After years in production hell, a fiercely beloved comic series, ‘Y: The Last Man,’ finally makes it to television
When I first learned about the TV adaptation for Y: The Last Man, Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra’s award winning comic series that ran from 2002-2008, I did what I always do when I learn that a book I love will get the cinematic treatment: I got excited, then nervous, then a little queasy, then hungry, and then excited again. That was in 2015. Six years later, after numerous production difficulties and delays, FX on Hulu has gifted us the first three episodes of the long-awaited series, and I feel the excitement and anxiety boiling in my belly once more.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
“Y” tells of a world in which all mammals with a Y chromosome die in a violently fell swoop, all nearly instantaneous victims of a mysterious, unidentified illness, leaving the planet’s double X’s to keep the world from falling into complete chaos, and perhaps rebuild what’s left. All, that is, except for two: a young man named Yorick and his pet Capuchin monkey, Ampersand. And here we have the central trope of the series, which is: What’s it like to be the last man on the planet? And what would the world be like if it women suddenly ran the world and populated it almost exclusively?
In its first three episodes, “Y” does a solid job balancing apocalypse porn with the central conceit of the show. After The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, The Leftovers, amongst countless others, we’re pretty familiar and maybe a bit tired of watching how gruesomely the world burns when everything goes to hell, especially “in these uncertain times.” After all, The Walking Dead is more about people than it is about zombies. All narratives of societal breakdown exist to strip human beings to their emotional cores: how does our instinct and will to survive affect our personal values? Do we change them, or abandon them completely, and if so, how quickly and how dramatically?
We find this most readily in what happens to the American government after the global man-extinction event. Namely, a lowly congresswoman, deftly played here by a perfectly cast Diane Lane, becomes the President due to her place in the line of succession. If you’re thinking, “Hey, I saw this on Battlestar Galactica!” you’re not alone. There are clear echoes of Laura Roslin in President Brown, but not unwelcome ones. In the ensuing chaos, Brown finds herself forced not only to keep the government functioning and society from completely collapsing around it, but to do so while the survivors of the world’s greatest human tragedy mourn their loved ones and struggle with the accompanying PTSD. Talk about a hard job.
The ensuing power struggles in government complicate Brown’s job further, since the remaining Republican women, led by a pitch-perfect Amber Tamblyn as Kimberly Campbell Cunningham, a thinly-veiled version of Megan McCain, feel cheated out of their administration with the takeover by a Democratic woman. Cunningham is the now-deceased president’s daughter and a champion of alt-right female subservience, while at the same time sporting massive Lady Macbeth vibes in her manipulative schemes to gain any sort of power remaining to her and those who share her warped values. Seeing these two women at ideological odds with each other under such dire circumstances is something the show really nails, and both the writing and acting in these scenes is excellent.
Then, of course, we have Yorick, a kind of pathetic, wannabe escape artist with a dim future and few prospects, not to mention a toxic emotional dependence on his girlfriend, Beth. I’ve always loved the fact that the “last man” here is hardly the portrait of traditional masculinity but a slacker and a ne’er-do-well who begs his sister for enough money to buy fancy cheese for his girlfriend.
As fate has it, Yorick also happens to be President Brown’s son, a contrivance from the comic that can be difficult to swallow, but the show manages to handle it decently, and even leans into it. In a world now-filled with conspiracies about how and why this cataclysm happened, the surviving women would surely find it just as convenient as we do that the only remaining man turns out to be the President’s kid, a fact that could send the already violent survivors surrounding the White House into rage-filled chaos (and where have we seen that before, I wonder?). When they’re finally reunited, keeping Yorick’s survival a secret becomes a major plot-hinge, one that definitely allows the narrative tension to simmer.
Rounding out the dramatis personae are Yorick’s sister, Hero (Olivia Thirlby), a paramedic scraping around the fringes of leftover New York City with some serious survivor’s guilt issues, Nora Brady (Marin Ireland), a character new to the story that we see struggle as she goes from the former President’s aide to a mother simply trying to survive the end-times with her tween daughter, and my favorite, Agent 355 (Ashley Romans), an operative with the clandestine government organization called The Culper Ring which dates back to the Revolutionary War and is so secret that not even the President is aware of its existence.
Romans absolutely kills it, embodying one of the toughest and most compelling characters from the comics and truly bringing her alive on screen. Overall, the casting and acting are mostly excellent. They might be the thing that keeps this show humming if the writing starts to sag mid-season.
But alas…poor Yorick. Ben Schnetzer seems like the only casting decision that doesn’t hit its mark. In this adaptation, Yorick seems either miscast or mis-written, at least based on his character in the comics, but he’s certainly not a man of infinite jest as depicted here. Or even moderate jest, for that matter. Comic Yorick was funny, in a corny, Dad-joke kind of way, and humor seemed to be his primary coping mechanism, similar to Mark Watney in The Martian. Which is why we loved Mark Watney and Comic Yorick. Humor humanizes people, and if you don’t believe that, try getting a bot to tell you jokes. We find little humor in TV Yorick, replaced by a lot of whining and puppy-dog eyes.
That said, the show does give him a solid emotional breakdown scene when he’s naked, scavenging for clothing in a dry cleaners when a trio of Asian women threaten at gunpoint to sell him for supplies. His pleading expression of physical and emotional vulnerability gets him almost literally off the hook here. If he’d been a stoic, strong-but-silent type, there’s no doubt Yorick would’ve become a man-slave in short order. It’s a good scene, and while it does help us empathize with Yorick’s situation, it doesn’t really make us root for him like many of us did in the comic story. Ultimately, Yorick is the least compelling or appealing character on the show. Maybe that’s by design, but since he’s the title protagonist, I was hoping for more, at least in the first three episodes.
It also bears noting that Yorick is not, technically, the last man on the planet, a fact that the showrunners quickly point out. He’s just the last guy with a Y chromosome. This, of course, gives the writers plenty of room to incorporate gender issues into the show and update the property’s worldview for 2021, where trans people have much more of a voice than they did when the comic debuted nearly twenty years ago. To that end, we have a stirring performance by Elliott Fletcher, a trans man, as Sam Jordan, also a trans man, in a world in which all the biological males have died. His desperation at having only two weeks left of testosterone is just heart-wrenching. It would be gratifying if we get to see more of Sam’s story in the ensuing episodes.
I hope that moving forward, the series really starts to pick up steam as we find Yorick and 355 headed to Boston to meet a renowned geneticist named Dr. Mann, a fan-favorite character from the source material. We’ll also expect a big power struggle between President Brown and an alt-right extremist rival who claims she’s the rightful successor to the presidency, and who also proudly boasts that “Jesus wasn’t vaccinated.” At this point, the series has focused largely on the emotional fallout of the catastrophe, a bit of politics, and a couple of decent survival stories, but it’s been a slow burn. In truth, the comic was a wild adventure in a radically altered Earth, filled with compelling characters and exhilarating situations. Even pirates! We haven’t quite gotten there yet in this version, but there’s plenty of time, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
I would also really like to see the show bring in at least a little humor from the books, because 2021 desperately needs to balance the dark with some levity. So c’mon, television writers, I implore you, “Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?” At the very least, bring me some Dad jokes to go with my apocalypse. Is that too much to ask?