Despite frustrating dialogue and outlandish drama, Amazon Prime Video’s The Wilds makes for a compulsive, emotional binge watch.
I’m sure I’m not alone in that I often imagine what I’d do if I was stranded on a deserted island. The practical and philosophical dilemmas presented by such a scenario are endlessly fascinating, as evidenced by the prevalence of the castaway in pop culture, such as in, well, Castaway. But it goes further: Lost revolutionised television, and the Survivor franchise is arguably the most immortal reality TV format of the 21st century. Marry the desert island story with another infinite genre resource – young adult – and you have a winning binge in the making.
The Wilds, Amazon Prime Video’s first original foray into young adult programming, does just that, to varying degrees of success. The show starts out as a gender-flipped Lord of the Flies: nine American teen girls, bound for a feminist retreat in Hawaii, wash up on an uninhabited island when the plane goes down. But there are mysterious forces at work. None of them can remember the actual plane crash, nor how they got to shore, and we soon discover the girls are being surveilled, Hunger Games-style, from a very glossy-looking office by a team of people led by Gretchen Klein (Rachel Griffiths), a formidable figure with unclear motives.
The drama is told in flashbacks, each episode beginning with one of the girls recounting the ordeal in an interview room to two detectives. It’s a classic narrative device that creates an easy narration, and through tantalising clues in each girl’s story, the viewer can piece together what happened. It’s a gripping way to unfold a mystery, but for the most part, this storytelling structure made me want to bang my head against the wall. Despite having gone through what was presumably an extremely traumatic ordeal, each character somehow has the physical and mental energy to be persistently sardonic and deliberately uncooperative in their interviews. When the detectives sympathise that the girls have been through a lot (which they have!), Leah snaps back: “You don’t know what I’ve been through. You’re just assuming trauma.” Their experiences are then recounted through overwritten and contrived dialogue that includes clangers such as: “There was trauma, but being a teenage girl? That was the real living hell.”
There are a number of speed bumps like these as the young adult and survival genres elbow each other for prominence. On the island (filmed on Auckland’s west coast, looking beaut, as per), compelling drama arises from the usual castaway dilemmas: how do we find help? Where is food and water? How do we find shelter? But too often, disagreements explode rapidly into screaming matches about the characters’ previous baggage in ways that increasingly stretch plausibility. For context, some of the girls came in pairs: two are best friends, two are twins, two from the same Texan town. As such, a discussion over the best use of driftwood will suddenly devolve into a row over someone’s romantic history, for example, which I imagine wouldn’t be a huge concern with an empty stomach and second-degree sunburn.
However, I have never been in a plane crash, nor been stranded on a deserted island, so I have no authority over what would pass as normal in this situation. Most viewers will be able to suspend their disbelief enough to enjoy the interpersonal drama, and as the episodes progress, these clashes become more grounded in reality. More flashbacks colour in the backstories of each character, and through a diverse array of backgrounds, The Wilds’ exploration of the internal lives of teenage girls is far more nuanced than young adult shows that have come before.
There are indeed clichés at work: Fatin (Sophia Ali) is obsessed with her image, Shelby (Mia Healey) is a devout Christian, Nora (Helena Howard) is overly booksmart – but they’re subverted in exciting ways. Fatin, for example, is refreshingly unapologetic about her princess-like behaviours: where a less intelligent show may have tried to turn her addiction to make-up and clothing into a teachable moment, Fatin actually remains steadfastly proud of this side of her personality, and in fact uses it to the group’s advantage. (Her suitcase is the only one that survived the wreckage, and in a neat visual trick, the girls are often costumed in battered but rather chic clothing).
No emotional stone is left unturned by the characters; Toni’s (Kiwi actress Erana James) experience as an indigenous queer woman is portrayed sensitively, and Rachel’s (Reign Edwards) background in competitive diving is used as a window into the alarming physical and emotional strain placed on young athletes. Leah’s (Sarah Pidgeon) story is particularly interesting in the way it explores her first relationship, which was with a charismatic author over a decade her senior. As Leah reflects on the experience while on the island, the show explores the power imbalances at play in such relationships, and the heartbreak that comes with realising one may have been taken advantage of.
The performances are strong across the board, particularly from Pidgeon, Ali and James. Off the island, Griffiths is delightful as the sleek and villainous Klein, the apparent engineer of the girls’ misfortune. It takes a while to understand what Klein is actually up to, but the ride is irresistible; at one point, she drives to a flotation tank centre, lies back in the water and screams at the top of her lungs. The moment has little impact on the rest of the plot. A post-it on her computer screen reads, for some reason: “Take time to think what I thought”.
Despite certain plot contrivances and awkward dialogue, The Wilds is utterly compelling after a few episodes, as the mystery surrounding what landed the girls on the island deepens and the puzzle multiplies. One or more of the girls might be hiding something, and as the true nature of Klein’s motivations are slowly revealed, a wider conspiracy begins to materialise. It must be noted, of course, that New Zealand looks stunning throughout, and Kiwi viewers will enjoy recognising beaches, urban landscapes, and extras throughout the show. It’s a joy to see Auckland under such a big-budget lens, no less in such a curious experiment in genre-blending which raises thought-provoking questions about instinct, empathy, and the true cost of survival.
The Wilds is streaming on Amazon Prime Video now.
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