Nostalgia, they say, comes in waves, each one crashing as a new generation learns how their parents lived. In the 1990s, the narrator of Radiohead’s song “The Bends” proclaimed, albeit sardonically, “I wish it was the ’60s.” By the aughts, pop culture was awash in a yearning for the ’80s—an epoch that saw, perhaps, its final crescendo with the debut of Stranger Things in 2016. Now, in 2022, it seems as though many people—or at least the ones who make movies and TV—are longing for those days when Radiohead themselves first dominated the airwaves.
This churn, the phenomenon of people resuscitating the culture of the past every few years, is at best described as a nostalgia cycle. Problem is, there’s no real metric for the frequency with which these revolutions happen. The aughts, thanks to shows like Mad Men, also had an air of ’60s sentimentality, for example. Adam Gopnik, writing for The New Yorker, called this the “Golden 40-Year Rule,” but sometimes culture whips around much more quickly than that. All it takes is some kids on TikTok breathing new life into Twilight to bring the 2000s back. Or, in the case of Showtime’s mystery/horror/coming-of-age drama Yellowjackets, a deeply wistful appreciation of those flannel-clad days before social media and smartphones took over teens’ lives.
Let’s be clear: Yellowjackets is not a hazy, rose-colored view of youth. It’s about a New Jersey high school girls’ soccer team that gets stranded in the Canadian wilderness following a plane crash on their way to a national championship in 1996. Some of them—the show is purposefully vague on how many—make it back to civilization. But there are hints, many of them, that Very Bad Things happened out in those woods, up to and including some sick ritualistic Lord of the Flies shenanigans and maybe-probably cannibalism. Like Lost, it time-jumps—cutting between the girls’ childhoods and the present day, sprinkling Reddit-thread-worthy unsolved mysteries everywhere. But unlike Lost, its appeal feels rooted in a desire to return to those halcyon days before the internet—while also serving as a reminder that they weren't so halcyon at all.
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It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when, but at some point in the last few weeks, Yellowjackets went from a low-key phenomenon to a cultural force. Case in point: There’s now a BuzzFeed quiz designed to tell you which member of the soccer team you are. A lot of the show’s popularity can be attributed to stellar reviews, excellent word-of-mouth, and the fact that viewers had extra time during the holiday season to catch up—plus Omicron has kept many home and watching.
But there’s something else, something even more base about its appeal: It’s a mystery full of the kinds of symbolism, clues, and Easter eggs that the internet loves to devour and hypothesize about. There are Reddit threads (lots), news articles, and more Twitter chatter than you can shake an Antler Queen at, and in this deep-winter Covid-19 surge moment, it’s hard not to go down an online rabbit hole trying to decode it all. Last night’s Season 1 finale only gave fans more cannibal catastrophe content to chew on.
This is all somewhat ironic because one of the things that’s appealing about Yellowjackets is that it’s so lo-fi. American teens in 1996 barely had AOL, and none of them had smartphones. They listened to Snow’s “Informer” because that’s what was on the radio and watched While You Were Sleeping on VHS because there was no Netflix. This isn’t to say that everyone who watches Yellowjackets wants to go back to a more primitive, pre-internet time, but there is something appealing about living in that world—for Gen Xers and millennials who grew up in it and for younger generations curious about its contours.
It’s also a story that almost has to take place in a previous decade. If the Yellowjackets were a big-deal high school girls’ soccer team now, they’d all probably be quasi-famous TikTokers or microinfluencers. Their disappearance would be the subject of hours of online sleuthing, much like the show itself is. The reason the survivors of the crash (that the audience knows of thus far)—Shauna (Melanie Lynskey), Taissa (Tawny Cypress), Misty (Christina Ricci), and Natalie (Juliette Lewis)—were able to keep a somewhat low profile after their return to civilization is likely due to the fact that it happened before the era of Don’t F**k With Cats-style Facebook watchdogs, before Serial turned everyone into a wannabe detective. Not only does half the show take place in a wilderness with little to no technology, its modern segments feature heroines who largely eschew it, with the possible exception of Misty, who is now herself a true-crime junky. (Having Lewis, Ricci, and Lynskey—three ’90s indie-movie staples who built their careers just before the era of celebrity blog culture and managed to survive its wrath—play its adult leads remains the show’s best in-joke.)
All of this is coming right as ’90s nostalgia reaches something of a climax. There’s a new Beanie Babies documentary and a new version of Sex and the City. Low-rise jeans and bucket hats might be making a comeback. Lots of people are talking about Princess Diana again. The Matrix franchise was more of an early-aughts phenomenon, but Matrix Resurrections definitely brought back a ’90s-esque cyberpunk aesthetic. None of these things, though, captures what it was like to actually live in that decade the way Yellowjackets does. That is, perhaps, what makes it so unique. It’s one thing to watch Friends and revisit the manicured version of that era; it’s another to go back to the world of people who watched Friends. In Yellowjackets, those people may be cool teen girls who turn into ritualistic cannibals, but at least they only get turned into memes off-screen.
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