The Wilds

5 out of 5

Created by: Sarah Streicher

covers season 1

A plane crash strands a group of teen girls on an island; secrets are slowly revealed, and perhaps the crash wasn’t the accident it seemed to be…

With opening dialogue that’s chockful of CW-friendly teen snark, and “woe is me, to be a young, misunderstood girl…” dramaturgy, your first reaction – to turn this lazily written tripe off, and assume its Lost / Lord of the Flies premise will equate to something equally shallow – is not, I’d say, an uncommon one. It was my reaction, and from reading comments on other reviews, similar to others’. However, those same reviews, which promised substance past that surface appearance, encouraged me to return and see it through. Ten binged episodes later…

Interestingly, that elevator pitched summary of a CW Lost isn’t really that far off, but this is a show that’s had years of TV since J.J. Abrams’ heavy hitter (and its many interpretations) to better understand and apply an optimized version of its formula, and it furthermore uses the immediately graspable sheen of teen dramas to explode it: I have to believe we very purposefully start with the most heavy-handed narrative, belonging to plane passenger Leah (Sarah Pidgeon), as it mimics the overall path of the show: from predictable; to a more mature and morally grey and affecting representation of something; to something unpredictable, and incredibly tense. Explaining Leah’s story, or any of the other girls’ stranded on the island, is to venture in to spoilers, but what’s important is that The Wilds doesn’t mistake mystery for quality writing: each episode, approximately focusing on one character’s background, as told through pre-crash flashbacks, is an exploration of what brought that character to be part of the ‘Dawn of Eve’ program – intended to be a team-building sort of Hawaiian retreat, before the girls’ flight left them stranded – and what informs the personality they’re presenting to these relative strangers with whom they find themselves. The flashbacks are not incestual “we’re all connected” faux puzzle pieces, but they do indirectly fill us in on what’s going on, to a certain extent; the flashbacks are, more directly, character studies. And though they tackle a range of checkbox issues – bulimia; sexual identity; parental pressure; etc. – we’re not glad-handed morals or tear-jerked: these are really balanced tellings; very human; and do what they should: make the characters, who could otherwise by TV tropes, in to fully realized people. This is wholly supported by an amazing cast – there’s not an actress amongst the strandees who isn’t worth our viewing time.

Meanwhile, the character study meets the meat of the story: some time after the island events, we’re sat down with the bedraggled, isolated survivors, being interviewed one-on-one by men in suits and psychologists, under some vague quarantine policy. This is also where The Wilds improves on Lost’s puzzle-box bit: it’s pretty much revealed to us from the end of the first episode that all of this – the crash; the interviews – are part of something more complex, and led by Gretchen Klein (Rachel Griffiths), head of the Dawn of Eve program. And just when the series seems like it’s settling in to a routine of “flashback, then a coda where Klein reveals some more details on the program,” it breaks from this shifting things enough so we feel like we’re making progress on all fronts: the island sequences have the girls realistically bonding (friendly, though not exactly friends) and making a go at successful survival; the Dawn of Eve sequences have informed us enough to understand their general drive. And the show maintains its bingeworthy-immersion on both those fronts as well – Leah, our CW stereotype, is perhaps the most unnerved, paranoid of the group; the DoE program is not running to spec; that is, things are breaking down in unexpected ways.

Calling this a “perfect” show is tricksy at this point. I went back and forth on the rating, but I realized I was only holding back because of what the show might become in its later seasons. There’s an insane balance maintained here, digging in to concepts that might not be surprising, given its female-led cast, but doing so with a note of self-awareness and subversion that gives it an absolute edge, and makes its conversations (with itself; those that it prompts) hit harder, and I sincerely could not find a flaw in any of the episodes’ various focuses, or with the way their presented and acted: everything ends up feeling relevant to the show, whether because it informs the characters or the forming story.

The final moments of the final episode sort of took it in a wholly unexpected direction that both furthered my hesitation on the rating and encouraged where I landed with it: it suggests a way of expanding the story that could either unsettle its even-handedness or offer even more opportunities to blow up and explore conventions in exciting ways. I was scared of saying how much I enjoyed the show, and appreciated (and was affected by) its stories, because I can’t say how it’ll turn out… Which ultimately seems sort of fitting for many of the themes it explores. So, yeah, maybe next season of The Wilds won’t be nearly as good, or maybe it will, but this first season is phenomenal.