Have you heard the buzz about Yellowjackets? A girls’ high-school football team survive a plane crash in the wilderness. The squad’s gruelling efforts to survive in the woods descends into macabre – and possibly cannibalistic – rituals. It’s part gruesome survivalist thriller, part study of trauma and part portrait of suburban ennui.
Created by Narcos writers Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, Showtime’s hit drama – the network’s biggest first-year series since Billions launched in 2016 – flashes backwards and forwards between two timelines: one in the Nineties, when the crash happened, and one in the present, where the now-adult women are still being haunted by their experiences and pursued by a mysterious enemy. It plays like a gender-flipped version of William Golding’s classic schoolboys-turn-savage novel Lord of the Flies. It also expertly mines nostalgia, from the soundtrack (Hole, Smashing Pumpkins) to the terrific performances from Nineties icons Melanie Lynskey, Juliette Lewis and Christina Ricci.
The show’s rise to prominence, however, may never have happened if it were not for one critical factor: Showtime’s decision to release just one episode per week rather than dropping it all in one conveniently binge-able sitting. The first episode aired back in November (on Sky Atlantic in the UK) and judging by the widespread excitement that spread across social media when the finale aired in the US on Sunday (UK viewers have to wait until 23 January), that strategy of serialisation has paid off in spades. The show has become a good old-fashioned word-of-mouth success, with fans endlessly debating its many mysteries. What exactly did happen in the wilderness? Who the hell is enigmatic and seductive interloper Adam? And where can I get my hands on Juliette Lewis’s gnarly jewellery? None of this feverish debate would have been possible if the entire season was released in one go.
Back in May 2019, after the lacklustre and prolonged ending of HBO’s massively popular juggernaut Game of Thrones, it seemed for a time as if television shows were heading in another direction. Netflix looked to have permanently changed the way we consume television with its model of dropping entire seasons of new shows all at once, and other streaming services began to follow suit. Three years on, things now look very different. Amazon Prime has recently moved away from dropping whole seasons of its new series, while Disney+ has generally preferred a weekly release schedule for its high-profile shows including WandaVision and The Mandalorian. HBO’s Mare of Easttown (shown on Sky in the UK) also arrived in serialised form, and benefitted from a growing audience sucked in by online discussion of its central mystery. In Britain, Line of Duty similarly built a huge returning audience by creating plenty of watercooler TV moments (even if these days, social media has largely replaced the office spots around which we once gathered).
It’s easy enough to understand why Netflix likes to keep us in a constant state of binge-viewing: as long as we’ve got another episode coming right up, we’re less likely to switch off (or even sleep!). This makes practical sense for Netflix, the world’s dominant streaming service, but it doesn’t lend itself to encouraging either online or real-life conversations around new shows, a factor that has ended up helping their competitors. If a whole season of a new series has already been released, with at least some of its mysteries resolved by the final episode, you’re probably unlikely to get into a debate about the show for fear of spoiling the ending for those less fortunate souls who haven’t just spent a full day rattling through an entire season of television. With a weekly release model, everyone is at the same place in the story at the same time, strengthening the communal experience and allowing theories about what might happen next to run amok.
Those conversations and guessing games quickly add up to help fuel word-of-mouth successes like Yellowjackets, which are all the more important at a time when it can feel hard to break free from the tyranny of algorithms. Streaming services have become very good at providing you with more shows like the ones you’ve already seen but tend to be less good about pushing you outside your comfort zone. Word of Yellowjackets’ quality, on the other hand, has spread like wildfire and drawn in viewers who might not have thought they’d enjoy a show about cannibalism, or indeed a show about a high-school football team. Algorithms only show us what we already like, and in a world of limitless entertainment, where’s the fun in that?
Of course, for those of you who really prefer to binge, you could always delay watching a series until it’s all out – provided you have the self-control to wait until a full season is over before you sit down to devour it all in one sitting. For everyone else, Yellowjackets has proved itself to be a modern iteration of something once thought to be nearing extinction: event television. In a world of instant gratification, it’s become something worth waiting for.