It's a tale as old as time. Boy and girl meet. Boy and girl fall in love. They then get married and write a show about a soccer team who turns into cannibals. Classic love story, right?
Okay, so it's not traditional, but that is the very loose origin story behind Yellowjackets, Showtime's breakout drama. Created by husband-and-wife showrunners Bart Nickerson and Ashley Lyle, the show is up for seven awards at the 2022 Emmys on Sept. 12, including Outstanding Drama and two Outstanding Writing slots for the couple.
Nickerson and Lyle, who previously worked on Narcos and The CW's The Originals, first thought of the concept for the show in 2017, during one of their many marital pitch conversations. Some couples argue over where to order out dinner, this duo debates storylines.
"We are married to each other and spend an obscene amount of time together, and so we are just always throwing ideas back and forth, and some of them get a 'huh' response and others might even get that same response but then they kind of just take hold, take root a little bit," Lyle told E! in a recent phone interview. "Then, a couple days later the other person will be like, 'You know, here's a thing we can do with that idea or here's an idea for a character,' and they kind of end up having their own gravitational pull. This is one of them."
It's easy to see why. Yellowjackets is a little bit of everything, which somehow makes it entirely its own: It's a coming-of-age tale, psychological thriller, high school drama and survival story, all melded together and told in two timelines. Think Lost meets Lord of the Flies and then starts a group chat with Mean Girls and Netflix's canceled-too-soon teen drama The Society.
The premise is simple but gripping: In 1996, a high school soccer team finds itself deserted in the remote wilderness after their plane crashes en route to their championship game. Now, in the present-day, the survivors are still grappling with what exactly happened during that time. Spoiler alert: There are no red cards or referees in the woods.
While Lyle and Nickerson got their start as writers on The Originals, a spinoff of The Vampire Diaries, Yellowjackets is basically The CW After-Hours. Sure, half of its cast would more than fit in on the network and there are love triangles and teen angst, but cannibalism? That's a pretty dark storyline destined for cable and a crucial element that was part of the pitch for the show since day one, long before the idea of alternating between two timelines.
"It was a girl sports team, lost in the woods, well, obviously they have to become cannibals," Nickerson explained, adding that it was the third idea that sprung to mind when they started debating, "What if we track the survivors 25 years later?"
Rather than save the cannibalism as an episode- or season-ending shocker designed to land the show in Twitter's trending topics widget, viewers see what the girls have turned into starting with the very first scene of the show. It's a strategic storytelling decision, a shock-and-raw approach if you will. (Consider this one barbecue we were happy not to receive an invite too.)
"We knew very early on that we wanted to put that out front because in our minds this isn't a story about what happened versus why it happened," Lyle explained.
And that mystery will continue to reveal itself over the course of the 10 episodes in both timelines. As the soccer team contends with the elements in the wilderness, the survivors are attempting to keep the past buried 25 years later after receiving mysterious threats. But that doesn't mean viewers should expect all of their questions to be answered by season's end.
"When we were formulating and developing the idea we always saw this as a multi-season story and our goal in the first season is to very much answer certain questions, because I personally get very irritated with shows that drag everything on forever and don't give you any answers," Lyle said. "So, we wanted to answers some questions and ask some new ones, so that is hopefully what we accomplished over the course of this season."
To tell the story of the Yellowjackets, the showrunners put together a top-notch cast to play the team members in 1996 and 2021, with four sets of actors sharing roles. Here, Lyle and Nickerson break down how they cast each character and how the stars—including Melanie Lynskey and Christina Ricci, who were nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress and Outstanding Supporting Actress, respectively—bonded with their counterparts.
Yellowjackets will return for a second season on on Showtime.
(Originally published on Sunday, Dec. 5 2021 at 5:00 a.m. PST)