If Ted Lasso was the uplifting comedy that helped millions through the quarantine phase of the pandemic, Showtime’s Yellowjackets is the drama that reflects our collective survival.
The series explores what happens when a high school girls soccer team’s plane crashes in the remote wilderness in a 1996-set story and a present-day timeline that points to a larger mystery that may explain how they survived and the long-term effects of the tragedy.
Yellowjackets has translated its large and vocal online hive to seven Emmy nominations, including outstanding drama series; a pair of writing nods for its married creators, Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson; and for two of its four central stars, Melanie Lynskey and Christina Ricci.
The two creators open up about the show’s complicated casting process, twisty timelines and the many questions they intend to answer.
Congratulations on the seven Emmy nominations. Were you surprised by the TV Academy’s response to the show?
ASHLEY LYLE The word I’d use is gobsmacked! (Laughs.) We were so surprised, in such an incredible way. We had our fingers crossed for a few of them but didn’t dare to dream. It was an incredibly nice surprise.
BART NICKERSON I was surprised but also so happy. We’re so proud of this thing we made with all these people, and to have all these nominations is the best feeling.
LYLE It’s tricky, too, because we love all four performances — we’re biased that Tawny Cypress and Juliette Lewis were robbed!
NICKERSON I can say with total objectivity that they were robbed.
LYLE It’s such an incredible team. The entire cast was texting each other. They’re all so supportive. You hear about shows with resentment among [their] cast; that’s not the case here, everyone is so thrilled.
What is it about Yellowjackets that you think resonated with so many viewers?
LYLE It’s not a coincidence that we’re all starring in our own personal survival epics right now. That might have struck a chord with people, considering the world around us. It’s important to treat that subject matter with the gravity it deserved and the incredibly dark humor we’re living with every day.
How much do you think the nostalgia factor helped the show cut through?
LYLE It’s got to be part of it. It also helps that our actresses are so good. I forget Melanie started in the ’90s because she’s done incredible work for so long. Christina and Juliette are so seminal to that period. Moving forward, we never want the casting to feel gimmicky. We want the right person for the role and not purely for nostalgia or the wrong reasons.
What surprised you about the response to the show? Did you expect viewers to be as obsessive with fan theories?
LYLE We did not. We’d occasionally joke about screenshotting in the room. We had some experience on The Originals, which had an incredibly passionate fan base. You make jokes in the writers room if they screenshot stuff, but you don’t think they’ll do it. It’s so egomaniacal to think people will spend that much time thinking about your show. But it’s incredibly gratifying — and terrifying! — that they do that.
NICKERSON On the pilot, [director] Karyn Kusama said a few times that people will be screenshotting this show and that this show had that potential.
One of your Emmy nominations is for outstanding casting. How challenging was it to cast, considering you’re looking at young and older versions of the same characters?
NICKERSON Melanie was first in. She was someone we went to, and as soon as she wanted to do it, it was life-changing news. Then it became about finding the teen person to match with her.
LYLE We had lots of lists of actresses we loved and admired. We thought about it in the development process, and Melanie was at the top of our list, as were Juliette and Christina. Then it was the process of reaching out and seeing if they responded to the script. For the younger roles, we auditioned hundreds of actresses. It’s like putting together a puzzle. Some actresses we cast came in for other roles. Courtney Eaton [Lottie] read for Shauna. Samantha Hanratty [young Misty] read for [young] Natalie, and we loved how talented they were. It wasn’t the right fit, but we needed them in the show and sometimes we had these “Eureka!” moments. It was a complicated process that felt insurmountable at times.
Have any of the fan suggestions inspired your casting search for season two?
NICKERSON Some of the casting is halfway there. When you have someone playing the 1996 version already, it’s harder to cast that second person after you have the first person embodying it. It’s a degree of difficulty that makes it exciting and satisfying when the fans know who it should be. It’s like solving a puzzle — you have so few options because the character already exists.
The central theme of season one was exploring what’s real and what isn’t. What was it about that discussion that appeals to you both?
LYLE That’s one of the big questions: What do you believe in? What’s real? What isn’t? How do you behave and how does the environment you’re in shape the way you behave? How much of your experience is internal versus external? How much of it are you self-generating or reacting to the world around you? Everyone struggles with that at some time or another. We’re big believers that TV storytelling is about trying to figure things out. We came into this wanting to ask questions more than provide answers, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.
NICKERSON We’re not going to come to the end of this and have organized some great statement on the psycho-spirituality of humanity. We’re curious of what we can learn for ourselves about it.
On a mystery box show like this, is it important to answer every question you pose?
LYLE It’s important to answer the plot questions we raise, or dig at it and not let it exist as a theoretical mystery. Who is blackmailing the Yellowjackets, we intend to answer. What does it all mean and what’s the point of human experience? Those are questions we won’t be able to answer fully. But we don’t want to leave people hanging on a plot level.
What are the challenges of writing a show with two time periods and multiple mysteries?
LYLE We joke that our next show is a two-hander office comedy set in three locations. It’s a lot! We were not thinking of that when we were developing it and didn’t second-guess how difficult it would be. We came up in shows that were complicated with mythology. We’re methodical with breaking stories by character and by timeline. There’s a lot of color coding going on. It’s absolute chaos but in a Beautiful Mind kind of way. Some of it is being methodical and the rest is being instinctual.
NICKERSON It’s hard. A lot of it is the balance. Are the storylines individually working and developed enough? If you’re paying close attention to the storylines, each episode has these internal arcs, and you make space for all of those for a balanced episode that gives all the different storylines the right amount of weight.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.