By stubbornly refusing to embrace subtlety or reject clichés , The Wilds ends up unapologetically great.
There are two moments in The Wilds that so succinctly summarize the show’s tone, we have just have to start with them. In the first episode, Leah Rilke (Sarah Pidgeon) barrels directly down the lens of the camera and declares the life of a teenage girl in America in the 21st Century to be literal hell as if in direct conversation with the audience. Then, later in the series, Rachel Reid (Reign Edwards) searches for the word melodrama, applying it to the actions of her fellow island isolated survivors. And that’s The Wilds for you. Tremendously unsubtle and one-hundred percent aware of it. It also happens to be very good.
The premise of The Wilds is one that begs for critics to reach for the high concept “It’s blank meets blank” logline. In this case, you will see a lot of “Lost meets Beauty Queens,” or “Lord of the Flies with the gender politics of The Power.” But none of these really quite fit. The loglines feel both too broad and too constricted for what show creator Sarah Streicher (previously a writer for Daredevil Season 3) has put together.
A private jet intended for a young women’s retreat with a group called The Dawn of Eve ends up making a water landing, seemingly killing the pilot and single crew member but “sparing” the 9 teen girls. There’s Jeanette (Chi Nguyen), the one solo traveler, a bubbly talkative type whose full name is a nice gag and, to reiterate the show’s lack of subtlety, probably the slyest joke of the season. The rest of the girls come in matched pairs. Hothead Toni Shalifoe (Erana James) and sweet Martha Blackburn (Jenna Clause) are best friends from Minnesota, likely the White Earth Nation Reservation. Fatin Jadmani (Sophia Ali) is a virtuoso cellist and influencer who attends a Bay area arts school with the brokenhearted and obsessive Leah, although the two have never spoken. Dot Campbell (Shannon Berry) is a cargo pant enthusiast from Texas where she grew up on soccer teams with evangelical overachiever Shelby Goodkind (Mia Healey) until Dot’s dad got sick and Shelby kept chasing pageant trophies. Rachel and Nora (Helena Howard) are twin sisters who seem perpetually trapped in one another’s shadow; Rachel because she’s not the genius of the family, Nora because she’s not the Olympic level diver.
Thankfully, the nine manage to pull themselves from the surf and onto a seemingly uninhabited island. With only each other and meager supplies from the crash to rely on, we know from the start that at least most survive to some 22-plus days to end up in a bunker where they must now endure quarantine and questioning from therapist Daniel Faber (David Sullivan, delivering a good take on a specific on-screen therapist archetype) and federal investigator Dean Young (Troy Winbush). And throughout it all, Dawn of Eve founder Dr. Gretchen Klein (Rachel Griffiths in the best role she’s been given in ages), struggles to maintain her composure and ensure that this incident does not ruin Eve, the culmination of her life’s mission.
If you read the two paragraphs above and feel compelled to play spot the cliché, that’s an understandable instinct. Wilds is packed full of cliché. The thrill of it comes not from running or subverting these clichés, however, but embracing them with full-throated glee. Yes, Leah is a bookish wounded romantic with an inappropriate affair under her belt. She is so much that her heartsickness and need for meaning endangers the lives of everyone else on the island. Yes, Shelby is ever the evangelical beauty queen cliché giving ever-smiling life. And those qualities are destroying her. In keeping with the theme of American society being the biggest threat to women, these girls have long been forced into molds and there isn’t a single one of them who hasn’t been shattered in slo-mo by it.
The thrill of [The Wilds] comes not from running or subverting these clichés, however, but embracing them with full-throated glee.
This sense of the cliché guides the show’s look too, and it’s again to the good. There’s nothing about The Wilds that qualifies as visually arresting. Instead, the directing corps aims for flexibility and integration. It’s how the show can nail the gauzy romanticism of Leah’s version of losing her virginity and the courtroom drama of Marsha’s low point without either feeling like they belong in different worlds. They manage to feel both exactly right for the drama elements being highlighted and for the larger show. The series’ also nicely makes the island feel both unknowably large and utterly suffocating. This isn’t the kind of tourism awe that Lost often trafficked in because these teens can’t appreciate natural beauty while being both terrified for and of their lives.
When you include the flashbacks within flashbacks structure, The Wilds is a well-stocked show. So well-stocked, in fact, that the show runs out of the ground it needs to wrap everything in the first season. The series is good enough I won’t necessarily need a second season, but there’s a frustration here. Like Utopia earlier this year, one can’t shake the feeling this could have been an excellent one-and-done limited series that needn’t risk leaving questions unanswered and tales untold in an attempt to go for another year.
While the dangling threads do bump the season down a bit, Wilds remains a surprising success. Ambitious and unafraid to be 100% itself, it’s the rare show that feels both meticulously planned and dangerously close to flying off the rails. Well worth a trip to the island, I should say.
All of Season 1 of The Wilds is making camp now on Amazon Prime.