Y: The Last Man review: A long-awaited adaptation can't escape apocalypse fatigue
Y: The Last Man was one of the best comics ever. Now it's a boring TV show. The first sentence makes the second one sound suspicious, like I'm a complaining fanboy. Let me explain. At best, the new FX on Hulu drama (debuting Sept. 13) takes the Brian K. Vaughan/Pia Guerra source material in intriguing new directions. Too often, though, it's a dutiful adaptation, turning the comic's eccentricity into a familiar genre wallow.
The premiere starts with Yorick Brown (Ben Schnetzer) and his trusty capuchin Ampersand walking through a corpse-filled Manhattan. A sudden-onset mega virus has swept the world. "All of the men are dead," someone said on page 1 of Y: The Last Man issue No. 1 back in 2002. Our 2021 definitions aren't so binary, but this cisgender man and his monkey do appear to be the last two creatures on Earth with Y chromosomes.
A pandemic, a species-wide reckoning with gender norms: where to begin, really? Unfortunately, showrunner Eliza Clark mostly sets the series premiere before the beginning. An episode-long flashback introduces Yorick's mother, Jennifer, (Diane Lane), a Democrat dream politico with Pelosi-ish seniority but an Ocasio-Cortez-ish fanbase. She travels in the same elite social circles as Kimberly (Amber Tamblyn), the conservative president's daughter, who has Ivanka Trump's fame plus Serena Joy's literary career. The swirl of personal-political drama is not encouraging, and it feels like we could be watching any old glossy D.C. melodrama. Whoever thought the comic book needed to be more like House of Cards? Ugh, House of Cards, I just vomited in my mouth.
Once the virus finally hits, Y splits in three directions. Yorick meets Agent 355 (Ashley Romans), a government agent who becomes his bodyguard for a mission across the broken country. Eventually, they meet Dr. Allison Mann (Diana Bang), a spiky genius with brash disinterest in scientific ethics. These three need to spark off each other somehow, but if you've ever seen any Walking Dead ever, you already know the gist of their early adventures. They go somewhere — a market, the woods, Harvard — and wait for action to happen. They don't get along until attacking enemies force them to get along. Romans makes 355 a solid badass. The CGI monkey is a problem. Schnetzer's Yorick is nonstop annoying.
Actually, the show seems a bit embarrassed about Yorick. In fairness, the character was a very 2000s type of snarky nerd romantic. That describes five or six villains in Promising Young Woman, and I think general post-2002 cultural evolution explains why the show invents a new-ish parallel story about Yorick's sister Hero (Olivia Thirlby). Already pushed to the brink before the world collapses, Hero sets off toward D.C. with her trans friend Sam (Elliot Fletcher). The comic vaguely addressed transgender identity here and there, but Sam is a main character, and the always-great Thirlby sparks a complex chemistry with Fletcher. Sadly, their subplot dead-ends into the absolute worst Dead trope: the Secretly Violent Welcoming Cult. (The six episodes I've seen seem like a very long origin story to explain Hero's journey before we met her in the comic book. Message to all storytellers everywhere: If you think you need to add an origin story, you don't.)
Meanwhile, Jennifer becomes President of the United States. She's directly in charge of the 5,000 people living in the Pentagon, now a walled safe haven amid the chaos. Her all-female administration tries to maintain supply lines, power grids, and everything else. This new-for-TV setting can be a little ridiculous. Tamblyn spends half a season staring angrily down corridors, a family-values Republican trapped in a social-democratic safe space. I know I keep referring to the comic, but it's worth pointing out that Vaughan established Jennifer as a post-virus cabinet scretary. Surely, no adaptation strategy is more cliché than make somebody the president!
But the Pentagon stuff is, weirdly, all I care about. A single scene reveals office cubicles converted for daycare, where political widows mourn their husbands and sons while taking care of all the daughters left behind. Sequences like that suggest the complex ways civilization recovers from loss. There's a brewing battle between Lane and a hardcore right-wing politician which almost catches a fascinating tone of horror tension mixed with outright satire. And the sheer number of female characters in this end world adventure is refreshing — or would be if, like, Mad Max: Fury Road weren't six years old (and much better).
Is this stale adaptation just a little too late? Showrunner Eliza Clark took over after the initial showrunners departed. She gamely tries to expand the story's ensemble — I haven't even mentioned the always-great Marin Ireland as a mother suffering and suffering and suffering — but there's a basic lack of flair in the storytelling. Pia Guerra's Y artwork perfectly matched Vaughan's witty-weird dramatics. The artist drew characters who looked like indie actors in their first big blockbuster, their edges glowed up but not yet sanded off. It was constantly funny — look at these attractive people holding off yet another species-ending calamity with a monkey on somebody's shoulder! — whereas the TV Last Man keeps settling for a bargain-bin tone of mournful heaviness. Even if you never read the comic book, you've seen this all before. Maybe the next TV virus can kill all the apocalypses. C
FX's adaptation of Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra's award-winning comic 'Y: The Last Man.'