Is (Ahem) Paramount+SHOWTIME Eating Their Young?

This Sunday, the first of spring 2023, is a particularly seminal one in the wars of what we used to call pay television that nowadays involves subsets of far larger and still morphing multiplatform efforts.  While the final season of SUCCESSION launches on what for now is called HBO MAX,  its longtime rival, recently rebranded and repositioned as Paramount+SHOWTIME, will counter with the second season premiere of YELLOWJACKETS.

YELLOWJACKETS has been, by many measures, a success.  Its first season, per the network, was watched by more than 5 million viewers weekly, the most of any new series since when it launched BILLIONS in 2016.  Its ninth episode peaked at 1.41 million viewers, while its season finale, the only one of the original 10 to air without its established and (ironically) revived lead-in, DEXTER: NEW BLOOD, clocked in at 1.3 million multiplatform viewers.  And critics absolutely love the show–per ROTTEN TOMATOES, 100% of the show’s reviews have been positive, with season two’s early reviews mostly indicating it is showing growth potential.  And considering it’s a series set in two eras, the late 1990s, where the survivors of a plane crash carrying female New Jersey soccer players deep in the Canadian wildnerness, and present day, which chronicles the struggles of those that did eventually survive, and thus featuring both recognizable mature talent (Christina Ricci, Jason Segel and Lauren Ambrose, among others) and emerging teenage breakouts, its fan base is buttressed by the full range of the 18-49s that SHOWTIME coveted, as well as those under 18 that can nudge their paying parents to keep subscribing.    Demographically, it’s ideally suited to compete with the likes of SUCCESSION, not to mention Sunday night broadcast TV, and without SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL to compete with this time around has the potential to gain more traction.

And for those not fully familiar with the plotline, let’s just say in some ways it fills the void of what appears to be a Sunday night fixation with dead bodies, which THE LAST OF US’ recently completed freshman season produced stellar results for HBO, and which THE WALKING DEAD lifted AMC to ratings heights and zeitgeist dominance not seen before or since.  I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say not everyone who crashed in 1996 was around in 2021 because, well, a person’s gotta eat.

And, as showrunner Jonathan Lisco bragged to Yahoo!’s Tara Bennett, expectations should be raised for the upcoming season:

“I will tell you that if you thought last season was intense, I think last season may seem sort of like a leisurely drive through wine country compared to what we have in store for you,” Lisco teases in the latest issue of SFX Magazine, which features Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves on the cover. “And when I talk about more intense, I don’t just mean gore. It will be emotionally and psychologically.”

“In season one, it was about our teen characters learning to adapt to their harsh surroundings, and their adult selves trying to convince themselves that they could keep that trauma buried,” Lisco continues. “Our middle- aged women were running away from what happened in the woods and trying to desperately put it behind them. But in season two, they get caught and they’re forced to have a true reckoning.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s Daniel Fienberg was cooperatively upbeat in his review, if a bit more nuanced:

Showtime’s Yellowjackets, which premieres its second season opposite the fourth and final season of Succession, is a series with herky-jerky mechanics. Nothing in its structuring or tone feels inherently repeatable from episode to episode; it relies on wild variations in plot and characterization for its appeal. After loving the pilot, I kept watching the first season of Yellowjackets assuming that a precipice was approaching, but 10 episodes of twists were executed without a major breakdown in quality, 10 episodes of surprises unfolded without a collapse. It was a remarkable achievement in evading the inevitability of disaster.

Disaster could come at any point in Yellowjackets, and I can say with relief that it hasn’t occurred through the first six episodes of the second season either. Creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson aren’t just continuing to unfold this audacious blend of trauma-drama and ’90s nostalgia. They’re expanding the tapestry, continuing to service the elements that fans embraced in the first season while even, thankfully, offering some answers to the story’s mysteries and paying off some long-promised events.

So, to me, that sounds like a qualified hit with reason to remain buoyant, albeit cautious, particularly as YELLOWJACKETS is now standing alone without the DEXTER-verse as its lead-in.  And given the recent repositioning of SHOWTIME as a component of the Paramount+ streaming service, with many of the executives who supported (and even didn’t believe in) the show no longer in charge, expectations of YELLOWJACKETS have been raised to new heights.  As Lyle and Nickerson  explained to Feinberg’s THR colleague Mikey O’Connell, appropriately over a feast, they’ve got a lot on their plate:

Did you get a heads-up about all the changes, or were you learning about the network rebrand in the news?

NICKERSON By that point, we knew enough about what was coming that it wasn’t destabilizing. And being in the very fortunate position of having a show do well, we felt reasonably confident that the show would survive the merger. It was a little bit less stressful for us than it was for a lot of people.

New Showtime boss Chris McCarthy has been vocal about leaning into franchises. Are you already being pushed for a spinoff?

LYLE We’re aware that it’s something they’re interested in, and we certainly aren’t closed off to the idea. It would have to make sense. We have a couple of ideas.

How are you metabolizing the pressure on season two? People love to tear down the sophomore season of a first-year hit.

LYLE I describe it as … soul- crushing. (Laughs.) I think we came out of nowhere for a lot of people. Before it premiered, Jason Segel told us, “Don’t worry! There are three or four shows that everyone talks about and loves. There are three or four shows that everyone talks about and fucking hates. The other 595 fall right in the middle. Find a little audience and it’s fine.” We thought we’d be one of those, so this season feels different.

McCarthy’s vision, which Paramount chief Bob Bakish champions, is to emulate what Marvel has done with its -verse strategies, one that has benefitted Disney+ enough for it to become the top competitor to Netflix among those studio-based streaming entities.   And having now been handed the reins to SHOWTIME, the good news is that unlike his predescessor David Nevins, who unsuccessfully tried to coerce Bakish to sell him the network rather than co-mingle its storied brand in with Paramount’s other assets, he is boldly asking those in charge of his strongest assets to help him build out franchises that offer the holy grail of streaming–a new, buzzy asset to hook subscribers, and in aggregate a deep enough library to keep them viewing in their walled garden and eventually migrate to ad-supported series of similar appeal.

But is asking that of a show that, frankly, is in many ways more niche than mainstream, particularly at a time where even those most connected and supportive admit there is fragility, a realistic gameplan?  And will March Madness, SURVIVOR and WACO be strong enough promotional tentpoles to expect YELLOWJACKETS to grow into a broad and viable enough entity to merit executing on Nickerson and Lyle’s “couple of ideas”?  Particularly at a time where the service itself is being repositioned?

The good news is that season one had a disproportionately time-shifted audience, with well over two-thirds of those who viewed watching on their timetable.  So any “battle” with SUCCESSION is essentially cosmetic.  Ever since THE OFFICE and GREY’S ANATOMY squared off on Thursday nights as DVRs first became prevalent, and both NBC and ABC were able to create long-running hit franchises where passionate fans often watched both when the final results of time-shifted viewing were in, any concerns about competition need to be put into more modern context by those old enough to remember otherwise.  Among those of McCarthy’s generation, it has clearly never been a concern.

But believing it can become another WALKING DEAD, or even another LAST OF US, at this point, is premature at best.  And if one considers the track record of FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, or the perilous state of its spin-offs, not to mention the middling results of the most recent installments of the MCU, expecting even the strongest assets to grow into franchises because beancounting executives demand it is, well, soul-crushing.

I’m pulling for the show.  I finally got around to watching a couple of season one episodes, and while it’s not my cup of tea. I get why it is for others.  I actually saw elements of LOST in it, which certainly had its passionistas in its day and remains a critical goal for many writers and executives who saw it as a rare premium-level show for broadcast TV.  So I do think there is reason to be upbeat about the show’s chances to be a rare example of something that grows over time.

Banking on a franchise in such distracted times, without the kind of creative marketing camapign that got movies like SCREAM VI and COCAINE BEAR to break through the clutter, is a whole ‘nother story.  And is a show like this, with subject matter this polarizing, really capable of bleeding audience into the balance of assets that, of all people, Sylvester Stallone is the spokesperson for?

To me, I fear executive expectations for a YELLOWJACKET-verse may be, forgive me, somewhat cannibalistic.  I sure hope I eventually eat my words.  Just my words.

Until next time…

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