GLEN WELDON, HOST:
"Y: The Last Man" is the latest in a long line of post-apocalyptic narratives on TV. But this one comes with a novel twist - a mysterious event wipes out every mammal on earth with a Y chromosome except for two, an aimless would-be escape artist named Yorick and his companion monkey, Ampersand. In a world overrun by militias and fueled by paranoid conspiracy theories, a beleaguered government attempts to rebuild and keep certain secrets from getting out. I'm Glen Weldon, and today we're talking about "Y: The Last Man" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WELDON: Joining me today is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Welcome back, Eric.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hey. What's up?
WELDON: It's always good to have you. Also with us is NPR producer Mallory Yu. Hey, Mallory.
MALLORY YU, BYLINE: Hello.
WELDON: So "Y: The Last Man" is based on an award-winning limited series of comics that launched in 2002. It was written by Bryan K. Vaughan with art by Pia Guerra. The TV series stars Ben Schnetzer as Yorick, Diane Lane as his mother. She becomes president of the United States after the event in question blows up the chain of succession. Ashley Romans is Agent 355, a member of a top secret U.S. organization who is under presidential orders to protect Yorick at all costs. Diana Bang plays Dr. Allison Mann, a geneticist who believes she may be able to figure out what happened if she can get to a lab that's all the way across the country.
Amber Tamblyn is the daughter of the very conservative president who was killed by the event. She is angling to regain power. And we haven't even mentioned Yorick's sister, Hero, played by Olivia Thirlby, who is off on her own storyline trying to stay alive and nursing a guilty secret of her own. "Y: The Last Man" is currently dropping episodes weekly on Hulu under their FX on Hulu banner, which, Eric, I was going to try to get you to explain that to me, but I don't care enough.
WELDON: We're just going to move on. So look. There is no shortage of spinning plates here, Mallory, so what'd you make of it?
YU: I'm a little more mixed on the show than I wanted to be at this point in the season. And I think it's because the show can't really decide what it wants to be. Is it a road trip movie? Is it a mystery? Is it an apocalyptic "House Of Cards"? Is it supposed to be "The Walking Dead"? It feels like it's trying to be "The Leftovers," and I don't know if the show quite has the foundation or the range for that. I can see what it's trying to go for thematically, but I'm not sure if it's successful.
I do like the actors a little more than I like the actual story. I'm interested in the various small, insular towns and communities that our characters have found themselves in, whether voluntarily or because they have no choice. But I found it a bit of a slog while the show was setting up all these main characters. I found Yorick to be really awful. Like, God, he's so annoying. And for the first few episodes, all I could think was, why you, which I think is the point.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "Y: THE LAST MAN")
ASHLEY ROMANS: (As Agent 355) Now that you actually are the most important person in the room, you could give a [expletive], is that right?
BEN SCHNETZER: (As Yorick) She came at me with a nightstick.
ROMANS: (As Agent 355) So what? You know, just be smart.
SCHNETZER: (As Yorick) Smart? Smart? Oh, my God. How smart is going full [expletive] Rambo anytime something goes wrong?
YU: Agent 355 is the most - one of the more interesting characters for me. It's like the show has to - feels like it has to drag out the mystery of what her deal is for a few more episodes than that particular mystery can actually sustain. And I find that a little frustrating at this point.
WELDON: So, Eric, you've seen a lot of post-apocalyptic television. You've read the comic. What'd you make of this?
DEGGANS: So the first thing was I wasn't prepared, - like, Yorick is annoying in the graphic novel. I was not prepared how much more annoying that character would be in real life (laughter). Seeing him in flesh and blood, then seeing the choices that he makes, just when you think you can't get any more irritated with the guy, he does another stupid thing. But, of course, that's the point of the show when that's the point of the character in the graphic novel. But I didn't realize how irritating that would be to see it in real life. You know, we have these shows where the problems of the show are in the title. And here, "Y: The Last Man," to me, that's the question why are we seeing this.
What is the point of the story that they're telling us? And I think Mallory hit on it. They don't know. And it's obvious when you watch the show that they haven't really decided, like, what the point of all of this is yet. And a part of it is that the graphic novel was written at a time when we didn't understand or talk about or had this sort of general understanding of what gender really was and how trans people fit into it and how nonbinary people fit into it. It wasn't common knowledge back in - what? - 2002, when this graphic novel came out. So the show is trying to create a vision that incorporates some of that. And I think what's happened is that they have lost the vision for why they're telling this story. Like, "The Walking Dead's" premise is that when an apocalypse hits, the danger isn't the apocalypse. The danger is the people who survive it. But "Y: The Last Man" doesn't have a mission statement that simple, and you can tell every time you watch the show. And it's been really hard for me to stick with it for that reason. And I agree with Mallory, too. I love the actors.
DEGGANS: And I think they've done a great job playing - you know, making these characters real. But ultimately the story that they're servicing is confused. It feels too much like other postapocalyptic dramas. And I don't think they really have a clear sense of what they want to say with the story, other than we don't want to marginalize trans people, and we want to do better by them than the original story did, which is admirable. But that's not enough to hang a story on.
WELDON: All right. Well, I'm going to disagree with you both. Because what you both are describing as a lack of focus or a lack of drive, I see kind of as a feature, not a bug. Because I am comparing it to the original comic, which I really liked back in the day. I read it in real time. month-by-month. I haven't revisited to see how it holds up, but the producers of the show have certainly said, as you mentioned, Eric, in interviews, that the comic's treatment of gender and of trans issues in particular got short shrift because it was all the Yorick show. And that really jibes with my recollection.
What distinguished this comic from a lot of other postapocalyptic stories at the time - and this was - you know, the "Walking Dead" comic debuted the year after this did - is that it was funny. Yorick was a goofball. He was one of the first privileged man-child characters of the sort that would come to dominate pop culture, especially in the aughts. And he was this character who was forced by events to step the hell up, and over and over and over again, he couldn't, to the endless and I thought very funny exasperation of the completely badass Agent 355.
WELDON: And what I took away from that original series is, OK, you might have a good heart. You might be well-intentioned. But if you can't adjust, what the hell good are you? That's a good message, I think. And it was - as you mentioned, Mallory, it was a road narrative first and foremost. We would see snippets of other characters, other storylines. But it was the Yorick and 355 show mostly. And what I think the TV series does really well is build out the world. It is doing everything it can not to treat this event as just the background to Yorick's story, but to really fully imagine it and trace it out and trace out the lingering repercussions and how they hit a variety of characters, not just him, including and especially trans characters, who were just, as you mentioned, Eric - they were just not seen or engaged with in any real way...
WELDON: ...In the original comic. I love that this all serves to dissenter Yorick's story in an interesting way. I love Diane Lane as the president. I love saying Diane Lane as the president.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "Y: THE LAST MAN")
DIANE LANE: (As President Jennifer Brown) We are going to have to keep making hard choices to try to help deal with the panic and the outrage. But it's going to take all of us.
WELDON: I also like - there is an overtly political element to this kind of maneuvering of this beleaguered government. They are not cagey about who's a Democrat and who's a Republican, the way a lot of shows like this would be. They would like to pretend that a big event like this would cause those divides to disappear. We have a year-and-a-half-worth of experience to know that that's not what happens, that something like this happens and people cling to those divides. Now, is there a caricaturing of some of these characters? Is Amber Tamblyn, you know, basically playing Meghan McCain on her worst day...
WELDON: ...On "The View?"
WELDON: Yeah. Sure.
DEGGANS: Pretty much.
WELDON: But what do you make of that? Mallory, what do you think?
YU: It's a little distracting, I have to say. It feels a little too on-the-nose. I don't want to be distracted by the question, which real-life politician is this character supposed to be a satire of or...
YU: ...Political figure? The show wants me to ask these questions and make these comparisons. But I am more interested in getting to the so what of it all. What are you doing with this Meghan McCain character? Why is she important, other than to demonstrate that politics suck and everything is partisan? I just need a little bit more. If you're going to give me politics, I need to hear about Diane Lane's plan to help all the people outside the Pentagon. But I'm not really hearing that. I don't really know what Amber Tamblyn's character - I just don't really know what her political machinations are, you know? And if you're going to tell me a political story, I need there to be a little bit more than people sitting and staring at each other across a table.
DEGGANS: What struck me about it was that the pandemic has already revealed how extremist, right-wing politics has undermined an effort to cope with a calamity that feels apocalyptic. So this show is already telling us things that we already know, that we've already seen in real time, that we've already experienced. And it isn't shedding any new light on that. And I'm just like, you know, I've seen this movie actually on CNN, like, yesterday.
WELDON: (Laughter) Yep.
WELDON: Something we haven't talked about yet that I'm curious to get your take on - this show was created by a woman. Every episode is written by a woman, cis or trans. Every episode is directed by a woman. And down the line, you've got women as department heads throughout the production team. Does that make a difference? Can you feel it in the show? Should it make a difference?
DEGGANS: I would hope that the difference is that the female characters are getting equal treatment and that you're not seeing a show that's formatted from a male gaze. To me, the real issue with the show is, what is it trying to say about gender? What is it trying to say about male, female, trans, nonbinary now that it exists in a world where we have a very different understanding of that than we did when the graphic novel was created? Like, what is its new mission statement if the main event in your story is that every mammal with a Y chromosome dies? Then there's some sense that as a storyteller, like, you've made that choice for a reason. Right? Like, why did you make that choice? What are you trying to say?
DEGGANS: That, to me, is the great failing of this series is that, you know, seven episodes in, I don't know what they're trying to say about all of this.
YU: I think it matters just because now those women who are department heads have that credential that they were department heads on a major television show and hopefully will continue to get those jobs and continue to be department heads and bringing up more women. So that matters on a industry level. On a show level, I think it really does matter. Certain characters stood out to me. Particularly, there's a character played by Marin Ireland named Nora Brady. She's shown to be part of the government. She had an important job and then was sort of shut out by the apocalypse and sort of her circumstances and is completely forgotten and left behind. But she still has that pride and condescension of being someone who had an important job and now finds herself sort of at the bottom of the pyramid, where she has to act submissive to people that it is implied that she feels sort of better than.
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MARIN IRELAND: (As Nora Brady) I have White House credentials. I worked for the president.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I need you to step back.
IRELAND: (As Nora Brady) Nora Brady - Nora Brady. Just call someone inside. They'll tell you who I am.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Ma'am, please.
IRELAND: (As Nora Brady) Ask the first lady. Hell, President Brown can tell you who the [expletive] I am.
YU: It comes out as this, like, deep insecurity and irritating obsequiousness. And I think that character in particular would be such a different character if she were written by a man. There's also a scene later in the series where Hero and her trans friend Sam are in a Costco equivalent, and they're getting to know this community. In one scene, Hero is shown to be in, like, a bathroom. It depicts full-frontal nudity. You are seeing naked female bodies, but the difference here is that these naked female bodies are not supposed to titillate you or excite you. They are just bodies. These are just women who are bathing themselves. And it is not meant to make you go, oh, look; they're naked. It's just - this is what a community of people with X chromosomes - I think they would call themselves women - this is what a community of women in a post-apocalyptic scenario with no men around would act and bathe. And I really appreciated that scene.
WELDON: That's a great point.
DEGGANS: I read this really interesting analysis by Emily VanDerWerff, who writes for Vox and is considered one of the most visible trans TV critics in the country. And she talked about feeling like the show couldn't get past the gender essentialism of the original premise in the graphic novel where gender was more binary, male or female, to address the way we understand things now. And I wasn't sure how I felt about that because the show seems to be trying really hard to get past that. But I thought that might be an idea, also, worth talking about, finding out what you guys thought about it - because I think that's one of the things that the show's struggling with, and I think that's one of the reasons why its narrative focus feels not as precise as it could be.
WELDON: For me, I totally get that point, the struggling with it. I mean, they give the character of Allison Mann - Dr. Allison Mann an entire monologue where she basically dresses down Yorick and 355's, I think, also, assumptions as kind of essentialist assumptions about that. And that's in there for a reason, and it's doing good work.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "Y: THE LAST MAN")
DIANA BANG: (As Dr. Allison Mann) Not everyone with a Y chromosome is a man. We lost so many people that day, so many brilliant women.
WELDON: This is the reason I like the fact that this show has been in development forever. Many people have attempted to adapt it. Many people - it was going to be a movie. It was going to be another television series. The fact that it's coming out now - I am glad because a straight-down-the-middle adaptation of the original novel would not feel, I mean, what is coming off to you guys as unfocused and diffuse, what is coming off to me as lived in and rounded and an attempt to really address issues and create more characters than just one guy on a road trip. That's why, to me, this feels like the best kind of adaptation you could have. You keep the bones, but you give it new flesh, basically.
YU: Yeah, I mean, I would not have made it past the first two episodes, maybe even the first episode, if it were just Yorick and Agent 355 - just full stop. I guess I'm struggling with the way that they are handling gender in the show because initially I really appreciated hearing certain lines. Like, Diane Lane's character at one point says, we found plenty of men, just none with a Y chromosome. And I appreciate the constant reminders that when we say why the last man, we are referring to a person with a Y chromosome or an animal with a Y chromosome, not necessarily men, because men still exist in this world. And I really like that we have a trans male character who is worrying about his circumstances. I like that Sam's character is - OK, how do I as a man in a world now dominated by women - how do I exist? Where do I belong? And also worrying about the actual physical reality of living as a trans person in the apocalypse - where he is like, I need to get testosterone. Where can I get that? How can I get that? And his motivation is very clear. I don't necessarily know if he would be representative of all trans men because not all trans men are on hormones, et cetera, et cetera. And so I think it would have felt better for me if we had had more trans characters instead of just one, and then they're referred to.
WELDON: This is, at the end of the day, another puzzle-box show. There's a reason this happened. We don't know what it is.
WELDON: That means we're going to have to have the lost and leftovers discussion yet again. And if people are looking to Eric and me, who have both read the book, for assurances that this series is going to deliver on that promise and tie everything up in a nice little bow, I'm here to tell you, no. They supplied several possible answers the reader could choose. That wasn't fully satisfying, but it took the edge off a bit. Now, who knows if they're going to do the same thing here? Now, Mallory, you said you were wondering about the why of it all. Are you also wondering about the specific reason for this event, or is your why more character-based?
YU: My why is more character-based. Like, why am I following these specific characters? I think I am interested in the worldbuilding and societal effects. I do believe that cults and cultish personalities arise out of events like this. I imagine the sort of insularity of communities that would form in, say, a Costco, right? But I think "Y" feels more interested in the plot than it does in its characters. The characters just kind of do things, and I don't really know why they're doing that. I need more from the characters emotionally and mentally, and I don't know if I'm getting enough of that to keep me interested. I am curious enough to continue watching through the last few episodes because I find that the cults and those, like, insular communities are my favorite elements of this show. It's what I find most fascinating and what I'm curious about following. Like, I want to hear more about the conspiracy theorists and the other sort of domestic terrorist factions that the show is kind of hinting at.
DEGGANS: You know, one of the departures, I think, from the book is that the beginning of the TV show was so bloody and serious and depressing. That's making it hard for the show to get to that comedic tone that was a fun part of the book. You know, showing the bloody end of all these mammals with Y chromosomes, showing a plane crashing because presumably a person with a Y chromosome was flying it - and then you're supposed to get from the president exploding in front of your eyes to, hey, isn't it funny that Yorick is such a doofus?
WELDON: Goofball, yeah.
DEGGANS: (Laughter) And I don't - you know, I think the show was still - you know, even in the seventh episode, which is as far as I got, it's still kind of straining to get to that.
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WELDON: Well, I mean, the series has a lot to grapple with. We have a lot to grapple with in discussing it. And that means that you out there are grappling with it, too. We want to know how you're grappling with "Y: The Last Man." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @PCHH. And that brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to both of you for a great discussion.
YU: Thank you.
DEGGANS: Yeah, thank you. This was great.
WELDON: And we will see you all tomorrow when we will be talking about "Maid."
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