The FX on Hulu’s long-awaited adaptation of Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s comic classic Y: The Last Man is such a collection of apocalyptic best hits. Comparisons will span from The Stand to The Walking Dead to 28 Days Later to The Strain to Revolution to Jericho. At least for me, the most lasting parallels were to a more unsettling form of dystopia, notably a real-world tinted by COVID and climate change and interwoven with unforgettable memories of September 11, 2001.
Perhaps this is why showrunner Eliza Clark’s take on the famous story (published from 2002 to 2008) catches. It even enriches much of what was rich and evocative in Y: The Last Man and effectively delivers to several of its beloved characters at times while falling short in one crucial area. The comic has plenty of horror and seriousness, but it’s mostly a lighthearted story. The TV program has lost a lot of its charm throughout six episodes. The show is frequently controversial, generally intriguing, and virtually never as fun as it should be.
Don’t get me wrong: understandably, a TV show depicting the abrupt and horrific death of half the world’s inhabitants would be gloomy. However, it is not the tone of the comic. And, as Netflix’s latest Sweet Tooth adaptation shown, a postapocalyptic landscape may include a wide range of vibrant hues and even silliness.
The penchant for gloom is evident from the beginning of Y, which was written by Clark and directed by Louise Friedberg. Unlike the comic, the series spends much more time establishing the people and situations before the sudden advent. This forces everyone on Earth with a Y chromosome to bleed horrifyingly out in the middle of daily activities. This causes massive traffic bottlenecks, thousands of airline disasters, global government instability, and, of course, bodies everywhere.
Yorick (Ben Schnetzer), a 20-something wannabe escape artist, and his unhelpful assistance monkey, Ampersand, are the exceptions to the Y-chromosome devastation (Computer effects are surprisingly well-rendered). Yorick is the child of Jennifer Brown (Diane Lane), a Democratic member of Congress who has been elevated to the presidency due to these tragic events, and the brother of paramedic Hero (Olivia Thirlby). Her acts have scarred him during the epidemic.
When I initially read the comics 15 years ago, I thought Y: The Last Man was essentially Yorick’s narrative. However, further readings have revealed that Yorick is an immature, limitedly driven protagonist. I was probably an ignorant, limitedly motivated protagonist 15 years ago. And that the narrative is truly an ensemble piece. Clark clarifies the ensemble structure by completely removing certain story strands and completely reworking others.
Agent 355 (Ashley Romans), the late president’s right-wing pundit daughter Kimberly (Amber Tamblyn), and his former press advisor Nora are among the characters (Marin Ireland). There is also the ethically complicated scientist Dr. Allison Mann (Diana Bang), the subject of well-deserved jokes. While Yorick is an infuriatingly reactive leading man, he remains the focal point around which the other characters join and split and interact at such a breakneck pace that it feels like a lot occurs in the early episodes while covering only a sliver of the comics.
Vaughan and Guerra’s comics are incredibly brilliant but in a 2002 kind of manner. They understand how the loss of half the population would affect politics and what a shortage of men would mean for some organizations with established demographic imbalances. The comics were aware that a chromosomal epidemic would target cisgender males and that trans guys would still exist, but they weren’t ready to investigate what that meant at the time.
Clark and her writing team are better able to address the idea that not everyone with a Y chromosome is a man and delve into what it would mean to be a trans man in this landscape. This is accomplished by utilizing Hero’s friend Sam (played superbly by Elliot Fletcher) as a jumping-off point for many of the series’ most fascinating talks. It’s a more realistic depiction of a whole society that has moved beyond a binary notion of gender while also changing the stakes for how people in this world would respond to Yorick. I believe the series is more suited to interact with the former than with the latter.
Clark has some solid new material due to the last decade’s increasingly poisoned and divisive debate on gender issues. Add current limits on reproductive rights to the present resonance. And, while COVID-19 isn’t explicitly incorporated into the storyline, it’s still a post-pandemic scenario in which the lone surviving white guy prioritizes self-entitlement over communal survival and occasionally refuses to wear a mask even when it might save lives. So come to your conclusions.
Clark’s sober approach to Y: The Last Man gives it foundation and thematic depth, as well as setting up numerous fantastic monologues to highlight its speculative choices. It also makes the program talky and confusing, and while the storyline isn’t exactly sluggish, it never strikes the proper balance between action and adventure. And if pop whimsy is your favorite aspect of the comics, it’s usually missing here. The makers of the series focused on what is sad and terrifying, without necessarily understanding that parts of the series’ genre clichés should be enjoyable and thrilling. It is possible to wish to leave a fictitious world while yet have it play as an escapist.
In a part that some people will find obnoxious without realizing it, Schnetzer adds some fun to the series and brilliantly portrays the puerile aspect of a guy who has no ambition to be humanity’s savior. Over time, he and Romans, who became my favorite part of the program, had an excellent squabbling relationship. And, after only a few episodes, the inclusion of Bang solidifies the show’s core trio. Lane, Thirlby, and Ireland all provide a decent balance of hard-edged intellect and vulnerability. At the same time, Tamblyn adds much more of a sense of endangered humanity than you might expect from a one-dimensional villain.
Y: The Last Man is a comic for adults with youthful enthusiasm. From the graphic depiction of the disease to the nudity flexibility that probably stems from the “on Hulu” component of “FX on Hulu,” the TV series is maybe too mature for its good. It’s impressive, though, that Y made it to the screen at all. So I’m prepared to give the series more time to loosen up, or perhaps the real world more time to become less dystopian.