Y: The Last Man is a magic trick. The Brian K. Vaughan-written and Pia Guerra-drawn comic book series debut in the early aughts eventually landed Vaughan a writing-and-producing job on Lost, revitalized DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint, and cemented the writer as one of the medium’s most exciting new talents. Y and its killer hook—a cataclysmic event that causes every mammal on Earth with a Y chromosome to suddenly and inexplicably die, save for one cisgender man and his pet monkey—would receive three Eisner Awards (the comic book equivalent of an Academy Award) and would garner universal acclaim as one of the best comics ever. It’s extremely difficult to have your first creator-owned, independent comic book make as much of a splash as Y did, ergo, the magic of it all. So, an eventual adaptation, be it movie or television, was seemingly all but inevitable for a comic this well-beloved.
And so, after a handful of false starts—including a failed movie starring Shia LeBeouf, a version directed by 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg, an eventual move to FX, reworkings, and recastings—Y: The Last Man finally arrives via FX on Hulu. Y’s transition from panel to pixel was never going to be a one-to-one retelling, but some of the changes made in its adaptation both help and hurt the story’s magic.
Much like the events of the comic, the first episode of Y serves as a way to set the stage for our cast of characters before shit hits the fan. To wit: Yorick (Ben Schnetzer) lives in NYC, aimless in his life save for his day job teaching magic and escape artistry to children of wealthy families and his deep love for his girlfriend Beth (Julianna Canfield). Yorick’s sister Hero (Olivia Thirlby) works as an EMT when she’s not attending AA meetings with her best friend Sam (Elliot Fletcher). Meanwhile, Democratic congresswoman Jennifer Brown (Diane Lane) clashes with Republican President Campbell and his advisor Nora Brady (Marin Ireland) as well as his daughter Kimberly Campbell Cunningham (Amber Tamblyn). Lingering on the periphery is the skilled Agent 355 (Ashley Romans), pulled out of deep cover to take on a new job with the President’s Secret Service. Her first day just so happens to be when the world goes to hell.
Despite the titular last man in its title, the early episodes (I’ve seen six of the first season’s 10 episodes; the first three will debut on Hulu on Monday, September 13) of Y are surprisingly Yorick-lite. While the comic balanced both Yorick’s story and the tales of the remaining women in this universe, Y the television show (showrun by Eliza Clark of Extant and Animal Kingdom) focuses more on Lane’s Jennifer Brown, making her the de-facto lead of the show (a decision bolstered by the fact she’s the top-billed cast member). Instead of being a post-apocalyptic tale of survival, the series often feels like a retread of Lane’s time on House of Cards. Societal conversations were always critical to Vaughan and Guerra’s story, and expanding the show’s vision to address how narratives around gender and politics have grown since Y’s initial publication is a good thing. But these political quagmires—even with some strong performances—slow down the show’s pace considerably. Y doesn’t feel like Y until the fourth episode, wherein 355 and Yorick finally hit the road. Once that happens, the show opens up considerably and mines the fantastic chemistry between Romans and Schnetzer. As a result, Y becomes much more robust and engaging.
Where Y improves for the better is in its inclusion and exploration of transgender characters. Vaughan and Guerra’s book barely mentioned transgender people, and it’s rather problematic when it does. Y the show, however, makes transgender people an essential part of its storytelling. The trans inclusion of Y is experienced through Elliot Fletcher’s Sam, who doesn’t function as a crash course in trans rights. Instead, he’s just another character in this rich world, one that just so happens to be trans instead of being defined by it. As a result, Y feels like a significant step forward in on-screen trans representation. These decisions also help to enrich Y’s overall exploration into gender.
Despite some unbalanced storytelling decisions, the acting in Y is superlative. I’m particularly taken with Ashley Romans as 355. Not having watched Shameless or AMC’s NOS4A2, I’m unfamiliar with the majority of her work. Romans makes an explosive debut—both literally and figuratively—as a result. Not since Robert Downey Jr’s turn as Iron Man has there been such an excellent comic-to-screen translation, as Romans embodies 355’s mysterious toughness, charm, and cunning with effortless ease. Her performance becomes even richer once she gets a chance to play off of Schnetzer’s inspired aloofness. I’m also impressed by Amber Tamblyn’s Kimberly Cunningham. A new creation for the show, Kimberly serves as a foil for Jennifer Brown by being a Republican mother who’s built her brand around being a “boy mom.” In the wake of Y’s tragic event, Tamblyn plays Kimberly like a tiger waiting to pounce as she jockeys with Jennifer for political power; she’d happily cut you a piece of pie and then turn around and stab you with the knife she used to serve it with. It’s a departure for the actor, and I’m curious (and invested) in where her arc will go throughout the rest of the season. And, as a fan of her work in Dredd, it’s nice to see Olivia Thirlby with another meaty role to dig into as Yorick’s sister Hero. Without giving too much away, Hero‘s life is a mess and only gets more complicated leading up to the event; the way Thirlby plays Hero’s troubles is impactful, and you can feel her guilt resonate far beyond the screen.
When it comes to the filmmaking, director Louise Friedberg (Borgen) and the rest of the all-female directing crew provide a steady hand. My favorite choice is the use of a fish-eye style framing, similar to the effect Steven Soderbergh used in No Sudden Move. The lingering edges of the frame are slightly out of focus, almost as if to indicate Yorick and the rest of the cast are under a microscope. Given the scientific nature of the pilot, the literal framing device becomes more than just style—it’s substance. Outside of this decision, however, the show looks and feels like pretty much every other post-apocalyptic show on TV, even with FX spending what I assume is a considerable amount of money for on-location shooting. This is a bummer, considering shows like Sweet Tooth (another Vertigo comic adaptation!) showed it’s possible to inject a little color and vibrancy into these kinds of experiences.
The fact Y: The Last Man was finally able to escape development hell is a trick worthy of Yorick himself, something alone worth celebrating. But it’s frustrating that a series so groundbreaking often feels like everything else on television right now, even with such strong acting and its unique plot. I imagine those who haven’t read the series will enjoy it much more, as its committed exploration of a changed world embraces and explores adult themes more than the majority of other shows of its ilk. But for fans of the comic, it’s disappointing Y: The Last Man can’t quite conjure the same magical feeling the comic did almost two decades ago.