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‘You Can Write Those Kinds of Dynamics Forever’: Inside the Rise of Yellowjackets at Showtime

Photo: Paul Sarkis/SHOWTIME

As it prepares to wrap up its first season tonight, Yellowjackets is ending with a ratings sting to match its massive online buzz. Per multiplatform data from Nielsen and the network, Showtime’s twisty thriller has drawn an average audience of 5 million linear and digital viewers through its first nine episodes, and will end its season as one of the network’s biggest first-year series since Billions launched in 2016. “In the past, we have sometimes rationalized keeping a show because it had buzz even if it didn’t have numbers,” Showtime Networks president of entertainment Gary Levine told Vulture in an interview this week. “The beauty of Yellowjackets is, Yellowjackets has numbers.”

The same-day linear ratings for the series have been solid, with its Nielsen-measured audience growing 70 percent from its November premiere to last weekend’s penultimate episodes. But streaming is where Yellowjackets has really made its mark:

The series currently stands as the second most-watched series on digital (new or returning) since Showtime rolled out its direct-to-consumer streaming platform in 2015, with an audience composition that is younger and more female than the average Showtime series.

Yellowjackets’ streaming viewership has exploded over the run of the season, even more so than linear. Last week’s episode drew four times as many digital viewers as streamed the series during its first week. Indeed, per Showtime, most of the show’s roughly 5 million weekly viewers watch via streaming, with about 1.5 million tuning in via linear platforms (including the initial telecast, DVR replays, and repeat telecasts throughout the week).

Since Showtime launched a direct-to-consumer app in 2015, only one series — new or returning — has drawn a bigger digital audience (the just-wrapped Dexter: New Blood, with 8 million viewers across all platforms).

The success of Yellowjackets caps a strong 2021 for the ViacomCBS-owned Showtime. Last winter, the Bryan Cranston–led Your Honor outperformed expectations, bringing in 7.4 million viewers for what was announced as a one-season limited-series run. That was the most for any new show since Billions, and big enough to convince Cranston to do a follow-up installment. While Yellowjackets hasn’t quite matched the numbers for Your Honor or Dexter: New Blood, it also didn’t have the advantage of starring one of the biggest TV actors of the 2010s (Cranston) or being part of an iconic Showtime franchise (Dexter). In some ways, that makes Yellowjackets performance even more impressive. “It did extremely well,” Levine says. “It grew every week. It brought in lots of great streaming numbers and sign-ups for us … and we got 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. That, to us, is a home run. It scored on every level.” (The usual caveat: Like its streaming-only rivals, Showtime doesn’t say exactly how many subscribers watch digitally, so there is no way to independently verify its digital data.)

This trio of successes couldn’t come at a better time for Levine and his team. Showtime said good-bye to three of its biggest franchises in 2020 and 2021, losing Homeland, Shameless, and Ray Donovan (the third is back with a feature-length finale this week), and finding new blood (pun intended) to replace those tentpoles has been a major priority for the network. “For the last few years, we have been really stepping up our development in the hopes of creating the next generation of hits,” Levine says.

With Yellowjackets, that process started all the way back in March 2018. Indie studio eOne “didn’t package it up with directors and stars and the kinds of things that do create bidding wars now in this streaming universe,” Levine recalls. “This was normal development.” Still, Levine says his first meeting with creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson left an immediate mark. “I left that pitch spellbound by the story they told,” he says. “I was completely unsure if they were talking about a real event or a made-up event — that’s how visceral it felt.”

Even with strong internal love for the project, Showtime didn’t give Yellowjackets a straight-to-series order, instead sticking to its usual pilot process. “This was, if I can use the term, the old-fashioned way, where you really build it from the ground up,” Levine explains. “We developed a pilot script. We worked on the pilot script until it was undeniably good, at which point we green-lit a pilot. Then we found a great director in Karyn Kusama, and a spectacular cast, and we shot a pilot. And then we worked on the pilot film, fell in love with that, and ordered the series.” Levine thinks sticking to this more traditional production path often makes for a better show; even as streamers have made direct-to-series orders commonplace, “There is something very valuable in building from the ground up and not just jumping off a cliff and saying, ‘Do a season and let’s hope,’” he says.

Once Levine and his team started seeing completed episodes of the show, they had to figure out the best time to schedule the show’s first season. Given what the network already had in its production pipeline, it wasn’t a tough call. “We very consciously placed this behind Dexter, knowing Dexter was going to be huge, and that the mix of tonalities — humor, horror, and violence — that is in Dexter is also, in a very different way, in Yellowjackets,” Levine says. “It felt both like the biggest launching pad we could give the show, and also a compatible one.” Like the pilot process, airing a show once a week, in a time slot immediately following an established hit, is a very old-school TV trick — and one Levine believes still very much works. “Linear is a smaller and smaller percentage of our viewers, but I think in terms of making the public aware of a series, pairing it in that way on the linear feed still has power and impact,” he says.

Yellowjackets has already been picked up for a second season, and audiences won’t have to wait very long for that sophomore installment. “We are working towards a premiere at the end of 2022,” Levine says. “We’d love to stay on an annual cycle. I think our audiences deserve that, and I also think that when you have a show that has this kind of a momentum, you don’t want to let it dissolve.”

Despite the number of thrills and chills already doled out by the first season of Yellowjackets, Levine is convinced his new hit has what it takes to run multiple seasons. “The finale is a very satisfying finale, but it leaves lots of runway,” he says. “Yes, the show is sort of high concept, but it is also a character piece about the dynamics between characters when they’re tested, both in the wilderness and in adulthood. You can write those kinds of dynamics forever. This is not reliant upon, ‘What’s the answer to the secret?’ This has many secrets, many surprises, and a real human dimension that has longevity built into it.”

‘You Can Write Those Kinds of Dynamics Forever’