A decade ago, when Eliza Clark read Y: The Last Man for the first time, she kept thinking about how she would adapt it for television. “It combined so many things that I loved,” she tells The Verge. The story takes place after a mysterious event that kills off everyone with a Y chromosome, with the exception of a man named Yorrick (and his monkey). She describes it as “such an interesting look at identity.” At the time, she was working as a writer’s assistant, so it was mostly a dream. But 10 years later — after a few stops working on shows like The Killing and Rubicon — Clark got the chance to lead FX’s live-action version of Y: The Last Man. It was an opportunity not only to adapt a series she loved, but to update it for modern audiences.
“I definitely didn’t want to make something that had an essentialist view of gender,” she says. “And I think the show makes clear, early and often, that Yorrick is not the last man. That was something that I felt needed to be updated from the source material.”
The show, which debuts next week on FX on Hulu, follows the same basic premise as the book, with much of it set after a cataclysmic event that results in every cisgender male on the planet dying. The exception is Yorrick (Ben Schnetzer), a slacker, wannabe escape artist, and son of a high-ranking US politician. The series — at least for the first six episodes I’ve been able to watch — follows a fairly large cast making their way through this newly desolate world.
“The show is not about how men and women are different.”
Alongside Yorrick, there’s Agent 355 (Ashley Romans), a secret agent tasked with protecting him; the newly implemented president, Jennifer Brown (Diane Lane); Sam Jordan (Elliot Fletcher), a friend who helps Yorrick’s sister Hero (Olivia Thirlby) survive a difficult journey; and Kimberly Campbell Cunningham (Amber Tamblyn) a best-selling conservative author who also happens to be the daughter of the now-deceased president; among others. In addition to a cast that’s full of women, the TV version also puts a bigger focus on trans men, including a brand-new character, played by Fletcher, who has a significant role in the first season.
“I wanted to make it clear that he was not the only male,” Clark says of Yorrick’s place in the story. “I really think the show is an ensemble. I never wanted to make something that boils people down in such a specific way. The show is not about how men and women are different. It’s about people and nature and the diversity of gender. He’s important, but he’s not the main character. He’s the story engine.” She adds that one of her goals was to show that “the world is far more vast and varied and beautiful than the binary definition of man and woman.”
In a blog post about working on the series, writer Charlie Jane Anders explained, “When you update a beloved-but-problematic story, you shouldn’t have to choose between fixing the problems and preserving the stuff you love. You can trust that expanding the picture to include everyone who has been left out will only make the story better, and that questioning the assumptions at the root of the story will lead to a smarter version. Y: The Last Man is a thought experiment that asks big questions about gender and human nature — and including more variables only makes an experiment more robust.”
“He’s important, but he’s not the main character. He’s the story engine.”
Clark says she was largely given free rein over the project, and that included the blessing of original writer, Brian K. Vaughan. “Brian knew I was a fan of the book, so hopefully he felt safe in that,” she explains. “He read scripts when I asked him to, and we talked about things like casting. But he very much was like, ‘I made this when I was 25 years old, and I can’t even remember who I was then. So take this and run with it,’ which I appreciated.” When it comes to changing the material, she notes that “the comic book is a medium unto itself. It’s not a blueprint for television.”
Figuring out tone has been a persistent challenge for post-apocalyptic stories amid the current pandemic, whether it’s The Last of Us or Sweet Tooth, and Y wasn’t an exception. The first episode is very grim — it covers the event itself, which means lots of deaths — but from there, things lighten up (at least somewhat) with a mix of humor, action, and characters who are genuinely trying to do good. “I think the thing that sets this show apart is it does have an optimistic view of the power of people to change, and the power of relationships,” Clark says of her approach. “At the beginning, it’s dark because a dark thing happens and half the world dies, and I didn’t want to make light of that.”
One of the more lighthearted elements of the show is Yorrick’s pet monkey Ampersand. In the show, Amp is actually a CG creation created by famed effects studio ILM, a fact Clark says she was “terrified” about. “The visual style of the show is so gritty and realistic,” she says. “You’re getting really close to people’s faces, you’re seeing skin, you’re seeing sweat. You’re close to people, and then you pan over, and there’s a cartoon monkey — I did not want that.”
For the most part, it worked. Before talking to Clark, I wasn’t actually sure if Amp was entirely a CG creation or if there was also a real animal on set. And that’s exactly how she likes it. “I want people to know how hard ILM worked on it,” she says with a laugh, “but I also don’t want people to know that he’s CG.”
Y: The Last Man premieres September 13th on FX on Hulu.