Do we really want to watch a thriller about a devastating virus that kills off half the planet and condemns the survivors to life in a chaotic hellscape? Surprisingly, after watching the first four episodes of FX on Hulu’s Y: The Last Man, my answer is: Yes, actually, we do.
Y: The Last Man — debuting next Monday, Sept. 13 on the streamer — does have eerie parallels to today’s headlines that cut a little close to the bone. But it’s also a smart twist on the post-apocalyptic genre, spiked with intense action, intriguing philosophical quandaries and slivers of dark humor. The project has been in development hell for half a decade and suffered through several false starts, but the long gestation period seems to have been worth it: This is good.
Based on the acclaimed Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra comic book series — Eliza Clark (Animal Kingdom) serves as showrunner — Y: The Last Man plunges us into an alternate future where a mysterious virus has killed off every living creature with a Y chromosome across the planet. The aftermath depicted here is genuinely chilling, with dead bodies and wrecked cars lining the city streets. Somehow, for reasons unexplained, a young man named Yorick (Ben Schnetzer) and his pet monkey Amp (short for Ampersand) are the only biological males left alive. Yorick is kind of a goofball: He’s an aspiring escape artist — he sees mere card tricks as “below my skill level” — and when his girlfriend ditches him after a botched proposal, he spends his first few post-virus days searching for her, spray-painting messages to her all over town. Schnetzer doesn’t have many screen credits, but he quickly establishes himself as a breakout star here: He’s funny and appealing, and appropriately bewildered at Yorick’s strange fate.
But Yorick isn’t the main focus of Y: The Last Man, and frankly, he shouldn’t be. (This is a world now run by women, after all.) Diane Lane plays Yorick’s mother Jennifer Brown, an influential Congresswoman who becomes President of the United States after the line of succession is decimated. The resulting power vacuum creates a power struggle, leading to petty political squabbles with very high stakes, and Lane brings great gravitas and emotion to a tricky role. Yorick also has a sister named Hero, played by Goliath‘s Olivia Thirlby; in a clever twist, the virus gives her a free pass on a catastrophic mistake she made, but the immense guilt still haunts her. She’s paired up with her best friend, a trans male named Sam (The Fosters‘ Elliot Fletcher), as they search for a safe haven in a suddenly hostile world.
Y: The Last Man kicks off with a really strong premiere: The hour efficiently lays the groundwork by letting us get to know the characters before the virus strikes, and the whole thing has a low-key, shaggy-dog charm to it. It throws a lot of disparate story threads at us, but they’re all compelling in their own way: Agent 355 (Shameless‘ Ashley Romans), an enigmatic covert agent with superhuman fighting skills; Kimberly (Amber Tamblyn), a conservative crusader and the (soon-to-be former) President’s daughter; Nora (Homeland‘s Marin Ireland), a savvy political advisor… and their whole world changes in an instant when all the men in their lives start spitting up blood and falling over dead. The premiere is an inspired weaving together of creeping dread and disaster movie spectacle, laced with a quirky sense of humor.
The subsequent episodes don’t quite live up to that promise, though. Oddly, the fact that only men were killed by the virus is rarely spoken aloud or considered. (That’s the show’s whole hook!) It frustratingly dodges interesting questions about gender and becomes generically post-apocalyptic at times, slipping into Walking Dead territory with humans looming as the biggest threat. It also has trouble maintaining narrative momentum: There are too many characters on too many separate side missions, and it relies on a few unlikely coincidences to force them to intersect. (Thirlby makes a big impression as Hero in the premiere, but then she inexplicably disappears for an entire episode, just when we were starting to get emotionally invested in her.) There’s a really good show somewhere in here, but it keeps getting bogged down by the weight of its own ambitions.
Still, Y: The Last Man has a lot of potential. The opening episodes present us with several mysteries that I’m looking forward to untangling. (Why is Yorick still alive? And what’s Agent 355’s deal, anyway?) Plus, the post-virus world hits on some unexpectedly timely issues. Thanks to widespread power outages and food shortages, everyone’s under siege and in survival mode, giving rise to rampant paranoia, conspiracy theories and angry rioting. (When Lane’s new President gives a stirring speech about responding to tough times, she might as well be speaking directly to us.) It may not have intended to, but this show effectively harnesses the power of our collective COVID-era trauma, with everyone just yearning for things to go back to normal. “Without men, there is no future,” Kimberly reminds Jennifer, but she has a firm reply: “We’re just trying to survive the present.”
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: Y: The Last Man puts a clever spin on the post-apocalyptic genre with dark humor and an unexpectedly timely premise.