Wilderness keeps it deliciously sleazy

Wilderness (Prime Video)

The new Prime Video thriller eschews likability to deliver a tart treat.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the works being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Some find entertainment without characters to like a difficult slog. Those individuals would do well to avoid Wilderness, a series almost entirely devoid of likable major characters. The one possible exception of note, the lead couple’s neighbor Ash (Morgana Van Peebles), will ultimately depend on how individuals feel about the morality of blatantly hitting on a married woman who isn’t exactly in the best headspace.

For those who enjoy a bit of the unsavory, on the other hand, Wilderness offers a delightfully amoral cocktail.

Adapted by Marnie Dickens from the B.E. Jones of the same name, Wilderness explores the fallout of an extramarital affair. The Taylors are seemingly the perfect couple. Attractive, in love and frequently demonstrating, and upwardly mobile. Wife Liv (Jenna Coleman) has put her unpleasant childhood and a mother, Caryl (Claire Rushbrook), who is a mix of overprotective and resentful in the rearview to follow her husband, Will (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) to New York. There, he works for an upscale hotel as a golden boy fixer type. Meanwhile, she stays at home, building a new life and writing. It’s all a fairy tale until she finds a lascivious text message.

Wilderness (Prime Video)
No one’s ever been as happy in this lighting as Jenna Coleman (Prime UK/Kailey Schwerman)

Will folds quickly and confesses but insists it was a one-night-only mistake. The audience has reason to doubt the veracity of his admission, but for Liv, it almost doesn’t matter. Even one slip-up perforates their world. That betrayal, regardless of its frequency, is too much. He’s thrown a switch in his wife without even knowing. This can’t be settled by any no mere shouting match and lawyering up. No, the “victim” has far darker plans. While he thinks they’re on a road trip from Arizona to California as a reconciliation retreat, she’s noticing just how many ways there are to “accidentally” die in America’s Southwest.

Unfortunately, Wilderness too often struggles with illustrating Liv’s machinations clearly. It’s frequently difficult to discern when something happening is her plan and when it is mere coincidence. In some stories, that confusion can be part of the fun, but here, it muddies the water on just how homicidal our scorned woman has become.

Wilderness is soapy, manipulative bad behavior with great clothes and even greater architecture.

What it does well is give viewers a glimmer of hope about what deep decencies each character might have before revealing their petty unpleasantries run even deeper. Jackson-Cohen, in particular, seems to have a blast finding ways to make the audience consider forgiving the cheater only to unearth further unctuousness under Will’s well-coiffed hair and fastidiously maintained sexy stubble. Everyone is lying or cheating or overly controlling or prone to bursts of violence. Feel free to cheer for anyone. Know, though, they’ll show you another side any minute now. Others caught up and revealed by the mess include Eric Balfour as a seemingly good guy, working-class boyfriend type, and Ashley Benson as a co-worker of Will’s with deep insecurities. 

The fact that Wilderness gives everyone a lousy side means they all give everyone a good side, too. That makes for unsteady ground. You grow to expect a character to disappoint you, so it feels even more surprising when they don’t. The show throttles back and forth on the level of amorality with such skill that it never gets too tired or predictable. And when a character fully embraces their wickedness, well, that’s plenty of fun, too.

Wilderness (Prime Video)
Surely, Oliver Jackson-Cohen has a face you can trust. (Prime UK/Kailey Schwerman)

Director So Yong Kim, who helms all six episodes, Cinematographer Kat Westergaard, and Set Decorator Jace Delnea highlight the wealth of the cast without tipping too far into promoting coveting. It is enough to let you know the world you’re moving in and why certain characters might be both wary and drawn to it. Kim and Westergaard also do a fine job capturing how the various landscapes of the United States can feel both beautiful and foreboding.

In the end, though, it is the people that get you on the hook. From the moment Liv’s Dexter-esque narration invades the speakers, audience members will likely know if they’re in or out. Wilderness is soapy, manipulative bad behavior with great clothes and even greater architecture. Best of all, it knows just how long to linger before it overstays its welcome. It’s like an erotic thriller if they largely (but not totally) sidelined the sex while keeping the sense of sleaze. If you’re the kind of viewer—and this critic is—who can connect with that vibe, it’s a kick. 

Wilderness gets as bad as it wants to be on Prime Video starting September 15.

Wilderness Trailer:

Tim Stevens

Tim Stevens is a freelance writer and therapist from the Nutmeg State, hailing from the home of the World’s Smallest Natural Waterfall. In addition to The Spool, you can read his stuff in CC Magazine, Marvel.com, ComicsVerse, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. And yes, he is listing all this to try and impress you.

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