Friday, May 27, 2022

‘Yellowjackets’ and the Perils of the Mystery Box Show

WARNING: This posts contains major spoilers for season 1 of Yellowjackets.

The hottest show on television right now combines teen angst, a killer 90s soundtrack, a plane crash, and a cannibalism-based cult — and that last one isn’t even the wackiest aspect of the plot. Yellowjackets has seen its popularity skyrocket in the last few weeks as its devoted fandom dissected clue after clue to find out what really happened after a high school girls’ soccer team crashed into the remote wilderness in 1996. With many (including me) finding the show late in the season after hearing about it through word of mouth, the anticipation for the season finale grew week after week as more puzzle pieces fell into place.

But as soon as the season finale of Yellowjackets dropped on Showtime on January 16, the criticism began rolling in. Fans wondered why some of the show’s central mysteries had not been solved in the initial 10-episode order while others groused that it was unfair to have to wait for the second season. Even as Showtime quickly reassured fans that the next batch of episodes would be hitting screens by the end of 2022 (when the writer’s room hasn’t even assembled to break the second season yet, mind you), many were still unsatisfied. The resounding response was that by leaving some questions unanswered, the creators were breaking some kind of unspoken contract with viewers.

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This is a fundamental shift in audience expectations that has only grown more prominent as binge watching has become the default way of consuming content. Yellowjackets represents an interesting case study in how weekly content drops still have value but can also cause dissatisfaction in those accustomed to bingeable story arcs. While the show became a cult hit soon after its premiere in November (read: critics really loved it, but audiences hadn’t found it yet), it was the weekly drop model combined with the ability to binge and catch up that hooked a larger audience. In the last three weeks alone, the series has become Showtime’s most viewed freshman series ever, with the audience growing 35% between episodes 8 and 9.

Kailey Schwerman/Showtime

Had Yellowjackets dropped on any platform in its entirety, it would have generated buzz for a weekend before disappearing as so many promising series have done. But because the weekly premieres allowed word of mouth to build, the audience grew. Some came for the sensational cannibalism plotline and others for the overall mystery. Each week, the chatter on social media built more and more as fan theories proliferated. It soon became clear that there was simply no way to wrap up every question asked by the show within one or two episodes, and the season 2 renewal only made that more obvious.

But the finale, “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi,” revealed Yellowjackets to be a classic mystery box show. A “mystery box” is the term used to refer to any media that answers questions within the story only to generate new ones. Lost is the best example of this kind of storytelling, and the divided reception to its final season is similar to the criticism Yellowjackets is now receiving.

It’s unfair and incorrect to say Yellowjackets didn’t answer any of its central questions in the last few episodes. We learned that Travis’ death was indeed a murder at the command of a still-alive Lottie, that Jackie died of hypothermia in the woods, that Adam wasn’t the blackmailer (and that Jeff was), and that Taissa’s split personality was the “scary woman” her son saw outside the window. But these reveals only brought more questions. If Lottie survived (and is apparently leading a cult), did other members of the Yellowjackets survive? Who was writing in Jackie’s journals years after she died? Did Taissa’s animal sacrifice in the basement lead to her winning the election? Who the heck was that creepy guy in Jackie’s dying dream? And perhaps most crucial to many viewers: who is the girl who was killed in the harrowing opening scene of the series?

Paul Sarkis/Showtime
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It all comes down to one question: is a mystery box a satisfying method of storytelling? Many would argue that it is not, and they have a point. Generating mysteries just for the sake of keeping an audience watching, with no regard for whether it is a satisfying emotional experience, will never make a show that connects to viewers on a level other than curiosity. It displays a fear that without the “hook” of a flashy question (Who shot J.R.? Who killed Laura Palmer? What’s with the island?), there’s nothing holding the center of the show together. Lost ultimately fumbled the mystery box, leaving angry viewers who invested six years in the series demanding answers to questions it was apparent the creative team had either forgotten to answer or never knew the answer to in the first place. Its legacy is the reason any writers with a sci-fi series better have a full five-season arc in place before pitching their idea.

But Yellowjackets and Lost both succeed on another level: emotional investment. In the debate over Lost‘s conclusion, those who liked the way it all wrapped up (confession: I am one of them) point to the way the cast of characters drew the viewer in. We only cared about the island because of its inhabitants, and without the mystery element, the show works as a character study and as a metaphor for finding peace in life despite its unpredictability.

Kailey Schwerman/Showtime

Sure, the plotlines on Yellowjackets are compelling. Who doesn’t want to know exactly what caused those ordinary girls to do something terrible in 1996? But the reason we care at all is because the writers and actors have made us care about this team. Both the adult and teen versions of Shauna, Taissa, Natalie, and Misty are characters that are compelling to watch and fun to see interacting with each other. The finale in particular gave the audience some fantastic character moments, like the central four’s perfect entrance at their 25th high school reunion while “Come Out and Play” by The Offspring blasted. I often found myself forgetting that there was a larger mystery to be solved, content to watch these brilliant actors play off each other. I wasn’t solely looking for answers, so it didn’t bother me when we didn’t get every question answered.

With the binge model now the most common way of experiencing a series, any show that breaks this mold leaves itself open to critique. The same backlash hit The Boys, a show that moved to a weekly release model after dropping its first season all at once. The Boys proved that criticism wrong by growing its audience and receiving several Emmy nominations, with anticipation for its upcoming third season at an all time high. Yellowjackets will follow this blueprint, gaining viewers week to week and nabbing several major awards nominations even before it ended the first season.

Kailey Schwerman/Showtime

But just because so much content lately is created to be consumed rapidly and resolved nicely to provide the best value for stockholders (cough, Netflix), it doesn’t mean this is what is best for storytelling as a whole. I would rather see a show swing for the fences creatively and miss (or be cancelled before the full vision is realized) than to see showrunners cater to audiences who have lost the ability to engage with media for longer than a week without growing restless. Yellowjackets may be playing in the mystery box, but I am confident that its strong performances and commitment to character over story will ultimately allow it to rise above the critiques of the genre and deliver for its audience.

Yellowjackets season 1 is available now on Showtime.

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