Fans of the popular early 2000s comic series Y: The Last Man have been waiting for years to see Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s post-apocalyptic tale brought to life. And to be honest, in a television era where dystopian stories of the contemporary, speculative, and fantastical variety are flourishing on both mainstream cable networks and niche streamers, it’s sort of surprising that it’s taken so long for someone to tackle this particular property. On paper, the concept seems like a slam dunk, even to those of us who may not be as intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the comics themselves.
Yet, FX’s new small screen adaptation (airing on Hulu) proves nothing so much as the fact that that assumption may not have been entirely correct. The story of Y: The Last Man may feel uncomfortably familiar for some viewers: a global pandemic essentially decimates the Earth, killing every mammal with a Y chromosome. Planes crash, world leaders drop dead, scores of animals and bodies litter the streets. In the wake of this destruction, the women of the world must figure out a way to build a new world from these ashes. Unbeknownst to most of them, however, one cisgender man did survive: An escape artist named Yorick Brown (Ben Schnetzer) and his pet monkey Ampersand. Why? Well, that’s the mystery the rest of the show is apparently built to find out.
Besides Yorick, Y: The Last Man features at least half a dozen other major characters whose stories are ultimately intertwined with or connected to his. His mother, President Jennifer Brown (Diane Lane), struggles to figure out how to balance the needs of a nation with her own desire to find her missing daughter and, later, to hide the existence of her living son from her political rivals. Hero (Olivia Thirlby), Yorick’s sister, is on the road with her trans best friend Sam (Elliot Fletcher), searching for safety as she wrestles with her own guilt over a traumatic event that took place just before the world changed forever.
The mysterious Agent 555 (Ashley Romans) is tasked with keeping Yorick alive (read: kicking a lot of random people’s butts) and shepherding him on an increasingly dangerous search for a geneticist who may or may not be able to figure out why he’s still alive. And then there’s Nora Brady (Marin Ireland), the now-dead former president’s press secretary, who’s willing to do anything to protect her young daughter even if it means living among a dangerous group of survivalists.
Perhaps none of us should be surprised that a show named Y: The Last Man cares more about its single biologically male character than it does the dozen women that make up the rest of its primary cast, but wow is it ever disappointing to watch play out. Yes, there are plenty of female characters here, and the show does a wonderful job of being inclusive, remembering that gender is not a binary construct and actively including trans characters in a way the original comics did not. But, in the six episodes available to screen for critics, no one besides Yorick is given much in the way of interiority or depth, and even he often seems like a pale imitation of Klaus from The Umbrella Academy, just with card tricks and a monkey as accessories instead of drugs.
As television series go, Y: The Last Man is bland and unremarkable, an almost completely forgettable thought experiment that doesn’t bother interrogating the most interesting questions it poses in any substantial way. It struggles to balance its story across its multiple main characters and seems weirdly incurious about the wider ramifications of the world it’s created. And you can decide for yourselves whether its biggest problem is its truly bizarre pacing or the fact that it repeatedly eschews embracing complex problems in the name of presenting straightforward narrative binaries.
While there’s nothing especially groundbreaking about Y: The Last Man, there’s nothing truly awful either. It’s pretty much exactly the show you expect it to be, right down to its puzzle box conspiracy theories and pedestrian idea of post-apocalyptic politics. (Though Amber Tamblyn’s turn as an over-the-top conservative activist and former First Daughter who’s obsessed with saving male “genetic material” from fertility clinics is living-her-best-life good.)
Y: The Last Man is perfectly serviceable sci-fi fare that won’t move the needle too much in either direction in terms of generating controversy or inspiring awe. And that’s a shame. Because in the year 2021, in the world we live in right now, after a half-dozen other shows have really pushed the envelope in this genre, this series is uniquely positioned to be something great. That it settles for dull and uninspired breaks my heart.
Maybe I’ve just watched too many seasons of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale which, for all its flaws (please just stop with the constant rape and torture porn!) is a series that is at least willing to depict the natural ends of a global nightmare scenario without flinching. Perhaps it’s often a little too willing to show us its horrors in gut-wrenching, close-up detail, but it’s a show that’s willing to take narrative risks, with all the good and bad that can come along with that.
Y: The Last Man destroys the world as we know it, but the show could not be less interested in exploring the specifics of the ruins that take its place. The series’ pilot is set almost entirely in our modern-day reality, with the deadly plague that provides the series’ premise arriving only in the episode’s final moments. Its subsequent installments speed past the immediate fallout, leaving viewers to imagine the myriad ways society fell apart and pulled itself back together again.
The show is purposefully vague about basic facts and offers few clues about how the world restructured itself into what suddenly seems like a new status quo. There are apparently gangs of roving, furious women outside the White House, clogging the streets near government camps, setting up heavily armed fortifications in local big box stores. What do they want? How has this new world order failed or helped them? Do they serve a purpose in the story beyond being a vague, faceless threat? We don’t know, because this story doesn’t particularly care about telling us. And even when we get to spend some time with a few of these women, it’s barely enough to learn their names or specific griefs, let alone find out how they really feel about the sudden rise of the matriarchy.
For all that Y: The Last Man is a story about a society where women are now in charge, it has a very limited view about what that might look like, or how it would necessarily be different from the world we live in now. Granted, the old axiom about there being universal peace if women were just allowed to run the world is probably untrue, but it seems equally as unlikely that the status quo would essentially remain the same while wearing a feminine face. Yet, that is the world this Y: The Last Man imagines. And I can’t help but wish the series dreamed a little bit bigger.
Y: The Last Man premieres Monday, September 13th on Hulu (as part of the FX on Hulu partnership).
Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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