Television Series #8:
“The Wilds” (2020), written by Sarah Streicher, starts with a group of teenaged girls who are castaways on an island after a plane crash and backtracks through each of their personal lives to illustrate how they got there. Falling somewhere between a soapy “Lost” and a female “Lord of the Flies,” “The Wilds” is Amazon Prime’s latest craze, and it is intriguing, dramatic and shrouded in mystery. The cast is primarily newcomers – with the exception of Rachel Griffiths (who you might recognize as one of the singing twins in “My Best Friends Wedding”) – but the performances are full-on, guns a blazing. They hold nothing back.
Beginning with Leah Rilke (Sarah Pidgeon), a love lorn loner from Berkeley who is trying to get over an unrequited love, we are introduced to the rest of the girls through her lens, as they gather on a private plane to be taken to an all-girls therapeutic retreat. Each subsequent episode tells the background of one of the girls from their own perspective. There’s Fatin Jadmani (Sophia Ali), a promiscuous and wealthy cellist from Berkeley as well, who is escaping her strict parents. Martha Blackburn (Jenna Clause) and Toni Shalifoe (Erana James) arrived together from Minnesota. Martha is a naive optimist from an Ojibwe reservation and Toni is openly gay and incredibly hot headed. There is also Nora and Rachel Reid (Helena Howard and Reign Edwards, respectively) who are twins from New York – Rachel, the cold and calculated competitive diver, and Nora, the quiet and unassertive bookworm. There is also Dot Campbell (Shannon Berry), the punk, tough girl and Shelby Goodkind (Mia Healey) whose sir name is all-too-fitting for this Christian beauty pageant queen, both from Texas. Each girl has secrets to keep, alliances to make and lessons to be learned.
“The Wilds” is no regular survival show, though. The audience quickly learns something that the girls do not – that the plane crash landing was orchestrated by a haughty psychologist, Gretchen Klein (Griffiths). All in the name of “research,” she has assembled a team to help her carry out this bizarre and unpredictable master plan she calls the “Dawn of Eve” program. To what purpose, we don’t know, but we do know that she has employed some of the girls on the island to be her operatives, whom the show takes its time to reveal.
The Amazon Prime series made the bold and risky choice to end the first season of the show with many of its loose ends untied. Instead of getting closer to solving the mystery, “The Wilds” by its final episode leaves its viewers more in the dark than ever, and throws all caution to the wind by opening a new can of worms. If it were not granted a second season, the entire storyline would go unfinished, the show itself compromised. As it turns out, it was a risk worth taking. Audiences were hooked and Amazon Studios officially renewed the show for another go-round on December 19, 2020.
For all its melodrama, there is a lot to be said about “The Wilds.” Despite the cryptic plans of Gretchen and her Dawn of Eve, much of the shows mystery is not centered on the way in which the girls landed on the island, but instead, dives into how their character will be tested and changed as a result. For some, the retreat was designed as just another experience to add to the resume. For others, it was a chance to heal. Despite all their confidence and stubbornness, the island has a way of grating at their sense of self and challenging their ways of being. This is where “The Wilds” thrives. The fluctuating dynamics between the group at times reads like a reality show. It allows audiences to connect to some characters more than others, to take up allegiances. It opens the door for fanfare in the likeness of “Sex and the City.” Instead of “Are you a Charlotte or a Samantha?” it’s “are you a Fatin, the high maintenance over packer, who has no patience for bullshit and more self-esteem than the whole room put together, or are you a Dot, approaching the situation with an arsenal of knowledge built from copious hours of survivor television shows?”
The show is a whirlwind drama with plenty of growing potential. All viewers can hope from here is that the writers have pre-constructed a comprehensive storyline to work from, as opposed to the all-too-common approach of introducing a million questions to generate viewership without any clear plan for how to answer them. No one is expecting more than a thought provoking, addictive dramedy, so let’s hope that the second season brings some gratification as the mystery continues.