FX on Hulu’s Y: The Last Man begins with glimpses of a world transformed by a catastrophe. As we race around the globe, we see images of dead bodies everywhere and of impromptu memorials to the fallen. As an onscreen graphic tells us it’s “Three Weeks After” whatever happened, we see a figure in a poncho and gas mask leaving graffitied messages on walls, chasing a monkey through urban streets filled with more corpses, some of them still in the seats of the cars where they died. Our hero — who removes his mask long enough to reveal himself as a young, bearded guy whom we’ll come to learn is a failed escape artist named Yorick (Ben Schnetzer) — narrowly avoids a new piece of danger, gathers up his simian pet, and weaves his way through streets that a gradual pullout of the camera reveals to be in the shape of the letter Y.
It’s an efficiently chilling depiction of an apocalypse, but not necessarily one that reveals what is unique about this apocalypse. And in that sense, it’s an unfortunately apt beginning for Y: The Last Man, a solid but frustrating show that frequently struggles to embrace what’s unique about itself.
The problem partly is one of timing. The series is based on an acclaimed comic book created by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, set in the aftermath of a calamity that instantly wipes out every cis male on the planet save for Yorick and his monkey, Ampersand. The comic ran from 2002 to 2008, and people have been trying to adapt it for the screen ever since. Even this FX version has been in the works since 2015, and changed showrunners, with Animal Kingdom vet Eliza Clark as the one in charge of this version that finally made it to streaming. During that long stay in development hell, Y found itself lapped by other post-apocalyptic shows and movies — most notably The Walking Dead (the comic of which debuted a year after Y) — that leave this version feeling a bit like yesterday’s news.
There’s also a budget issue. The Y comic followed Yorick, scientist Allison Mann (Diana Bang), and a secret agent known only by her codename, 355 (played here by Ashley Romans), as they traveled America, and eventually other parts of the world, investigating why Yorick survived this mysterious plague and how to use his immunity to repopulate the species. It’s a road-trip comic, using that format to explore many facets of what a world devoid of men would be like. As was the case with another recent basic-cable adaptation of a beloved comic for adults, AMC’s lackluster take on Preacher, never-ending road trips are expensive to dramatize. Preacher dodged it by parking its heroes in a new location for most of each season, while Y hedges its bets by splitting its time between Yorick and 355’s journeys and what other characters — notably Yorick’s mother Jennifer Brown (Diane Lane), a congresswoman who becomes president when all the men ahead of her in the line of succession die at the same time — are up to in more static locations. (The comic could lean on a larger ensemble at times, too, but tended to be at its best when traveling with its small, central group.)
But the main problem is that, at least through the six episodes given to critics, Clark and her collaborators only periodically seem interested in how their unique premise would impact the world in ways that are different from The Walking Dead, The Stand, or other recent shows dealing with abrupt catastrophes that wipe out large swaths of the population(*). It’s apocalypse-by-numbers, with a good cast — see also Olivia Thirlby as Yorick’s paramedic sister Hero, and Amber Tamblyn as Kimberly, the conservative pundit daughter of the newly-deceased president — and the occasional interesting set piece, but most of it is generic at best.
(*) It also doesn’t feel like ideal timing that the first three episodes of this show — several of them taking place in a ruined version of lower Manhattan where aircraft are colliding with buildings — are being released on Hulu two days after the 20th anniversary of 9/11. And one sequence where Yorick has to brave a flooded subway station to rescue Ampersand looks pretty similar to recent news coverage of what New Yorkers faced after Hurricane Ida.
Some of the more compelling parts, in fact, are where Clark deviates most from the source material. The comic didn’t deal much with the issue of transgender people, where here Hero’s best friend and traveling companion is Sam (Elliot Fletcher), a trans man constantly dealing with confused or suspicious looks from the women around him. The downside is, that greater prominence of trans men in the story lessens the sense of danger anytime Yorick’s gas mask comes off around strangers — a cheaply renewable source of suspense energy in the comic — since he can and at times does get away with claiming to be trans himself. But Fletcher is very good, and the questions raised by Sam’s presence feel lively in a way that a lot of the show does not. Tamblyn, meanwhile, makes Kimberly into someone far more complex than just the right-wing cartoon villain she could be. And the Kimberly-Jennifer corner of the show is the one most directly commenting on the world we’re all living through right now. (One cabinet member is quoted as having said that “Jesus wasn’t vaccinated.”)
But a lot of this Y is just about basic fights for survival and control, presented in ways that would require minimal changes to be relocated onto a half-dozen other series. The Yorick and 355 scenes tend to be the show at its most engaging, not just because they’re traveling (after a few episodes of getting to and then hanging around Washington, D.C.), but because 355 is understandably exasperated that even in this scary new reality, the most privileged, entitled person is a straight white man. (Also: Ashley Romans isn’t the most recognizable member of the cast, but she gives the series’ best, most vivid performance, in a role where she could easily come across as the buzzkill scold constantly getting in the hero’s way.)
The worst you can say about Y is that parts of it can get a bit dull. (In the early going, Marin Ireland is stuck in a thankless subplot as an aide to Kimberly’s father who winds up on the outside of the new government looking in when the world changes.) Had this exact take on the material debuted a decade ago, it likely would have been greeted warmly as a good-enough adaptation that had room to grow, and that felt like a new and thrilling idea for television. Now, though it’s solid and has areas that improve as the season moves along, it doesn’t have to compete solely with memories of the comic, but with all the other shows that have walked along similar territory. And the one aspect that might distinguish Y too often feels like an afterthought.
FX is releasing the first three episodes of Y: The Last Man on September 13th on Hulu, with additional episodes premiering one week at a time. I’ve seen the first six of 10 episodes.