Welcome to It’s a Hit! In this series, IndieWire speaks to creators and showrunners behind a few of our favorite television programs about the moment they realized their show was breaking big.
In the streaming age, it’s virtually impossible to verify a TV show’s success or failure. Viewing statistics are guarded or difficult to substantiate; traditional ratings only cover a slim margin of total viewership; network priorities shift from company to company, so one company’s “hit” could be quickly canceled somewhere else.
But “Yellowjackets,” well, it’s about as close to an empirical success as any show can get. The Season 1 finale pulled in 1.3 million viewers in just three days. During its initial run, episodes averaged more than 5 million viewers across platforms. The series became Showtime’s most-watched freshman program since “Billions” debuted in 2016 and saw considerable attention via streaming, which skews younger. On top of these ratings highs, Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson’s thriller — about a high school soccer team left stranded in the woods after a plane crash — became an immediate awards darling, snagging two WGA Award nominations and a Peabody Award, among other winter recognitions.
“There might be something to the fact that it’s almost like an anti-“Ted Lasso” effect,” Lyle said about why the series resonated with so many viewers in late 2021. “There was something about coming toward the end of the lockdown stage of the quarantine and everybody hitting an exhaustion point — maybe people wanted an outlet for their discomfort with the world around them or for their anger or their feelings of dread.”
Now, with Emmy nominations on the horizon, co-creators Lyle and Nickerson — a married writing duo who previously worked on “Narcos” and “Dispatches From Elsewhere” — spoke with IndieWire by phone about how their intense drama broke through a crowded television landscape and became an aptly buzzy sensation.
“We knew we had an uphill battle ahead of us just by pitching an original idea,” Lyle said. “Things have changed a little bit in the past five years, but at the time, so many shows that were being bought were based on IP, whether it was a foreign format or a book or a movie.”
For more, including talking points for their original pitch and modern TV’s daunting development process, check out the full interview below.
The following Q&A has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.
IndieWire: When you first started pitching “Yellowjackets,” what parts of your story or themes do you remember emphasizing?
Bart Nickerson: I remember one of the things that we had talked about was the tonal mashup, just wanting to tell a very serious and a weighty story using a series of pop-genre kind of feels. At some point, an early piece of the pitch was just, “It’s like ‘The Sopranos’ meets ‘Dazed and Confused'” — and then it was like, “OK, I think we need to trim these back.”
Ashley Lyle: Right. I believe that what made it into the final pitch in our desperate attempt to explain what we were hoping would be a very weird show was: We called it psychological horror, a gothic fairytale, and a pitch-black comedy all combined. I think we also said it would be what would happen if the kids from “Dazed and Confused” became the Donner party. That was what we were putting out into the world.
It was really important to us from the get-go that we would properly explain that our intention was to make something that wasn’t particularly straightforward. I guess we got away with it, miraculous in retrospect.
Were there any aspects of the story you had to soften in the pitch? Elements that you were worried would steer expectations in the wrong direction?
Lyle: Maybe it was just naïveté on our part, but we didn’t really do that. We knew going in that probably the most problematic part of the pitch would be that it had a really strong focus on teenage girls. That in the past has been, I think, very limiting in terms of where you can go with a pitch — in terms of what networks might be interested — and we just ignored it. We did try to explain this wasn’t a YA show despite half of the cast being teenage women. We just had to take a leap of faith because it was just so endemic to the pitch itself that there was no getting around it.
Nickerson: Something I’ve learned about pitching is that what’s really helpful to communicate is — and this might sound a little basic — but your love of the idea that you are trying to sell to them. At the end of the day, a script is not a thing. It’s a plan for a thing and a pitch is actually even less. There’s no way that you can give the full feeling of what a show will be at the pitch stage. You’re trying to give them as best a sense as you can, and the people on the other side of the conference table are also trying to fill in the spaces between the pitch with a sense of [who you are] and what you’re like and how much you care about this idea. It can be really challenging because, at the end of the day, we’re not actors. To tell the truth with your emotions can be hard. I think that’s what we tried to hit a lot by talking about things we loved as much as things that were going to make them see dollar signs.
At that stage, what were your expectations for the series?
Lyle: We definitely had a plan in terms of the longevity of the show. That was just because we knew we had an uphill battle ahead of us just by pitching an original idea. Things have changed a little bit in the past five years, but at the time, so many shows that were being bought were based on IP, whether it was a foreign format or a book or a movie. We knew we had to communicate where this would be going and have a good sense of it ourselves because it was sort of a challenge in the first place to be pitching something original.
That said, I don’t know if Showtime would like to hear this, but we never saw this as a 12-season series. We never saw it as “Grey’s Anatomy” going into Season 19, but we also knew that it wasn’t a limited series and that we would need a certain amount of seasons to tell the story to completion.
Nickerson: I just don’t think I was able to look [that] far ahead. It quickly became clear that we were going to pitch this a lot, so I was like, “Man, I just hope we don’t get blanked by the 20 people that we pitched this to.” When we got our first offer, which might have been The Mark Gordon Company, but it was just like, “Oh, thank God. Somebody wants it.”
Lyle: Development is such a crazy process because you spend all this time creating a world and creating a story and creating these characters and you have to go pretty deep to be able to pitch it. Then, the hope is that you get a producer involved, and then the hope is that you get a studio involved. Then, the hope is that you get a network involved, and then the hope is that they like the pilot script enough to move forward. It’s so many hurdles to get across to actually get a show on the air. You have to have some blind optimism, but knowing the reality, it’s hard to think that far ahead and to get too excited because it’s just such a long shot every single time.
Once you reached production, was there a moment where you felt like you had something special?
Nickerson: I certainly wasn’t like, “This is going to be a huge success,” but early in production when we got the director’s cut of Episode 2, there’s a moment where the team finds the coach in the tree. It’s this horrifying moment, and then Jackie suggests throwing stuff at him as a joke. There was something about that moment, the way that it worked — just that we could get that transition to work in a way that we liked. I was like, “Oh, we have a really good chance at making a show that we’re going to be prepared to stand behind.” I will never claim to know if audiences are going to love something. It’s too complicated to guess at that, but I felt like, “Oh, we’re going to make the show that we set out to make. I’m going to feel good about that, or I’ll at least have a chance to.”
Lyle: Maybe even earlier than that, I do remember so specifically the first time we sat down with Karyn [Kusama] to talk about the pilot. Karen is somebody that we’ve admired so deeply for so long. I absolutely love her work from “Girlfight” to “Jennifer’s Body” to “Destroyer.” Being able to talk about this world and these characters and what she loved about it and what she was responding to and how we would turn that into a reality, it felt really special — just as a career moment and life moment.
Then, I do remember the first time we saw in the pilot, the run from the keg party when Natalie is tripping on acid and we’re playing PJ Harvey through to Shauna and Jeff in his car. When I first saw that, I was like, “OK, I have no idea if this is going to move forward. I have no idea if people are going to like it. But I love it.” I knew at that point we could be proud of the pilot, even if it didn’t move forward. That was a special moment to me.
Obviously, there are many reasons for a show’s success — so many pieces have to come together for a full episode, let alone season, to catch on — but is there anything or anyone you’d want to highlight that maybe doesn’t get enough credit for “Yellowjackets” breaking through?
Lyle: I think it’s almost impossible to really parse why an audience is responding to something, but I do think that there might be something to the fact that it’s almost like an anti-“Ted Lasso” effect. For a while during the pandemic, everyone just wanted to watch something nice, myself included. I was just bingeing “The Great British Baking Show” because I just wanted something pleasant in my life.
There was something about coming toward the end of the lockdown stage of the quarantine and everybody hitting an exhaustion point — maybe people wanted an outlet for their discomfort with the world around them or for their anger or their feelings of dread. Maybe our show captures that, but at the same time, we were very, very careful. We always knew we wanted to make a show that was really dark, but we never wanted it to be bleak or grim. We always wanted it to be really fun at the same time. I personally suspect something about that combination of darkness and humor struck a chord in just how maybe sardonic people were feeling. But that is pure speculation.
Heading into Season 2, how much does it feel like the show you originally had in mind has shifted from where things stand now?
Lyle: On the one hand, of course it shifts and changes. It evolves because of casting and all your collaborators and the writers in the room. You’re always trying to beat your original idea. Certain things have changed. Certain things did say the same. I think even in our very first pitch, we pitched the very end of Season 1 exactly as we shot it. Ultimately, I do feel like we made exactly the show that we set out to make in terms of just the tone and the weirdness of it. That is something I’m very proud of. In part, you have to be flexible. If you go in with a very set, concrete vision, you’re ultimately going to be disappointed or you’re going to get in your own way. You have to leave room for things to change or things to get better. We always try to stay flexible, but I think that having a goal and having touch points that we know we want to hit has been really helpful.
“Yellowjackets” Season 1 is available on Showtime. Season 2 has been renewed.