

Lewis, Ricci, and Lynskey were ’90s anti-heroines. They played flawed and complicated characters who taught us that yes, women could be sadistic, unhinged, reckless megalomaniacs too. In Yellowjackets, they inhabit some of those same traits. Ricci’s take on Misty as a lethal, manipulative sociopath echoes some of the best choices she made as Wednesday Addams and Lizzie Borden. Lewis’ Nat is impulsive, brash, and broken, kind of like Kate in From Dusk Till Dawn and Mallory in Natural Born Killers while Lynskey’s Shauna, an unfulfilled housewife seemingly living her best friend’s fantasy, harnesses the same reserved savagery and endless emotional depth that made Pauline in Heavenly Creatures and Michelle in Togetherness so entertaining to watch.

It’s as if Yellowjackets recognizes the clout these women should have, the talent we maybe forgot about and gives them the kind of scenery to chew on as lunatics and nonconformists, outlaws, exiles, and eventually, criminals – roles women have only recently begun to inhabit in higher-profile projects. They’re also the kind of roles we owe to Lewis, Lynskey, and Ricci, who were playing them long before it was cool to be screwed-up and unlikable on-screen.

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